The language of care unfairly labels children, and professionals are complicit

A therapeutic fostering service manager writes about the need to change the language of care

Photo: Czarny_Bez/Fotolia

by Matt Lewis

Children’s childhoods are being spoken of in a way which labels them, and which injures their right to be viewed like any child. To have a home, to have parents, a right to be allowed to develop away from feeling under scrutiny.

A foster ‘carer’ recently told me that she overheard her two fostered children, aged nine and ten, playing at looked-after child (LAC) reviews. Taking it in turns to be the social worker discussing the other child’s progress and challenging behaviour.

Another of our children, aged twelve, asked her long-term foster carer: “How do you think this ‘placement’ is going?”

Another fostered child asked: “Why do I have to go to ‘LAC’ review – what’s ‘lacking’ with me?”

I believe the professional language of ‘looked after children’ [LAC] is having an adverse impact on the children that we are caring for in long-term foster families. Professionals are complicit in a system which labels children’s long-term homes as ‘placements’, the people that are there to make them feel like family members as ‘carers’, with their lives openly scrutinised in their presence several times a year by a group of professionals – teachers, social workers, and health representatives at a ‘LAC’ review.

We have even unwittingly created our very own ‘big brother’ in the notion of the ‘corporate parent’, a term meant to be used to describe a local authority’s duties to ‘looked after’ children but one commonly used by social workers in front of children and foster carers.

Without thought for consequences

We talk about and subject these children to language and processes which are alien to our own and our own children’s childhoods. We do this without malice but also without thought for the consequences and with professional legitimisation.

The jargon of the profession confuses already confused children and makes them feel different – stigmatised, and in my view directly contributes to poor outcomes across the board.

How can it be right to describe to a long-term living arrangement as a ‘placement’? We all commonly perceive that word to mean temporary, perhaps something that students go on. There may nothing wrong with the word itself except when we use this language in front of children and expect them to make sense of it.

We all know language is important, discrimination is simply illegal in other areas, like gender or race. But children live in a world created by adults and are subject to their language – both good and bad.

In this system we have made some fundamental errors in allowing the language and processes of the legal framework and the profession to dictate the children’s experience with the language itself having unseen consequences for ‘placement stability’. Ask yourself this question – when the adult and child are at home – what is the difference in the task undertaken by caring adults in adoption, long term fostering and step parenting? The answer – very little other than the legal framework and the words we use to describe what the caring adult does to “parent” a child not biologically their own.

No child wants to be different

The overwhelming need the children have that come into our service is to belong to a family that can show them love and commitment across time and to aid their recovery from experiences that for many have been deeply frightening and bereft of what most of us know is essential to human development: nurture, play and fun. Too many of our children suffer with extreme symptoms of abuse, they can’t tell when they’re full, they don’t know how to make friends, they don’t know how to play and are anxious and restless all the time.

No child wants to be different, they want to feel like everyone else but we make this difficult for fostered children in the current system. More worrying than that is what this language sets up in a child’s mind about the future and their perception of normal. How can vulnerable fostered children define meaningful healthy relationships when the only person they are supposed to call ‘parent’ has been a source of neglect and abuse or one that is in effect an institution – the ‘corporate parent’?

Some children and foster carers do find a way through. We have children in our service that tell us that the people they live with everyday are their ‘real’ parents. That they know what love is thanks to those fostering parents and the foster parents tell us they will always be there for the child, that they are part of their family and always will be.

Interestingly in the fostering regulations for England and Wales the role was described as ‘foster parent’ and was changed to ‘foster carer’ sometime in the 90s, I am told, because of wanting to promote fostering as a career and not wishing to offend birth parents.

Ultimately it has to feel right to the child but we can allow and help them to understand that they can have different types of parents – adoptive/step/foster and birth. All of them can be a real family.

Our fostering services need to reflect the language of childhood if we are to help children feel like everyone else. We should encourage professionals to use language akin to their own families to prevent depersonalisation of what are children’s homes and precious childhoods.

It’s time for a long overdue major rethink of what being in ‘long term foster care’ really means to the children in foster families and how we promote belonging and secure childhoods and recovery from trauma when a return to their birth families is not in their best interests.

Matt Lewis manages a therapeutic fostering service.

More from Community Care

11 Responses to The language of care unfairly labels children, and professionals are complicit

  1. Baxter April 29, 2019 at 12:21 pm #

    I agree wholeheartedly! I also think the word “Respite” is terrible – it implies foster carers have to get away from the child. Something more fun should be implied, like “Sleepover”.

    • Andrew Foster April 29, 2019 at 11:41 pm #

      Agreed….great……tell us how you have insured that your local authority implemented this language.

  2. lynnz April 29, 2019 at 2:40 pm #

    I hope this article ‘makes a difference’ this labelling has gone on far far too long. The policing of children who are being looked after needs to stop or we will drive more cared for children into feeling different and worse guilt.

