Children and Foster Care: Inclusion, Exclusion and Life Chances

Introduction

This article focuses on a certain group of children in the UK (those who spend some time in foster households) from the perspective of social inclusion/exclusion. It seeks to establish how far the foster experience itself is likely to be socially inclusive for these children and to assess how it is likely to affect their future life-chances on the same axis.

A working definition of social inclusion would be something like “voluntary meaningful and creative engagement in activities, relationships and settings that reflect and support the realisation of a child’s potential in childhood and in later life”. So social exclusion would be the causes and processes by which a child experiences isolation from such engagement, directly or indirectly.

This article draws largely from two documents published by NFCA, Foster Care in Crisis by Derek Warren, published in May 1997, and National Standards in Care published in 1998 as a consultation document by a UK Joint Working Party on Foster Care. The journal, Foster Care, published quarterly by NFCA was also a useful source of information and opinions.

An overview of foster care

According to Foster Care in Crisis, up to 40,000 children and young people are to be found living in foster homes in the UK on any given day. Many thousands more will move in and out of foster households during the course of a year.

They represent about two thirds of all children looked after by local authorities throughout the country. Most will need only temporary care and support, and the primary focus of foster care is the support and early reunification of families.

About 27,000 foster families/households provide the necessary care. Although they are in the front line of the local authority child care services they lack the training, support and financial incentives, with 60% of local authorities paying foster care allowances below a recommended minimum.

The children generally come from disadvantaged families and communities. Only a quarter were living with both parents; most were in families receiving income support; their families had a higher than average incidence of physical and/or psychiatric illness; up to a quarter came from step-families and so had already experienced family disruption before needing public care. About 11% were black. A quarter of all fostered children have some form of disability including emotional and behavioural problems. 17% have been abused or neglected. Between 40% and 50% return to their families within 12 weeks; a third are in medium term fostering (8 weeks to 2 years) and 15% are in long term fostering.

The Evidence Reviewed seen in terms of the Child’s Social Inclusion/Exclusion

Despite the immense amount of love, goodwill and planning that goes on in foster care, for many children it is neither an experience that is as socially inclusive as it might be, nor does it adequately prepare them with the opportunities and skills for a socially inclusive or fulfilled life (see definition above). For a significant proportion of children, their career starts in a vulnerable, isolated household, leads them into foster care which separates them further from family, friends and the familiar, and then perpetuates or recreates an adulthood typified by many of the features of childhood.

Typically, children who come into foster households are from families/communities which reflect several of the Government’s indicators on social exclusion (unemployment, poor skills, low income, poor housing, high crime and bad health).

At the point of entry into the care system there may already be no-one committed to them unconditionally (i.e. in a parental role). Most will still have family members in this all-important role: a minority will not. This could be seen as one of the most significant factors in the whole experience or process of social exclusion. In essence those who do not have “someone they can rely on to stand by them and work on their behalf” (Warren, 1997 p. 35) are hugely disadvantaged. This is the primal fundamental experience of social exclusion, not only in itself, but also because of its likely consequences for life-chances as already defined.

Now in theory it might be possible for this to be picked up and addressed at the point of entry into the care system (e.g. by permanent family placements). But there is evidence that only one third of the children in the SSI survey 1996 had individual care plans (Warren, 1997 p. 29). Even were there adequate resources in terms of fostering options there was no indication of what option would best relate to their needs.

At precisely this point a combination of lack of resources, planning and professionalism means a chronic lack of choice and appropriate placements. In the terms we are using (social inclusion/exclusion) an inappropriate placement must be seen as a form of social exclusion (or tending that way). The Warwickshire Study 1991 (Warren, 1997 p. 30) found that half the children had no option but to go to the only carer available. And a shortage of options generally meant that placements were not normally needs-led (i.e. tending towards the social inclusion of the child). A particular problem arises for black and other ethnic minority children and children with special needs (where social exclusion is such an important issue for the group of which they are perceived to be a part, as well as for them as individuals ). (Warren, 1997 p. 29.)

One effect of this directly relates to the social exclusion noted: children “are separated unnecessarily from family and friends and moved to new schools in unfamiliar areas” (Warren, 1997 p. 29). One could hardly find a more apt or literal description of a process of social exclusion for a child.

