Foster children from ethnic minorities

Fostered children from ethnic minority backgrounds face the same difficulties as other groups of looked-after children.

Their childhoods are often unstable – affecting their emotional development, educational performance, self-esteem and adult opportunities. But there are other factors that can also affect the needs of fostered children from ethnic minority backgrounds, and this group often requires specific attention to make sure that their particular needs are identified and met.


Children from ethnic minority backgrounds are over-represented in foster care: 17% of looked after children are from ethnic minority backgrounds compared with only 13% of the general population. The largest groups of looked-after ethnic minority children have one or both parents with an African Caribbean or African heritage. There are much smaller numbers of children with Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani backgrounds. An increasing number of asylum-seeking children from Africa and central Europe are beginning to have an impact on the profile of looked after children. Many of these children may have been traumatised and need more specialist care.

A 2004 study found that 70-80 per cent of children who are looked after will have left care within two years, but that children from some ethnic minority groups: African Caribbean, Pakistani, those with one white and one African Caribbean parent, and those in the “any other black” group, were more likely than other groups to stay in care for over four years.(1) The same study followed up the cases of 297 ethnic minority children placed in the 1980s. Fifteen years later, it found that one third had been placed as permanent foster children. An important finding was that children with both parents from a ethnic minority background were more likely to be permanently fostered than adopted. Interviews with these foster carers found that they were motivated by a desire to give a home to children from their own background and they believed that children should maintain links with their birth families, with whom they were strongly likely to empathise.

Children’s views

There are several studies about the views of ethnic minority children and young people. Many feel sad when they leave home but also understand the reasons for it. Children and young people who feel visibly “different” want help from carers in dealing with racism and discrimination. They often want to be able to find their own sources of support, they value living in a community where others share their heritage and they appreciate having a social worker from the same background as their own.

Qualitative evidence from black and Asian children shows how important their ethnicity is to them and the extra difficulties that white carers experience in providing support for them. Ethnic minority children in one study were able to make sense of their history if they had opportunities for contact with their families and other black people, while if they did not, they tended to put the issues on the back burner. The children needed extra help to make sense of their identity and history if they were placed with white carers. Some young people spoke about the strains of being cared for by a white family, a growing sense of alienation and difficulties with social and personal relationships, as well as their mental health.

Most young people, foster carers and foster care staff think being in foster care presents more than enough challenges without the extra one of living in a family with a different ethnicity and culture. Foster children want carers to value and respect their identity and their past experiences. Maintaining contact with siblings and birth family helps this process, as long as it is a positive experience. Contact with both parents is particularly important for children of mixed race parentage who often feel that they have lost out on one aspect of their background.

Practitioners’ messages

Remember that looked-after children from ethnic minority backgrounds need support to appreciate their cultural heritage and to face racism and discrimination.

Take note of the fact that children from ethnic minority groups are able to make better sense of their history if they have contact with their families and other black people. Make sure that there are opportunities for these contacts and that identity issues are not being put on the back burner.

Remind yourself to be especially pro-active when planning care for children who are African Caribbean, Pakistani or who have one white and one African Caribbean parent, as research shows that these children are more likely to stay longer in foster care than any children from other ethnic minority groups.

Ask the family about a child’s ethnicity and record it correctly because ineffective and inaccurate recording of this information impacts adversely on service development and provision for children.

Further information

SCIE practice guide 3: Fostering
The Fostering Network
British Association for Adoption and Fostering

(1) Thoburn, J., Chand, A and Procter, J (2004) Child Welfare Services for Minority Ethnic Families: The Research Reviewed, London: Jessica Kingsley.


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