Why the term “foster carer” is a problem

Matt Lewis, a therapeutic social work practitioner, argues that current looked-after-children systems work against attachment theories and research on child development.

“More than two years on from the Munro Review there remains a lack of evidence based methodology in every day social work practice.

The application of research about child development is glaringly absent from most child social work activity and as a result our system remains outdated, crude and in many cases, ineffective.

This is nobody’s, and yet everybody’s fault. In Britain we have a wealth of knowledge from research into neurobiology and the nature and nurture of human beings. Yet we are very slow to apply this knowledge into our culture and essential services.

For example, would you let your own child attend a Looked After Children (LAC) review? Would you be happy to let another adult outside your home decide the house rules?

As a parent I would say “no”. I know that allowing my child to be scrutinised by a variety of ‘professional’ adults is unlikely to do his self esteem any good. It may be extremely confusing for him as to who is in charge and may make him feel anxious as to why he has to have his home life judged.

As a parent I would be outraged with an outsider setting the house rules, taking authority, and even safety, outside of my home. I also know that it would significantly undermine my relationship with my children.

Yet these are just two examples of what the current system enforces on most vulnerable children and those living in foster families.

Even the commonly used and advertised term ‘foster carer’ is extremely problematic. Attachment theory, the most researched evidenced based approach around, helps us understand that the most essential ingredient to healthy child development is a close parent-child relationship which provides unconditional acceptance, love and attuned care over a life-time.

Yet the word “carer”, as opposed to “parent”, seems to be synonymous with providing care without this relationship. It leads people who foster to believe they can provide care for the children without the rich parent-child relationship which has the capacity to heal children from backgrounds of neglect and trauma.

Funnily enough the term “foster parent” remains in current fostering regulations in both England and Wales. I have been informed by The Fostering Network that the term ‘foster carer’ was brought in “to promote foster care as a career”. There was also a sense the term ‘foster parent’ might offend birth parents and that some children may not like it.

But foster care as a career sets up a worrying misconception, in my view, that obscures the importance of the relationship and could lead to confusion over the role. The use of this term may also account for the prevalence of behavioural approaches to child care in fostering rather than relationship based approaches. The nature of the task, particularly for children in long-term fostering i would suggest, is very much about parenting

As a therapeutic practitioner using attachment theory I spend much of my time unpicking the misunderstandings and conflict the current system sets up in both foster carer’s and children’s minds. I try and prepare the way for deeply troubled children to experience what a mum and/or dad feels like for perhaps the very first time.

If we get this right children can make significant progress and become part of a functional family with a sense of personal well-being that they can offer their own children. It is this relationship, and an empathic understanding of how to heal, which breaks the cycle of dysfunction, abuse and trauma.

If we don’t make the system as sophisticated as the latest research and methods allow then it will continue to fail children and the cycle will never be broken.”

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