So even before the foster placement itself is analysed, a process of social exclusion is already under way for some children. What of the placement? They vary greatly, of course, from household to household and from agency to agency. But from the child’s point of view they are part of a system which the carers generally believe to be forgotten and undervalued. The subtitle of the NFCA publication, Foster Care in Crisis is “A call to professionalise the forgotten service”. It is axiomatic that if the carers see themselves, and are seen in this way whether by professionals, neighbours or the state, then the children for whom they care will also experience directly or indirectly the same sense of social exclusion.

There is little status (i.e. social recognition/inclusion) attached to foster caring. The service notes with irony that residential care costs more, attracts more research and funding, though it caters for significantly fewer children. If one rates a foster carer alongside someone in business, medical, education or legal professions the low status becomes immediately apparent. It is not only less but there is a question raised as to whether it should even be grouped with them as a profession/career.

If not, then how is it rated? If by reward, this proves its low status; if by the recognition afforded to it in local networks, neighbourhoods and communities, foster parents would claim it is largely invisible or forgotten. If in social care/services terms, it is perhaps the least highly rated type of service. Despite the increased complexity and demands of the task, there has been no corresponding rise in status.

But foster care is also part of the care (looked after) system and there is a social stigma attached to all who are part of it. They are different (socially excluded) from other children by virtue of a number of different labelling processes which make themselves felt at school, in the neighbourhood, in relation to the ‘public’ world of social services – and of course, because they are palpably not included physically or psychologically in their own families. They are strangers by experience, biography and name in their new household, neighbourhood, whatever the qualities of their new carers and environment.

Kelly Hammond, who had been in foster care for four and a half years in one foster home, described another form or aspect of social exclusion, “It would have been nice to have the people who had financial and other control over my life more directly involved” (Warren, 1997 p. 19 ). A common theme in the NFCA studies was the way in which decision-making was done by ‘others’ who know little about fostering or the children. This is a classic form of social exclusion, with echoes of colonialism.

Many children in foster care experience more than one placement. The Barnardo’s study in 1996 for example, (Warren 1997, p. 30) found an average of 3.7 moves per child looked after by local authorities. This represents a massive type of recurrent social exclusion. It means, from the child’s point of view, a complete change of social life including possibly school, routine, friends and lifestyle. Social workers spend a great deal of time searching for the ‘perfect’ family, and often potential families who do not reach the ideal are rejected.

This leaves little scope for choice, either for the young person or for the social worker in trying to find an inclusive living arrangement. This sometimes results in the foster carers’ inability to cope with the child (perfectly understandable and inevitable occasionally) or the carers being told that the child has to move. This needs to be understood as another very clear and painful type of social exclusion as experienced by the child. The child is (once again) told (verbally or otherwise) that they are going to be excluded from a known setting.

The Voice of Young People in Foster Care

As part of the process of developing national standards NFCA sought the views of young people in foster households (whether fostered or related to the foster parents). They organised a postal questionnaire in 1998, and a series of consultations with children and young people in foster care was facilitated by a young person previously in foster care. This was the first national study focusing exclusively on the views of children and young people in foster households. 700 fostered children responded and 400 sons and daughters (a hitherto largely invisible group).

A simple format was used asking about likes, dislikes and the question, “If you were in charge of the care system what three things would you change about fostering?”. The changes most commonly recommended were:

1) listen to children and young people
2) provide a choice of foster placement.

Better placement choice would tend to lead to fewer moves and the young people clearly stated that changes in foster placement meant insecurity stemming from loss of friends, difficulties in adjusting to living with strangers, and feeling the odd one out. They experienced moves as part of a process of social exclusion.

Some of their actual comments are simple, to the point and profoundly challenging:

“I hate not knowing when or where you are going to be moved next. I got told I would be moving. I felt I was the reason when it wasn’t. The circumstances had changed.”

“I would like to have more of a say about my future and be told what is going to happen to me.”

“I think that social workers should listen more to foster carers because we don’t live with social workers, we live with foster carers.”

“All children should have their say, no matter how old they are.” (Fry, 1999)

Life Chances in Terms of Social Exclusion

When we turn to the life-chances as evidenced by research, once children leave the care system, we are on to well-charted and sadly familiar ground as far as social exclusion is concerned.

In all, about half of one per cent (0.5%) of all children in the UK under sixteen are looked after by local authorities. Taking that figure as a base – and drawing on the information from the above sections – we can develop a profile of children in public care which shows that, compared with the general population, they are up to:

10 times more likely to be excluded from school
10 times more likely to attend a special school
4 times less likely to go on to further education
12 times more likely to leave school with no qualifications
4 times more likely to be unemployed between the ages of 16 and 24
60 times more likely to join the ranks of the young homeless
50 times more likely to be sent to prison
88 times more likely to suffer from mental health problems. (Warren, 1997 p. 25)

Young women leaving care are at least four times more likely to be pregnant or already have a child than other adolescents. In addition, their own children are up to 66 times more likely to need public care than the children of those who have not needed public care services themselves.

