Families (or more often and very significantly, “the family”) remain a firm favourite of social policy and child welfare activity. The slogans roll off the tongue and the page relentlessly, “Every child deserves a good home”; “A bad home is better than a good institution”, for example. And where the Government intervenes to ‘look after’ children in the UK, one of the terms used to describe the process is, ‘corporate parenting’.
Some see families as the ‘basis of society’: where families are healthy, so is the society. Thus it is self-evident that children benefit from being in families. This is in practice what we mean by ordinary, or normal, life.
And for many children around the world and throughout history, families (nuclear and extended, supported by and embedded in communities and networks of relationships, associations and ‘civic society’) are the setting into which they are born, grow up and thrive. Given the extraordinary variety of family patterns and lifestyles, it is notoriously hard to generalise about how and why they function well for so many children. Perhaps it is easier to identify why and how many families do not serve their children well.
Is foster care best?
The case for foster care which now has worldwide support is based on several strands of thought. It is a reaction against the worst forms of institutionalised residential child care; it is generally cheaper than residential care and therefore a more responsible and effective use of resources; but most of all, it replicates as closely as possible ‘family life’ for the children and young people who are looked after. The assumption is that because birth families function well for many children, if foster care is as similar as possible, it too will serve children well.
But is foster care the best option for all children? Given such seemingly overwhelming political and professional consensus on the efficacy of foster care, it may appear inappropriate to ask such a simple and basic question. On the other hand it perhaps precisely when there is unquestioningly consensus that those whom the professionals and politicians seek to help may be best served by just such fundamental questions, critical awareness and scrutiny.
To respond adequately to this question we need to know first how children and young people view foster care. And this is probably best done retrospectively. How many foster care breakdowns are there, and why? How many moves of children are there from one family to another? (However families are described it is obviously the fact that they exist for a child throughout childhood that is one of their most important characteristics.) What do children see as the benefits and drawbacks of foster care? I do not have the current UK figures or trends. Are they readily available?
Second, we need to know the context of particular children, families and foster families: is the local and national situation settled and predictable? In many parts of the world families are under huge pressures through war, famine, disease and poverty: it would be naïve to see foster care as a panacea for all children in all situations. Sometimes there simply will not be enough such families, and even if there are, they may not be able to provide ‘good-enough’ care for a foster child.
Third, we need to know what children think when they have experienced alternative forms of extra-familial care. Do they confirm the professional consensus? This is a vital perspective, possibly one of the most significant ways of approaching the subject.
And then we need to ask whether replicating family life is the best option for children who have found their birth families intolerable.
With these four questions in mind I would suggest the following interim conclusions.
* First foster care serves some children well, but other children badly.
* Second it is to put the head in the sand to maintain that foster care is possible for all children all around the world.
* Third it is well evidenced that some children in residential care have consistently said that they prefer this to foster care.
* Fourth the considerable experience, and conclusion of many therapeutic residential communities such as Caldecott, Cotswold, Peper Harow and the like, is that “Some children find living in a family situation difficult”.
The family as a source of pain
This quotation, which serves as the title of this article, is taken from the Caldecott Foundation, but it could equally well apply across the board. Where a child’s birth family has been the setting in which that child has experienced emotional, psychological and even physical pain, it is at best ingenuous, and at worst unfeeling if not cruel, to replicate some of the roles and patterns of the very setting that are associated with that pain. The child may need precisely the opposite: a place and relationships that are not seen as modelled on the very institution (‘the family’) that has failed them.
Perhaps an analogy will help. As I have travelled around the world listening to the stories of children, young people and those who have sought to be alongside those who are hurting, one of the recurrent questions asked by Christian carers is this: If a child has been chronically and systematically abused by her birth father, should she be encouraged to pray the ‘family prayer’ that begins, “Our Father”?
For many millions of people this prayer has been a source of comfort, support, assurance and inspiration. But behind the question lies the realisation that for some children and young people, all the feelings and baggage around the abusive relationship with an earthly father are somehow contained and brought alive again in the very word, father. It may be just too close for comfort.
Fortunately there are many other ways of addressing God, not least as Creator and Friend, if the term Father is just too difficult and raw. And likewise it is a blessing that there are still alternative settings to foster care for children who find the very idea of family and parent just too painful at a particular stage of their lives. It behoves professionals and policy makers not to be so dogmatic or doctrinaire that they fail to see and hear some of the deepest needs and feelings of some of those they seek to help.