Although there are some difficulties with researching children’s views, we can be fairly confident about the general findings, which are true for many children. Children want different things to suit their individual circumstances, but they all desire:
- an 'ordinary’ family life, and not to feel 'different’
- to maintain relations with their birth families
- to understand why they’re in care, and to have an explanation ready
- to be listened to about where they want to be, and to have an element of control
- to be valued, respected, encouraged (for example, at school) and to be appreciated for themselves.
With some exceptions, foster children generally feel positive about being in foster care.
- Remember that children want to enjoy an 'ordinary’ family life in their foster family. Ask them and yourself if they are being made to feel different and how you can overcome this together.
- Think about how you arrange reviews, meetings, contact and everyday events like medical assessments.
- Offer to help children work out an explanation that they can give to school and friends about their current family situation.
- Ask yourself how you can help children feel listened to, empowered and in control of their own lives. Ask them the same questions too.
- Think about how you can help children maintain relations with their birth families.
- Encourage children in their pursuits and ask them if they are getting enough encouragement from elsewhere.
- Find out whether the children you are working with feel valued, respected and loved and think about what you can do to promote these positive feelings.
Ask children what they want
It is important to find out what children think about foster care. Many researchers have conducted studies about children’s views, but do they really represent the views of children in care (4)?
Often, children and young people may not feel free to say what they really think: for example, they may be worried about upsetting their foster carers and birth families (5), (6). Some studies have had a low response rate and in general it is often easier to find out the views of teenagers and children in permanent foster care than those of younger children and children in temporary care (7), (8).
In spite of these reservations, when children are consulted very similar themes emerge and we can be fairly confident that the views described below are true for the great majority of children (9). Because of their individual circumstances children and young people do not want exactly the same things, but in the research studies referred to above, they all report similar general needs and wishes.
For many children foster care can be a good experience most of the time. Research studies show (3) that a sizeable majority of children valued being in care, did not want to return to their birth families, and did not think that being in care was the reason for their difficulties.
Help children not to feel different
Children living in foster care want to feel that they have an ordinary family life. They do not like anything that marks them out as different (10). For example, they do not like statutory reviews interfering in normal life or being conducted in a place that may affect their privacy, such as at school or in the foster family home (9), (11), (12).
Maintain relations with birth families
Nearly all fostered children want to retain a relationship with their birth family and nearly all worry about not seeing their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. Many feel that the relationship they have with brothers and sisters can represent what is best about their family. Additionally, many children worry about their birth families while they are away: some children think that their relationship with their own family is threatened by their relationship with their foster family (7), (13-15).
Help them understand and explain why they are in care
Many children are worried about the reasons why they came into care and how long they are likely to be there. One study (16) shows that about two thirds of children do not know and understand why they entered care in the first place. Trying to produce an account of what has happened which can then be explained to others, particularly at school, preoccupies many children. There is also evidence that children have to accept the reason themselves, otherwise placements are more likely to break down (17).
Listen to where they want to be
Not all children and young people want the same things, but they all want to be listened to and to feel that they have choice and control (7), (18). Children do not like being moved suddenly and they want to be involved in their own care planning (7), (9), (12), (13), (19-23). We also know from research (3) that if children are not happy in a placement and are unmotivated to make it work, it will probably break down. If they cannot be where they want to be, they appreciate an explanation of the options.
Value, respect, encourage and appreciate children
Children need to feel that:
- their individual qualities are appreciated and that they are loved for themselves
- they are an equal member of the foster family
- they are encouraged and given the opportunity to do well at school and in other pursuits
- their individuality, choices and privacy are respected, particularly for older children (9).
The relationship between foster carers’ own children and fostered children
Research (3) has found a generally favourable relationship between foster carers' own children and fostered children. If there is serious conflict of interest between the two groups of children, or if the carer feels that their own children may be at risk in any way, most foster carers will put the needs of their own children first. This can make foster children feel that they are treated less favourably and trigger a downward spiral, which may result in placement breakdown. It is important to recognise this and intervene early.
Most children feel positive about their foster family
With some exceptions (24) foster children generally feel positive about their care and nearly three-quarters of looked after children thought that being looked-after had been a 'good idea’ (7), (9), (21), (23), (25), (26).