In England and Wales, adopted children must be given a life story book, which adoptive parents can use to help children understand their background. This is also recommended for children in foster and residential care but is not statutory. Researchers from the University of Bristol and the University of Oxford set out to discover whether children and young people in foster, residential and kinship care felt they had been given a full explanation of the reasons for their entry to care. The researchers also wanted to explore the impact of a lack of understanding of the need to be placed in care on children’s wellbeing.
The researchers held focus groups with 140 looked-after children, whose responses were used to create an online survey. This was distributed in 23 English and Welsh local authorities and completed by 3,314 children and young people in foster, residential and kinship care. Surveys were designed for three age groups – four to seven, eight to 10, and 11 to 18 – and were completed with a trusted adult present.
Just over half of the youngest group of children thought they had received a satisfactory explanation as to why they were in care but 48 per cent thought they had not. Older young people were more likely to report they had received a satisfactory explanation, but a third of eight- to 10-year-olds and a fifth of 11- to 18-year-olds either thought they had not or wanted to know more. The researchers suggest social workers may feel more comfortable holding difficult conversations with teenagers than with younger children, or that teenagers might be more persistent in asking questions.
Among the oldest group, girls were more likely than boys to report dissatisfaction with the extent of their knowledge. The length of time a child had spent in care and the amount of contact they had with a parent did not affect their view on whether they had a satisfactory explanation. However, 11- to 18-year-olds who had fewer placements were more likely to be happy with the information they had. The researchers found a link between not having had an explanation for the reasons for being in care and children feeling unsettled in placements.
Older children were asked to rate how happy they were, their positivity about the future, whether they felt the things they did were worthwhile and their life satisfaction on a scale of 0 to 10. When adults had not explained to a child why they were in care, there was a negative impact on each of the four scores.
The same questions are used by The Children’s Society in surveys of 10- to 17-year-olds, allowing the researchers to compare looked-after children to the general population. They found a larger proportion of their sample of looked-after children had low scores compared with children in general. For example, 15.7 per cent of the looked-after children scored their overall satisfaction with life between 0 and four, compared with five per cent of children in general. Meanwhile, 19.5 per cent gave low scores for happiness compared with eight per cent of children in general.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
While adults might argue they have explained the reasons for a child being in care, the research indicates children have a different view. The researchers suggest young people are given opportunities to ask and receive information about their families and backgrounds at a time that suits them, rather than being directed to engage in formal “life story” work. Children may resist engaging in a conversation about their background and may forget, misremember or not hear information being given to them. Information may need to be repeated in different formats, over time. Training and support may be needed for social workers and foster carers working with very young children to ensure they have the skills and language to convey potentially complex and traumatic information.
The fact that contact with a parent was not associated with any difference in whether a child felt they had received an explanation raises questions as to whether social workers incorrectly assume a child in contact with a parent will have the information they need to understand their background.
Authors: Jo Staines and Julie Selwyn
Published by Child and Family Social Work, January 2020
- Life Work with Children who are Fostered or Adopted: Using Diverse Techniques in a Co-ordinated Approach, Joy Rees, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, January 2018
- “Who am I?” How Female Care Leavers Construct and Make Sense of Their Identity, Alicia Colbridge, Alex Hassett, Emma Sisley, Sage Open, January 2017
- Life Story Work: Optional Extra or Fundamental Entitlement?, Nicola Atwool, Child Care in Practice, March 2016