I could not foster children. I would not choose to do so. I cannot separate myself emotionally from a stray or lost animal, especially if it is young. What use would I be to someone who needs to have stability and recognition but who ultimately, if everything works well, will move on to a more permanent home with a new family? What if I didn’t approve of the family chosen to be my foster child’s new forever family?
In my work I have met a number of professional carers. I have not necessarily approved of them all and I have sometimes wondered how some of them passed the assessment and reviews to which each foster carer is obliged to submit themselves.
For a while in the UK, foster carers could never allow the children they looked after to call them Mummy, Daddy, Auntie, Uncle or anything of a close and homely nature. This appears to be on the wane again and now carers in some local authorities are actively encouraged to make the children’s stay as close to a home environment as possible. This brings us to that important and emotive word – attachment.
If a baby is placed on a foster setting, they are usually sent to a home where the carers have expressed the desire to look after only babies or very young children and usually on a short term basis – babies who are put up for adoption are generally snapped up, especially if they are born with few obvious difficulties.
White skinned babies will be adopted very quickly. Those with black or brown or even olive skin tones may not be so lucky. There is a huge emphasis which in my opinion is in excess of normal expectations, for children from dual heritage to wait until a ‘suitable’ adoptive family comes by. These families hardly ever exist and where they do, the emphasis on culture and ethnicity is possibly far greater than the birth parents intended, but what can they do?
Whilst I question the logic of removing a child from its country of birth – why not do something to support the country to look after its own children? – I have come round to the notion that to be loved, protected and included is by far a better option than to be left waiting for the perfect family.
It is important to remember that when children are received into the care system, the first step is to place them with a short-term carer(s) to enable them then to be matched with a long-term carer(s), depending on the anticipated eventual outcome for the child – adoption, return to birth family or respite care.
This counts as one move. The second move occurs when they are placed with a long-term carer. If the long-term placement breaks down and the child is moved again, this is the third move. One long-term placement disruption places the child in the three-or-more moves category.
Children in care experience placement disruptions and moves for one or more of many reasons: bad behaviour, poor matching, lack of long-term planning, moved back to birth family ‘too optimistically’, retirement of carer(s), illness of carer(s), move to a less costly placement, move to a placement nearer home, de-registration of carer(s), child’s allegations of abuse by carer(s), etc.
Effect of moves on children
Frequent moves can be very damaging for the child. They can lead to lack of trust in adults, disrupted education, loss of friends, disturbed behaviour, attachment disorders, etc.
Any move is traumatic for a child. Imagine what it is like to move a child even once into a new and unknown family in unfamiliar surroundings and to a new school away from all the child’s friends. This can be very frightening.
Imagine what it is like to do this three, four, five or more times. The largest number of moves that I am aware of is 27. How can attachment possibly be successful in such a climate of uncertainty and stress? It is unlikely that any child will attach themselves effectively to any adult.
The following passage is taken from www.standards.gov.uk/eyfs/resources/downloads
What is evident from neuroscience is that ‘normal’ brain development in early
childhood is dependent upon environmental input and, for parents and
carers, this means warm and loving, appropriate interaction with children who
are living in a safe context, in which they are nourished and nurtured and
allowed opportunities to explore.
Gopnik et al (1999) summarise evidence from research in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, linguistics and other disciplines to provide an account of how babies and young children learn about the world around them, about people and relationships, and about language, linking their discussion to what is known about brain development.
They assert that we know from science that nature has designed adults to
teach babies, just as much as it has designed babies to learn and that it
indicates we should talk, play, make funny faces, and pay attention to our
babies when we are with them – but that we simply need the time to do this
(Gopnik et al 1999).
Redesigning children’s brains
So it would appear that research from a number of disciplines informs us that babies and young children need to play and interact with their parents and other significant people in their lives, because it is in these enjoyable everyday exchanges and conversations that their brains develop – are ‘redesigned’ even – as a result of learning. However, in a society where
parents (and other family members) may have less time to spend in the home, their children could be losing out on the quality time that can be spent doing just those very simple activities on which their brain development can thrive.
The research indicates that we need to ensure parents have support when they need it, that they have time to enjoy being with their children, and that they feel assured that when they are at work, their babies and children are still enjoying interactions with other key adults and children. Some of the main messages for parents, early years practitioners, policy-makers and researchers about the changes in thinking about early brain development and function can be found in Shore’s summary of the differences between ‘old thinking’ and ‘new thinking’ about the brain, which has been adapted for Figure 1 below.
Figure 1: An adaptation of Shore’s (1997) chart of ‘old’ and ‘new’
thinking about the brain
What we used to believe
|What research seems to indicate|
|Brain development depends on the genes you inherit.||Brain development occurs as a result of acomplex interweaving of one’s geneticpotential and experiences.|
|Experiences before the age of three do notinfluence later development very much.||Early experiences affect the ‘design’ of thebrain, and influence the nature and extent ofadult capabilities.|
|A secure relationship with a primary care-giver is what provides a positive context for early development and learning.||Early interactions impact on the way the brain is ‘wired’ as well as creating the context fordevelopment and learning.|
|Brain development is linear: in other words,knowledge is gained by a process of accretion throughout life.||Brain development is non-linear: at certaintimes there are ‘sensitive’ periods at whichconditions for particular kinds of learning areoptimal.|
|Young children’s brains are much less activethan the brains of adolescents and adults.||In the early years children’s brains are muchmore active than are adults’ brains, high levels of activity have reduced considerably by adolescence.|
This points to the fact that throughout the first three to four years of life, where a child is placed in a number of unsettled environments, their ability and willingness to make attachments and form trusting relationships will take a battering. Certainly we already understand and acknowledge the work of Bowlby and others who made very clear arguments for consistency of care, especially in the very early years of life. Alongside this, we must also now consider the impact of a ‘family’ environment which does not quite feel like family.
I visited a foster setting for very young children and babies where both the male and female carers hardly ever spoke to any of the children they looked after and certainly never really played with or spent time other than changing nappies or feeding them. Each child in that environment was much quieter that most other children and certainly more passive. It may have been the carers’ way of coping with the loss of each successive child but it was a huge price for each child to pay. Under-stimulation at this stage can have detrimental effects on the potential of children.
For some very fortunate children, to be fostered is to be protected and safeguarded from a life of misery and pain. It is never easy to accept that one’s parents or family may not want you or be able to care for you. It is never easy to understand and accept that an addiction is placed higher in priority that the comfort and wellbeing of a child. Thousands of foster children make very successful adults and parents which tells us more about the tenacity of individuals than it does about the fostering system. Do we do enough, I wonder, to safeguard the mental health of children who must enter the foster care system? Only time will tell.