by Andy Elvin
This month TACT, the charity I lead, published Language that Cares – a lexicon of words and descriptions that children in care dislike and object to.
Though TACT enabled this publication, it was created and written by children and young people in care, from 13 different organisations and local authorities.
Children and young people from across England told us how they feel when they hear professionals using words such as ‘contact’, ‘restraint’ and ‘placement’, and offered alternative words they consider appropriate to their personal circumstances and life experiences.
Professional language, acronyms and jargon are often used as armour by professionals, to shield them from the realities of the work and the things that they are doing. Saying that a ‘placement’ has broken down does not have the same emotional impact as saying that someone’s safe and stable home – or someone’s family – is no longer working.
Dehumanising and depressing
Talking about contact sanitises the precious time the children and young people spend with their relatives, their nearest and dearest, with all the joys, anticipation, disappointment and range of emotions that this can entail.
Describing the home where a child lives as a placement is deeply dehumanising and very depressing. It is their home, the place where we want them to feel safe, the place in which we want them to heal and thrive and grow.
Imagine if people described the home that you grew up in, or the home where you are raising your children, as a placement. We should not label other’s homes with words that would make us shudder if used about our own.
TACT’s fostering ambassador, the performance poet Solomon OB, talks about his time at school when teachers found out that he was in foster care. He recalls that their heads would fall to one side and they’d emit a sympathetic sigh.
He always hated this, and would think to himself, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m in foster care, I haven’t fallen over, I haven’t hurt myself, I’m in foster care. I’m well looked after, I’m loved and I like my home – please treat me like all the other children in your class.”
Stop hiding behind jargon
The lesson for all of us who work with children in care is that we must stop hiding behind our protective coat of jargon and talk to children and young people in language that actually describes the events in their lives and the things that they are going through.
It has been very heartening to hear the range and depth of the discussions that children and young people around the country had when creating Language that Cares.
They constantly impress us with their perception, understanding and emotional intelligence. They are keenly aware of the situation they are in, and highly attuned to the ways in which they are made to feel different. Language plays an enormous role in this, and its careless use by professionals is corrosive and disheartening for our children and young people.
It is vital that all of us in the sector take personal responsibility for the language that we use, and that we change our language in line with their suggestions. We should also challenge the use of impersonal and dehumanising jargon by others. Those in managerial positions should make sure that their teams are aware of Language that Cares and follow its suggestions. This should be something that is discussed in team meetings and in supervisions; it is something that should be a live topic.
Hitting a nerve
In the few days since the guide’s publication, we have been enormously encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response from the sector. It has clearly both hit a nerve and chimed with what a great many professionals are thinking and feeling. The wonderful response now needs to develop into action, into a change in practice, and most importantly into a change in attitude.
Recently the children’s minister, Nadhim Zahawi, suggested foster carers should always be called foster parents. While this may sound sensible and a positive step forward in language, it ignored the fact that it is not up to him, to you, to TACT, or to any professional, how children refer to those who are caring for them.
Our foster carers are called Mum, Dad, Aunt, Uncle, Gran, Grandad, my foster carer, my foster parent, my foster family, or just Sue and Jeff. The important thing is that our children and young people feel comfortable about referring to those caring for them as they wish to. The language that is used is not for professionals to decide.
Language that Cares is not a document we want to see preserved in aspic. It is a living, breathing lexicon, that will develop and grow over the years.
We encourage all professionals to share and discuss it with children and young people, and to offer more words, more phrases and more jargon that can be replaced with a language that really cares.
Andy Elvin is the chief executive of TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust), the UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity