As a youth worker and academic, I’ve been fighting the negative stereotypes that young people are lumped with for my entire working life. As someone who has also fostered for six years, I’ve noticed that the narrative about care experienced children and young people takes this negativity to a whole new level. And I think it’s high time that we adults put a stop to it.
Another day, another news story about care experienced children and young people, with a picture of them huddled up having a cry. Why do we picture our children like this? Yes, my foster children do cry on occasion, but no more often than I do!
When the general public think about children and young people who have experienced care, they would be forgiven for assuming that they are either sad, bad, mad or all three. This is because of the narrative that we are constantly fed.
Dating back to the time of workhouses, the entire system is based on the assumption that they are the wrong sort of children, who come from the wrong sort of families. You know, those feckless, troubled families whose children need rescuing by the middle classes.
We’re fed this by the media, we’re fed this by politicians and we’re even fed this by organisations who recruit fostering families.
Last summer, the Times falsely reported a story that a young child had been forced to
live with a Muslim fostering family, who stole her cross and force-fed her Halal chicken. The message being that she was saved from the wrong sort of family and mistakenly given to another wrong sort of family.
When David Cameron left Number 10 Downing Street for the last time, he gave a speech outlining what he thought that he’d achieved during his time in office. He said this, “I think of the children who were languishing in the care system, and who’ve now been adopted by loving families.” Let’s be absolutely clear here, my foster children do not languish in the care system, bereft of a loving family!
We went to the cinema recently, and watched an advert to recruit fostering families. It has been used widely by lots of local authorities and pictures a young man getting into a fight, being arrested and then being delivered to a respectable middle class fostering family, who will free him from his feckless roots.
All of these examples are designed to evoke an emotional reaction from their audience. Whether this is pity, fear or outrage, the public goes away with the consistent message that children and young people who have experienced care are either troubled, troublesome or in trouble.
I’m not here to argue that the care system isn’t broken. There is a lot wrong with it and is long overdue an overhaul. However, I am here to argue that this very negative narrative has really bad consequences.
Fostering families are treated with mistrust. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked if I think foster carers only do it for the money. The underlying assumption being that money is the only thing that would motivate us to work with these sad, bad and mad children. My reply is usually, “I also quite like my foster children’s company!” In fact, we do lots of fun things together. A particular favourite is going the cinema, so that they can watch adverts form fostering organisations, which remind them that they are also sad, bad and mad.
Our children carry this stigma everywhere that they go. I recently wrote an email to a Head Teacher, whose school we had to fight to get our foster child into. He was certainly guided by negative stereotypes and prejudice. The Head Teacher’s response to my email was that it would have been remiss of him not to protect the rest of the school from my foster child. Yes, he actually suggested that the school needed “protecting” from him! Of course the Head Teacher should know better, but he is also constantly fed the same messages that the rest of the public are being fed. It would to very easy to be unforgiving to one ill-informed school leader, but we all need to change the narrative.
Those who work closely alongside children and young people, who have experienced care, are just as guilty. When something difficult happens, we are quick to assume that our children are acting out their trauma in some way. We forget that we grown-ups also have the capacity to be irrational, make bad choices and act out. I grew up in a stable family, but when I don’t get my own way, I can sulk for hours!
We live in a climate in which we constantly need to justify our existence. Goodness knows, fostering families live their lives entire under the microscope. However, every time I boast that my foster children are problem children, I inflate my own importance at their expense.
The abbreviation “LAC” (which stands for Looked After Children) is regularly used, but to “lack” something means that you are “less than” in some way. But our foster children aren’t LAC-ing anything. If I had my way, I’d ban the use of it immediately. Whilst we’re on the subject, children aren’t “cases” either, nor are they “placements”. They are children. They have brothers and sisters, not “siblings” and they go to see their mum, and do not have “contact.” I’d ban these words too, because when we use this language, we single our children out as being different and we de-humanise them.
Adults put all these barriers in front of care experienced children, and when they (understandably) aren’t able to overcome the barriers, we use this as an excuse to justify putting the barriers up in the first place.
It is true that children in care have had a lot to deal with in their young lives. We are asking a great deal of them to trust us adults and to believe that we will be able to look after them. I am also vocal in my commitment to ensuring that fostering families are properly prepared, resourced and supported in the important work that they do.
Of course we need to recognise our children’s past experiences, but we also need to understand that they must not be defined by them. Presenting care experienced children and young people positively, really isn’t that much to ask for and we could make these changes today. It starts with me and it starts with everyone else who reads this blog.
( Keith Bishop is a foster carer, former youth worker and is now a Senior Lecturer in Children, Young People and Families at Newman University in Birmingham)