In terms and indices used by the Social Exclusion Unit here is a list often associated with particular neighbourhoods or areas. Instead, we are referring to a group drawn from all over the UK and dispersed – many no doubt into physical areas (including prisons) where they may, sadly, compare their biographies of social exclusion. This list includes some of the most literal forms of social exclusion that can be defined: from school, employment, from home and from the community. If foster care (and the child care system more generally) is intended to promote social inclusion, it still has a long way to go.

Underlying Problems that Need to be Recognised and Addressed

One problem is that of low status. It can be argued that children in general have a low status in the UK, when compared to children in other societies: there is no single Government or local authority department devoted to them and aspects of childhood are divided between ‘education’ ‘health’ ‘care’ and ‘juvenile justice’. In addition to this there is the low status of children in the care system.

In fostering there is the further problem, as we have seen, that the foster carers see themselves as forgotten and invisible. It would be remarkable, given all this, were a child in foster care not to feel socially excluded! Foster carers do not feel they belong as partners to the local authority teams. They are rarely involved in training, fostering panels and the development of children’s services plans. They rarely have complete health and social histories of the children entrusted to them. In short the foster carers feel undervalued and in one way or another, directly and indirectly, this is passed on to the children reinforcing their own lack of self-esteem.

Another problem is caused unwittingly by Government policies. These are encouraging women to return to work, and paid care for children in a variety of settings is being developed to facilitate this. Many of those women who remain at home are increasingly likely to be required to care for immediate or extended family due to reliance on the family for implementation of community care policies. Many more opportunities are becoming available for those wanting to work with children.

It doesn’t take much imagination to work out the likely impact of all this on the foster care service. One other policy that casts a shadow over the service is the closure of residential services for children, thus those children and young people coming into foster care have complex and demanding backgrounds and biographies. (National Standards Consultation, 1998)

The Government’s stress on work (rather than parenting/home) as the key to social inclusion has an unintended consequence on this forgotten service. Only if it were to be seen as a career/vocation would it move towards the mainstream.

A third factor is the whole notion or idea of corporate parenting. Denise Platt sees corporate parenting as “having the same ambition for looked after children as for (your) own children; security, opportunities and the chance to grow into confident adults” (Platt, 1998). Herbert Laming, her predecessor as Chief Inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate, stressed how vital it is for elected members to understand what their role as a corporate parent actually means for children in their care.

But this begs the question of whether local authorities ever can be corporate parents. Isn’t it stretching a concept too far? Put simply: isn’t there an element of social exclusion in the whole bureaucratic, political and professional process? If it were recognised that local authorities can’t be corporate parents, perhaps the role of foster carers (who can also parent) would be enhanced. If not, there will continue to be an increase of inspections, reports, controls, all in the interests of greater knowledge for councillors etc. but each contributing to an institutionalisation of the care process and unwittingly demoralising the foster parents themselves.

A fourth factor is the lack of resources underpinning the whole service. This runs through much analysis and leads to demoralisation of the foster carers. But it also contributes directly to the process of social exclusion for many children. There will be a lack of preparation for placement, a lack of information; there will also be a lack of options and choice, so children will find themselves in unsuitable placements, thus leading to disruptions and further placements.

As we have already seen, disruptions and multiple moves are a very sad and tangible form of social exclusion. Children may be removed from their culture, their neighbourhood, their religion. The lack of such roots, sense of identity and support will pose serious problems for many later in life, when inclusion/fulfilment, so often builds on and draws from this source and these networks and communities.

A final factor concerns the societal views on the care system and fostering. Foster care stands at the intersection of the public and private worlds. It is seen as a public responsibility overseen most commonly by local authorities within Government guidelines and policies. At the same time it involves the personal and private lives (domains?) of both the children and the foster families themselves.

This means, in Z. Bauman’s terms that it is neither ‘inside’ nor ‘outside’ (Bauman, 1991). It is something that is inherently ambivalent. It is not fully part of either world or discourse. (This helps to explain why residential care receives more attention from the public domain of research and inspection – it sits more obviously and properly in this world.) Fostering can never be fully professional, nor where it is formalised, in contrast to personal and family care can it ever be completely a part of the network of extended families, of kith and kin.

