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
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.