Coherent care

At any one time there are about 80,000 children in the care
system in the UK. Foster carers look after just under two-thirds of
this group, a proportion that has steadily increased. Such a rise
in “market share” is a sign of success, but it also
brings worries. Fewer residential placements mean more challenging
foster children. At the same time, more contact between children
and their families means more pressures on carers. And there have
been reports of difficulties in recruiting carers, in valuing their
work and in providing a theory to underpin it.

These concerns have led to a growth in research on fostering, much
of it funded by the former sponsoring Scottish Office and
Department of Health. A new report summarises this UK government
research and draws messages for policy and practice.(1) Research in
Practice, which has led on the implementation of this material, has
produced a video CD and a set of leaflets to accompany it. So what
has the research got to say?

First, the good news. For all its difficulties, the quality of
foster care is highly impressive. The research bears witness to
much good and dedicated practice. Carers are committed to their
foster children. Foster children are – at least in most cases
– appreciative of their carers. A high proportion of the
longer-staying children want to stay in their current placement
until they reach 18, and often beyond.

Second, there is a challenge. Much, it seems, is known about what
makes placements succeed or fail. The list includes the way
placements are made, the wishes and behaviour of foster children,
the quality of the carers’ parenting, and the elusive
“chemistry” between members of the foster family.

The report has chapters on the effects of contact with the
child’s family (children commonly have positive contacts with
one member of their family and detrimental ones with others) on the
crucial importance of school and on supporting foster carers. The
challenge is to turn such findings into effective training and
practice and to find the political will to support carers when they
need it.

Third, a dilemma exists. The research describes the
“careers” of the longer-staying foster children. Some
return home to families with continuing problems and little
support. Many of these children do less well than those who remain
looked after or those who are adopted. So, as most will not be
adopted, should they remain in care?

Here, too, there are problems. Few children have long placements
with the same carers that last beyond 18. Young people graduating
out of care have to get by in the world at a much younger age than
their contemporaries, with fewer qualifications and less family
support. So many children neither acquire an enduring family nor
return to a supportive one. The achilles heel of foster care is not
so much what happens in it but what happens afterwards.

Finally, nothing in these studies suggests that organisational
change, while common, benefits foster care. What matters is not so
much how foster care is organised, but how well all concerned do
their job.

So if organisational change does not help, what might? A helpful
clue may come from the foster children themselves. Longer-staying
children think about foster care in the context of their own
families. A few want to remain with their foster carers and leave
their own families behind. Another small group sees foster care as
competitive with their families and wish to return home. What most
want is the best of both worlds – either to remain with their
carers but see more of their families or to return to their
families and remain in touch with their carers.

If policy is to match these varying wishes we must look seriously
at the range and types of care and support on offer. We must also
attend to the children’s wish for a connection between foster
care and their own families. In short, foster care has to become
less a “port in a storm”. For some it will be a
permanent harbour, albeit one that is well-connected to the outside

Permanent foster care is needed for those who might be harmed by
return, even if they can safely maintain family contact from
another base. And this may have implications for the explicit
recognition of this form of care, for the empowerment of carers
providing it, for the counselling of those who still yearn for
their families and for the opportunity for young people to stay on
beyond 18.

For others, foster care will be part of a working system, something
that coheres with the child’s life and other service
provision. Examples of this approach include shared care, in which
care is genuinely shared between foster carers and parents and
which offers parents time to think and take control of their lives.
When care is provided by the child’s former foster carers it
can capitalise on relationships that the system commonly

Kinship care (as successful as other forms but without anything
like the same level of support) can also build on existing
relationships and increases the overall pool of carers; it should
be encouraged, and must be properly supported. Young people who
want to return to homes they disrupt might benefit from a form of
treatment foster care: something that allows both carers and
parents to approach the young people in the same consistent

Wider changes are also needed if foster care is to be an effective
agent for lasting change. All children need enduring relationships
with adults who are committed to them. Foster care offers the
chance of establishing such relationships: children are more likely
to succeed in foster care if they want to be there, receive skilful
committed parenting and are attached to a trusted adult. These
issues are just as important when a child returns home. It is no
good sending a child back home to a fraught household characterised
by seriously troubled relationships if nothing has been done to
improve those relationships while the child has been away and
support ends arbitrarily as soon as the child returns. Coherence in
approach requires coherence in understanding. So social workers and
foster carers must operate according to the same understanding of
what promotes well-being, provides a sense of identity and inhibits
difficult behaviour.

In short foster care can and should be a lasting force for good in
the troubled lives of children. For this to occur there must be a
coherent connection between foster care and the child’s

Ian Sinclair has worked in teaching, industrial
consultancy, probation, social work and social research. He is
currently a part-time research professor in the social work
research and development unit at the University of York, where he
has recently overseen a programme of studies on foster care.

Celia Atherton is director of Research in Practice
at the Dartington Hall Trust.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to
guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at
and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be
registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the
site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered

This article summarises government research on foster
care, drawing messages for policy and practice. It concludes that
wider changes are needed in the system if policy is to match the
varying wishes of fostered children.

I Sinclair, Fostering Now: Message from
, Jessica Kingsley Publishing 2005. The main research
report available from

Further information

  • The following free implementation materials were all produced
    by Research in Practice for the DfES Fostering Team. Go to
  • Fostering Now – six leaflets for different
    : foster children, their families, foster carers,
    relatives who foster, elected members, professionals.
  • Fostering Voices – a pack that includes all six
    leaflets and a video CD with four short film clips with advice from
    foster carers, foster children, and their families about what makes
    foster care work well.
  • Fostering Now: The Fostering Services Development

    Contact the author
    By e-mail at

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.