The reality is that no-one, whether inside or outside, knows quite how to relate to it, or to frame experiences of it. The ambivalence is at its most tangible and acute when you consider the birth children of foster carers and the foster children who live side by side in the same household. There are many similarities and yet many subtle and not so subtle differences. This is a challenge to the very idea of what social exclusion/inclusion means. There is no solution to this aspect of the problem because the two worlds are so incompatible.

Meanwhile, Bauman would warn us that living in and with such ambivalence is extremely uncomfortable. Neither the social actors (i.e. those in the foster household) nor those regarding them (i.e. professionals, or neighbours and friends) know how to fit the notion of fostering into their existing worldviews or paradigms.

Towards Inclusion

If this seems rather heavy and pessimistic it will serve the purpose of demonstrating some of the deep-seated, and possibly, intractable, problems of this forgotten service. There are no simple or quick solutions. More money and more resources would help resolve certain fundamental issues identified by NFCA but would arguably intensify others. For example, it could widen the gap between the life experiences of children in their own birth families and communities, and in their foster families; also it could widen the gap between foster carers and their neighbours etc.. Inclusion of foster carers in professional planning of children’s services might accentuate the planned aspect of their role at the expense of spontaneity, reciprocity and ordinariness.

So what might help? Rather than seek to address the question of status through the raising of the position of foster carers alone, there might be a paradoxical inversion. What if the status of all children were to be raised? Would that not also inevitably raise the status of fostering? While banking and finance has more esteem than child care and children in our society, foster care is bound to be seen as the poor relation. Why should foster carers not be seen as having an active role in advocating the rights and value of all children – on the basis of their own experience and discoveries?

The balance between the respective values of work and care will need to be shifted before the status of all in the foster household will improve. We still operate as if social life, life stages, roles and patterns have to revolve around work (as they did for most in the industrial era). That is no longer necessarily so. If work were organised to be more family-friendly, some foster carers might be enabled to continue working and if not, the value of caring itself would be enhanced.

The issue of corporate parenting is a stormy one. Someone, somebody, has to take or be given responsibility. One option barely considered in the UK is to give more responsibility to local neighbourhoods and communities (‘gemeinde’ in Switzerland). If there is to be any real attempt to listen corporately to children it will need to be at a very local level concerning issues, people and places they know and understand. A patch system of social services did not result from the Barclay Report – perhaps its time is yet to come in a radically revised form, revolving around children. It would be cross-disciplinary involving health, education and leisure and would be sensitive to local resources, cultures and needs. It would be a complementary process to that of Sure Start. Crucial is the issue of size and scale. Why can’t foster carers be given more responsibility in a more locally based, rooted and accountable service? Until there is realism about the limits of corporate parenting as understood at present, no-one will really understand how it is for foster carers and foster children. Incidentally, this would need to be seen and linked to more continuity in care and proximity of placement.

Some more resources are urgently needed in order to ensure the basics of the service are in place (assessment, selection, choice, training). The case for this is well argued by NFCA. It is, however, important to acknowledge that this is neither a panacea, nor an unmitigated benefit.

The ambivalence surrounding foster care will be with us for many decades, possibly generations. It will remain inherently ambivalent poised between public and private, personal and organisational, professional and voluntary…. but if this uniqueness is reorganised and acknowledged it will help a better understanding of what foster children are experiencing and saying. This may seem a small step but it is possibly the most important in any attempt to ameliorate the processes which lead to social exclusion. Once the voice has been heard, once the gaze is returned, the process of social inclusion has begun. It will challenge assumptions, cause friction and pain, but until that point social exclusion continues, however subtly and insidiously, to continue. The 1998 NFCA consultation process may have been more significant, for this reason, than people imagine.

References

Bauman, Z. (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence. Oxford Polity

Fry, E. (1999) “Views of Fostered Children and Young People”. Research paper for NFCA

National Standards Consultation (1998). National Standards in Foster Care. NFCA

Platt, D. (1998) Quoted in “The Role of Corporate Parents” Foster Care,
October 1998, Issue 95, Page 17

Warren, D. (1997) Foster Care in Crisis NFCA

Children and Foster Care: Inclusion, Exclusion and Life Chances first appeared on pp 71-80 in Children and Social Exclusion, NCVCCO Annual Review Journal No 1, 1999, and permission to reprint is gratefully acknowledged.

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