Over 65,000 children live with almost 55,000 foster families across the U.K. (The Fostering Network, 2019).
My parents started fostering for Brighton and Hove City Council when I was 14 years old. I was an only child before that, so you can imagine how big of a change it would be to have new children in our home. I am now 21 and although I’m at uni, I still have a very active role within my family. Over the years of being in a foster family, I’ve realised that there are quite a few commonly asked questions I receive, some more informed than others. So, I decided it would be useful to answer them all in one place and hopefully spread awareness and knowledge about foster care!
Now before I begin, I should probably tell you what foster care is for the people that aren’t exactly sure. And that brings me perfectly to my first common question: “What actually is fostering?” This is a question I frequently get asked, simply because there is not much representation of foster care in the media, and when there is… let’s just say it’s not the most accurate. TV and films often harbour such unhealthy narratives surrounding foster care that you can see why people’s perceptions may not align with reality. The Fostering Network is the U.K.’s leading fostering charity and describes fostering as: “offering children and young people a home while their own family is unable to look after them. Fostering can be a temporary arrangement, and many fostered children return to their own families. Children who cannot return home but still want to stay in touch with their families often live in long-term foster care and have continued support from their local authority”.
Each family fosters differently depending on their own situation. My family started off with short term placements with children, meaning we might foster a child anywhere from a couple of days to 6 months, completely dependent on the child’s situation and their individual needs. We are currently fostering a child who has lived with us for 5 years and is now permanently placed with us. When I tell people about my foster sister, a question I subsequently get asked is: “Why don’t you just adopt them?” This has to be, by far, one of the most common questions I get. An uneasy variation of this question I get is: ‘Can you keep them?’ in which the word ‘keep’ makes me highly uncomfortable. It seems to liken my sister to a pet which is dehumanising (albeit this is normally done unintentionally). But anyway, people often wonder why we haven’t just adopted the child who is in our care. I won’t disclose any confidential information, but there are many reasons a child might stay in long term foster care instead of being adopted. If the child is more comfortable having foster carers and means of support from the local authority, as opposed to being adopted and having new legal parents, then this is totally valid. And vice versa. The child’s wishes should always be considered. Also children from all ages, even young adults can receive foster care, and typically for children over the age of 5 or 6 it will not be deemed in the child’s best interest to be adopted. The child may still be in contact with their biological parents, so still has that strong family bond. Even though the biological parents can’t look after the children, it could be unethical to label someone else as their mum or dad and potentially sever the ties from their biological family. (Obviously this depends on the family’s circumstances.) This can deeply affect a child’s identity and sense of self. When a child is adopted, it is completely in the hands of the adoptive parents whether they wish their child to have contact with anyone from their past, including biological family and previous foster carers. I could elaborate on more reasons, but the main thing I can’t stress enough is that every child and their situation is different.
So, if you’re someone not particularly familiar with foster care, you may try to scour your memory. Suddenly, something springs to your mind: “Is it like Tracy Beaker?” You’d be surprised the amount of times that name has been mentioned to me when talking about fostering. And it makes sense, as this is one of the only book series/TV shows in the U.K. that refers to it consistently. Unfortunately, Tracy Beaker isn’t the most accurate depiction of modern children in care. Don’t get me wrong, Tracy Beaker and the follow-on books/series are brilliant. The reason I say this is simply because ‘children’s homes’ as such are now very scarce and typically for children with more complex needs. There is a massive priority in fostering in the U.K. to put children in individual family homes with carers who are able to focus more of their attention on that child/children, as this is proven to best help the child thrive. So as great as Tracy Beaker is, you can’t take it as the ‘looked-after children bible’.
As the biological child of foster carers – previously an only child – people often wonder how I manage the change of not having my parents sole attention. Which begs the question: “How do you share your mum and dad?” Well, unfortunately I cannot dish out some amazing advice but only offer you insight onto my personal experiences. As my parents started fostering when I was 14 years old, it was an age where I was wanting more independence. So having a younger child in the house worked out for me in that sense. Also, being a part of a big close-knit extended family, meant that I was quite used to not being the only child and being around children a lot younger than me. This meant that for me, having a younger child in the house didn’t end up being as much of a big change as I thought it would be. I also have a very strong and healthy relationship with both my parents, which meant that I never doubted their care for me. So all in all, I haven’t found the sharing aspect as challenging as you might expect.
Another aspect of sharing my parents is not just their attention, but also their address terms. People often wonder about what address terms are used in fostering households such as mine, like what do we refer to each other as. I have written an essay on this for my linguistic degree where I use my family as a case study, so I’ve already done some research into this not-very-researched topic. This leads on to a common question I get: “So do they call your mum and dad their mum and dad?”. Again, obviously this is completely dependent on the child and their situation. Some children feel more comfortable referring to their foster carers as their parents or other family members, and some children feel more comfortable referring to their foster carers as their foster carers. Either way, foster carers should not force their preferences of address terms on to the child; it is down to what the child is most comfortable with. Some people forget that just because a child is in care, it doesn’t mean they don’t still have a relationship with their parents. In my essay, I argue the case that just because a foster child is calling you their foster carer, and not an address term you deem as more intimate like perhaps ‘foster mum’ or ‘foster parent’, it doesn’t mean that in their mind the connotations of a foster carer doesn’t equate to the connotations of a parent. To them, the term ‘foster carer’ may mean someone who loves them and cares for them, in the same way a parent should. A wider suggestion I included in my essay, is that familial address terms aren’t used by a child to illustrate their caring relationship, instead the caring connotations become attached to the chosen address term used.
Now question number 6 isn’t really a question, but more of a statement that seems to get thrown my way quite a few times when talking about fostering; “Oh I couldn’t do that, I’d get too attached.” This is a complex statement to address. The essence of care, I would say, is surely to be emotionally involved in a child’s life. I understand where the people who say this are coming from, it is a tough thing to do, and I am constantly in awe of the care my parents give. But I’m scared that this throwaway comment can sometimes reinforce a negative, almost cold-hearted stereotype of foster care; where we don’t really care about the children, just because we may be a temporary home for them. The reality is our care for the child supersedes our own wants and needs, and translates to what we know is best for the child’s wellbeing and life. My mum says that it comes down to the belief that all children deserve love and I think that’s a perfect way to sum up my point. Just because we may be a temporary stop, it doesn’t create a diminished or temporary importance of the role you played in a child’s life.
My final question I get asked is the most potentially problematic for me: “So… why are they in care?” The issue in this question of course relies on context. Unfortunately I have seen a pattern of people who are not close to my family, or even someone I may have just met, asking me this question about a child in my family’s care. Children and young adults in care come from such a wide range of backgrounds, to which I feel like some people just reduce the child’s life experiences to a piece of gossip. Not only do I find this inappropriate but also highly disrespectful. But again, context. There are a lot of reasons a child may be put in care, and that is the child’s story. Not a story I have any right to tell. So think twice about what you’re asking from someone if you’ve ever considered asking this question.
Sorry to create a more sombre tone to this article, but it had to be said! I don’t mean to stop people asking about foster care all together – by all means keep the respectful questions coming! I always enjoy talking and spreading knowledge about foster care. It’s just nice to know the next time someone asks me a question similar to these, I can simply signpost them to this article.
If you would like further insight into my life in a foster family, The Fostering Network created a short 3 minute video on YouTube about my role in fostering when I won a Fostering Excellence Award back in October 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-6WkqTDUCU&t=1s
There’s also a very brief article Brighton & Hove city council posted about the award: https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/news/2018/national-fostering-award-nia
Nia Clark is a Final Year English Language and Linguistics Student
Photography by Nia Clark