Authors: Professor Gillian Schofield, Dr Emma Ward and Julie Young.
This research is the first in-depth study carried out across several sites to improve understanding of the experiences of birthparents whose children are in foster care. The study explores how parents manage both the initial experience of separation and the experience of having their children parented by others.
The researchers aimed to identify practice that can help social workers and foster carers develop better relationships with parents in order to promote the well-being of children in care, and to develop practice that birth parents find helpful.
Previous research by Gillian Schofield and others highlighted the importance of foster children’s continued commitment to their birth family in maintaining a sense of permanence in their foster family.
Foster carers who are able to accept and work with these relationships between children and their birth parents may be the exception, but where possible it can be highly positive for children (Schofield and Beek 2005).
Clearly these relationships will often be difficult to manage, especially when birthparents are unable to be “reliably present” for their children, for instance where substance misuse is an issue.
Schofield and Beek also discussed the potentially negative consequences of “highly damaging, insecure and entangled relationship[s]” with birth parents being wrongly interpreted by professionals as strong and valuable attachments.
“Even in situations where children were previously making good progress with sensitive carers, the pressures of entangled birth family relationships could prove disastrous to the placements.”
Citing Rutter’s work in this area, Beek and Schofield emphasised the need for careful handling of cases because “the same variable may appear protective in one situation but become a source of risk in another”.
The impact of contact with parents on foster children’s security and resilience therefore depends on “interacting factors in the child, both families and the professional systems that organise contact”. This latest study examined the perspectives of birth parents in order to inform practice approaches in this field.
The project design was agreed between three parallel studies in Norway, Sweden and the UK. This paper covers the UK research, which was conducted over 14 months in 2008-9 in three local authorities in England: one London borough and two shire counties.
The data are drawn from interviews and focus groups with a sample of 32 parents who had 120 children between them, of which 90 had been looked after at some stage.
At the time of the study, all the parents had had one or more children in foster care for at least a year who had been under 10 years old at the time of their first placement.
Overall, the research team found that the data it produced “more than met” their expectations in all three study sites in terms of investigating parents’ experiences. The pie chart below shows the 90 children’s location at the time of interview.
The ages of the children in foster care ranged from four to 18 years, with an average age of 11. The parents’ mean age was 40. Most parents interviewed were mothers, and of white British ethnicity. More than three-quarters were unemployed, and a significant proportion had diagnosed mental health problems and substance misuse problems.
Parents were interviewed for an average of two hours, while a number of focus groups were held involving social workers from each authority. Two parent focus groups were held but were not well-attended.
The researchers found that the parents were, on the whole, willing to tell their stories, often in quite significant detail, with the result that the interviews resulted in full and complex accounts of their experiences.
The researchers described an “overwhelming feeling” among all of the parents of their “lives being out of control” – in some cases because of drugs or alcohol, or because of domestic violence or other aspects of their own or their children’s unmet needs.
Their individual stories described the diverse histories and processes in which the children went into care.
In some instances, one key event – such as a parent going into prison – triggered the care proceedings, but more often parents described a long “process of anxiety” culminating in the children going into care.
Many of the parents were able to acknowledge that the “dominance of anxiety” in their own and their families’ lives had left them unable to manage their personal safety and mental well-being, and that this had also put their children’s well-being at risk.
Other parents did not recognise that this was the case and continued to deny that their parenting had led to any risk to their children; consequently they remained angry.
Parents’ sense of acceptance or anger about their children’s circumstances varied in relation to the sense of responsibility or blame they felt about their children going into care. Some accepted the situation and appreciated the support their family received from foster care and social work.
Some parents had been angry at the time of the separation, but had moved on to a position of accepting some responsibility for the situation and seeing some benefits for their family in their present situation.
Parents managed their experiences in different ways. Immediately after the court’s decision, parents often felt “abandoned”, and in their focus group discussions, social workers agreed that there was little or no support for parents dealing with the loss of their children after court proceedings.
In terms of maintaining relationships with their children, two key areas emerged: information about the children, and contact.
Parents spoke about how much they valued regular updates about their children, both formal reports like school reports, school photos and health updates, and also day-to-day information on favourite activities, TV programmes, sports and so on.
Being kept up to date with this kind of news helped parents manage phone conversations or face-to-face contact, and could inform their choice of birthday presents.
Parents’ access to this kind of information depended on the attitudes and efficiency of social workers and foster carers, and when parents felt “starved” of regular information it often contributed to their negative attitude to the situation:
“It was through contact that parents maintained whatever quality of relationship with their child was possible”.
Parents spoke of both looking forward to contact meetings, and also finding them difficult, particularly in situations where there were a number of siblings present, or when contact was supervised.
This study also raised the issue of unregulated contact between parents and teenage children on mobile phones. The researchers report that “some parents talked of ringing or texting their teenage children daily” and the intimacy of this contact was something they valued highly.
Clearly, the potential for unregulated contact offered by mobile phones and through online social networking sites raises complex issues in the context of foster care.
Another striking finding was how many parents had had virtually no contact with their children’s foster carers, for instance, where there had been an initial meeting some years earlier and then no contact since.
This meant that the foster carers did not know about the birthparents’ current situation. With no communication between the adults, the children were left as the only line of communication between birthparents and foster carers; in many cases this is likely to involve managing alone the complex anxieties of “two sets of parents”.
These parents experienced a loss of self-esteem and were left to resolve the intense emotions and “threat” to their own identity as parents who had lost their children.
The fact that their children were in care was something they had to negotiate in relating their own identity to others every day.
This study provides good qualitative material on parents’ experiences which should be read alongside other studies to inform the management of the complex of social relationships between children, birth parents, foster carers and social workers.
Where professionals can engage with some of the needs identified here (around maintaining flows of information, for instance) this is likely to facilitate communication and contribute to the well-being of the children and young people in foster care.
G Schofield and E Ward (available 2010), Working with parents of children growing up in foster care, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
C4EO: Vulnerable Children (particularly children in care)C4EO is running six regional knowledge workshops on this theme across England throughout November and December 2009 in order to share evidence and inform service development.
Being Fostered: a national survey of the views of foster children, foster carers and birth parents about foster care
Fostering voices: Children, their families and their foster carers (2004); CD of video clips accompanied with six leaflets which bring key research messages to different audiences, one of which is written for birth parents.
COURT PROCEEDINGS: What kind of support might be extended to parents in the immediate aftermath of court proceedings?
PRIORITIES: Social workers and foster carers should prioritise working with parents of children in long-term foster care at all stages in the process
INFORMATION SHARING: “Parents who are helped to resolve their feelings and have regular information about their children’s progress are more likely to be co-operative with social workers, and supportive of the child and the placement”
PARENT-SPECIFIC MATERIAL: The recently produced Quality Matters resources include materials designed for use by parents of children in foster care (see links to resources)
This article is published in the 15 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading The experiences of birth parents