  3. Nick Marshall April 29, 2019 at 7:19 pm #

    Professionals need to feel empowered to breakaway from the rigid processes, procedures and templates that prescribe this awful language. It’s both prejorative, restrictive and makes describing children’s world’s a really hollow process. Fancy having your own life described by 6 to 12 stock phrases? I think SWs want to be more creative, appreciative and child centred in their language. But the systems they work in are like a straight jacket that they can’t escape.

  4. Kath Gibbs April 30, 2019 at 9:02 am #

    Totally agree, time for change.

    • Ann Lilley April 30, 2019 at 9:50 am #

      Best thing I’ve read about fostering for a long time. As a foster carer of three I can confirm the interference of professionals and the ‘label’s the children are saddled with make them feel completely different from other children. An IRO actually came into our home and said to my foster son who we have cared for since he was four – I am your parent and you have to listen to me. He clung to me crying. He calls me Mum ( his choice) and couldn’t understand why a person he seldom sees tells him she is in charge of what he does. This is just one incident. Authorities just don’t seem to understand. My three aged 11,12,13 don’t like going to activities put on for ‘ looked after children – the L.A. is always pushing these, as if these children need separate activities. They just want to be ‘normal kids and we try bring them up that way while battling against professionals who insist on making them feel different. I realise professionals need to safeguard the children in foster care but surely more discreet and less obtrusive methods could be used so that these children can feel ‘normal.

      • Baxter April 30, 2019 at 4:29 pm #

        Well said.

  5. Karen Whale April 30, 2019 at 10:43 am #

    Yearly medicals..WHY, these poor children have to be seen by the school nurse or loose time off school to see the nurse at home. The humiliation when they have to have these and tell there friends where they are going or be secretive about it, our own birth children don’t have yearly medicals why subject the children to the humiliation of not being normal. My other hated word is “CONTACT”…. Nooooo!!!

  6. Sam April 30, 2019 at 3:27 pm #

    I like this article and understand where it is going. Our use of jargon words and the understanding others have on them can massively impact on the understanding of all those we work with (not just children). I was once aware of a biological parent who voluntarily admitted her self to drug and alcohol rehab twice in a year because we were looking to “rehab the children home”. No one explained to her this was our way of saying we wanted to move the children home. She felt she was being proactive but the end result was the children waiting 12 months to go home as mum kept going to rehab!

    My worry is that we lose some of the meaning of the words. I understand that a childs “placement” is intended to be their home and this is the preferred language; it removes the stigma, the negative connertations and gives the child a sense of grounding. But if a child has experienced two or three losses of home (birth parents, emergency foster carers, short term foster carer), what happens when we give them a “home” (from say 9 years old to 18) and then the foster carers decide not to foster any more. Its not an ideal situation but it happens and it introduces another “stable home” ending/ failing. I am all for improving our language; the use of rehab is a clear reason why. But in doing so, we need to make sure we maintain honesty and an awareness that while we try to reduce the differences in the childs life, there are differences and yes, it sucks, but we don’t to change one problem for another.

    However, as said at the start, a great article with loads of food for thought. I would be interested to see how others walk the jargon tightrope.

  7. Anna April 30, 2019 at 5:42 pm #

    I am remand foster carer and as part of my role I also take emergency placements. One young lady who stayed with me for a while was told that she will have to move placement because she is emergency and I am remand… so she asked what to do to be remand so she can stay…

  8. Clive Birkhamshaw May 11, 2019 at 4:11 pm #

    A couple of comments on this positive article and positive replies:

    1 – ‘Foster parents’ was not changed to ‘foster carer’ in the 90s. The legal term, in Regulations and relevant Acts of Parliament, is still ‘foster parents’ (although ‘carers’ in statutory guidance – secondary law, ie) not as strong as Regs and Acts). I once had a discussion, several years ago, with an experienced foster mother at a Fostering Network conference. She felt ‘carer’ was acceptable for a temporary arrangement, but ‘parent’ was right for long-term – which seemed reasonable to me as a general principle, and not too hard to get our heads around.

    2 – I agree totally with the reply about annual ‘health assessments.’ When a child first becomes looked after by a local authority, it seems to me that a very early Initial Health Assessment (including dental) is absolutely right and necessary. But we are placing children with foster parents who will have been assessed in detail and wouldn’t hesitate to take a child to a doctor when necessary. Annual ‘Review Health Assessments’ (6-monthly under 5) stigmatise children, and waste a very great deal of time and money throughout the country. They are based on the false premise that because children in care have ‘poorer health outcomes,’ in very general terms, than children not in care, the care they receive whilst looked after by foster parents and residential workers must cause those outcomes. Research and children’s own statements show in fact that care generally improves ‘outcomes’ for those who need it, especially compared with (a) what would have happened to those children if they had not been taken into care; and (b) their ‘real’ peers, ie) children with quite similar backgrounds who don’t quite make it into the ‘care system.’