Successful fostering of black and ethnic minority children

Community Care Inform and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) examine the arguments for placing children according to their cultural backgrounds. By Savita De Sousa, Roana Roach and Jacqui Lawrence

Community Care Inform and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) examine the arguments for placing children according to their cultural backgrounds. By Savita De Sousa, Roana Roach and Jacqui Lawrence

Guidance produced by the Department for Education this year requires foster carers and fostering services to ensure full attention is paid to a looked-after child’s gender, faith, ethnic origin, cultural and linguistic background, sexual orientation and any disability they might have. Children should be encouraged and supported to have positive views of themselves and to be proud of their identity and heritage, it states.

However, while efforts to increase the numbers of BME foster families – namely families of black Caribbean, African and Asian descent – over the past 40 years have been well documented, there is a notable absence of longitudinal studies into whether the cultural identity of foster families affects post-care outcomes for BME children.

Schofield and Beek (2006) identify the elements a good foster care placement should provide: availability, sensitivity, acceptance, co-operation and family membership.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, studies found the placement of black children in black families promoted the development of identity and a positive sense of self. Rule (2006) writes: “All children who are looked after are vulnerable to negative impacts on their identity formation, resulting from interrupted attachments. Black and minority ethnic children are additionally at risk of disruption of contact with their ethnic group of origin.” This is not new. Gill and Jackson (1983), Banks (1995), Small (1986) and others also recognised this and Thoburn’s study (1998) concluded that, although white families could successfully parent black children, whenever possible children are best placed in families that are ethnically and culturally similar.

The disproportionate delay in finding foster families for black children has been well-researched, from Rowe and Lambert (1973) to Selwyn et al (2010). However, there are few studies relating to the organisational patterns of black families, and those that do exist largely concentrate on pathological models (Thoburn et al, 2005 and Barn, 2006). BME communities have a rich tradition of sharing the care of family members in need, particularly in relation to children and the elderly. In 1970s and 1980s Britain, when these families often faced overt racism and discrimination, children’s services began identifying the need for ethnically sensitive practice, recognising that black families could foster the increasingly disproportionate numbers of black children in the care system. Many of these families had struggled with adversity and, in some cases, were themselves coming from a parenting model of shared care of children, so fostering was not a huge leap for them.

This ethos of community responsibility for one another enabled black foster carers to provide particular support for contact between fostered children and their birth families, with the birth families often becoming part of the extended network (Sainsbury, 2004). Mrs S, a black foster carer with more than 30 years’ fostering experience, says: “When black children came to our home, we often ended up supporting their parents and their siblings who were not looked after by us. They became family members and trusted us; we looked after each other’s children back home and we do this now. It is important that children see their family or at least know they are being helped.”

Parents from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds told the National Family and Parenting Institute in 2001 that the top three factors for successful families were sharing family time, parents having a good relationship and being able to discuss ­difficulties with partners. However, black parents were more likely to also mention housing conditions and supportive networks. The relatively disadvantaged socio-economic conditions some black families experienced seemed to affect their self-perceived ability to foster children, particularly as potential adopters.

Ensuring the voices of looked-after children are heard has never been a higher priority than it is now. However, while policymakers concentrate on reducing delay for black looked-after children in need of adoption, children themselves seem to have been left out of discussions about their permanent placement needs. “Several researchers have noted the neglect of black children in mainstream research agendas, with little attention paid to their lived experiences in social institutions,” says Dr Mekada Graham (2007). A key task for foster carers becomes helping a child or young person to understand and feel positive about their racial identity.

But carers also need to be able to support children to understand and manage the discrimination and racism they may experience. Some young people said their white carers had been kind to them, but they experienced difficulties when they moved “outside of white circles and back with black families, networks and communities” (Voice for the Child in Care, 2004). A guide published by the Social Care Institute for Excellence (Sainsbury, 2004) found children often appreciated having social workers from the same background as their own.

Foster carers who have a good understanding of the cultural and heritage needs of black children are often well placed to empathise with birth parents’ difficulties and help foster children have a sense of pride and achievement (Sainsbury, 2004). It is therefore crucial for children to feel they are in an environment where their culture and heritage is respected. Rashid (2000), who undertook a study of 20 black foster carers, found that immersing a child within their culture of origin, perhaps reinforced by visits to their country of origin, could provide them with a sense of belonging.

The Department for Education’s national minimum standards for fostering services recognise that, although any potential match for a child should reasonably be expected to meet the child’s assessed needs, this will not always be the case. Therefore, it states that “where gaps are identified, the fostering service should work with the responsible authority to ensure the placement plan sets out any additional training, resource or support required”.

Social workers also need to ensure they explore and record children’s cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The Adoption Research Initiative’s Pathways to permanence study (2010) found there was often insufficient background information available. It states: “The part of the assessment framework which should have provided information about the child’s earlier cultural experiences (for example, the types of food eaten, festivals celebrated and soon) was often blank or incomplete.”


● Social workers should develop their knowledge of identity development and explore the holistic needs of children and young people

● Foster carers must be helped to meet the diverse needs of children and young people placed with them

● The voices of BME children and experiences of BME foster carers in relation to BME placements should be taken into account and reflected in future research

● The relationship between the social worker and foster carer is a critical aspect of post-placement support services

About the authors: Savita De Sousa, Roana Roach and Jacqui Lawrence are consultants for the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF)


Adoption Research Initiative (2010), Summary 6: Pathways to permanence for black, Asian and mixed ethnicity children.

Department for Education (2011), The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations volume 4: fostering services. HMSO

Graham M (2007), “Giving voice to black children: an analysis of social agency”. British Journal of Social Work, 37(8), 1305-1317.

Rashid S P (2000), “The strengths of black families: appropriate placements for all”. Adoption and Fostering, 24(1), 15-22.

Rule G (2006), Recruiting black and minority ethnic adopters and foster carers. London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

Sainsbury M (2004), Social Care Institute for Excellence guide 7: fostering.

Schofield G and Beek M (2006), Attachment handbook for foster care and adoption. British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

Thoburn J, Chand A and Procter J (2005), Child welfare services for minority ethnic families: the research reviewed. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Voice for the Child in Care, Blueprint Project (2004), The care experience: through black eyes.

This article is published in the 1 September 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Successful fostering of black and ethnic minority children”


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Title Successful fostering of black minority ethnic (BME) children
Author Savita De Sousa, policy consultant – private fostering and black minority ethnic issues, British Association for Adoption and Fostering

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