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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Foster Caregivers

Foster parents have often been accused of simply seeing the care of children as a money making scheme - their business so to speak. This has rarely been my experience in decades of working in the field. While there have been a few occasions where I wondered about the motivation of the foster parent, they have been rare indeed.

New research published this week in the British Journal of Social Work offers insight into the views of foster parents and their perceptions. The work was done in Australia but resonates for me.

The goal of a foster parent is to find ways to offer a family environment for children who are, in most cases, temporarily in their care. For many children, the stability of the foster home can represent an almost foreign experience. This can lead some children to quickly adapt and even start to call the foster parents mom and dad. For other children, it is a difficult to adapt fearing to do so would be disloyal to their biological family. Some children arrive with few behavioural or medical problems - many arrive with complex issues.

It is with this in mind that I found the research of Blythe et al of note. The authors, who did a qualitative study, show the real dilemma that can exist between children in short versus long term care.

Participants identified the responsibility of a short-term foster-carer to include preparing the children for either reunification with their birth fam- ilies or transition to a long-term placement. Given the notion of future re- unification or transition, participants described that to assume a mothering role was inappropriate. Conversely, participants specified their responsibil- ity as a long-term foster-carer to involve embracing the children into their own families. Felicia explained: ‘In short-term you’re preparing the child for their long term placement. Where long-term—you’re it. So you’re mum. . . . Your family becomes their family.’

With this, you can see the competing roles that many foster parents must manage. However, this research also helps us to see the level of commitment that foster carers bring to the task:

Foremost in participants’ stories was their commitment to the children. Most participants described a willingness to accept the good with the bad, celebrating and lamenting with and for the children. Although some parti- cipants revealed caring for the children was often arduous due to the chil- dren’s complex behavioural, developmental and psychological needs, their commitment to the children was unwavering. When reflecting on her own commitment, Gloria commented:’s been bloody hard work but I guess we went into these two boys [thinking] okay, we’re going to see them through and no matter what is required, we’re going to do the best we can to make sure that happens.
The degree of emotional commitment also needs to vary depending upon the length of anticipated stay. The longer the stay, the greater the commitment to being "mother". Some of the research participants also spoke about trying to make up for deficits that the children had experienced.

The complex needs of the children and the competing need to provide a secure, safe and nurturing environment was something that showed in this research. Also evident is the ambiguous role of the foster parent who is the carer but not the legal parent.

It is clear that the participants perceived themselves as mothers to the long-term foster children in their care. However, questions remain regard- ing how these women maintain their maternal self-perception within a gov- erning system that retains legal authority over the children, thus limiting their maternal autonomy.

This research showed the deep commitment to the role and belies the critics who seek to demean the contribution that foster parents make to the care of children who come into the system. This research shows what I have come to understand is the norm. Yes, there are sad cases where foster carers have not been safe - those cases are important ones for us to also research and understand but they should not be the story of what is typical.


Blythe, S.L., Halcomb, E.L., Wilkes, L. & Jackson, D. (2012). Perceptions of Long-Term Female Foster-Carers: I’m Not a Carer, I’m a Mother. British Journal of Social Work, online first. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcs047

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately in New York the majority of foster parents do it for the money. I work at a foster care agency in New York and I would say that 90% of them do it for the money. When I want to place a new child in the home the first thing I hear is "what is their rate?" I have been in child welfare for 12 years and this is muy first time working in the foster care part of it and I can tell you it saddens me to see this. I worked for 8 years and the person who removed the children from their parents and placed them in foster home. I now second geuess my self on my removals if I did the right thing. I always thought these foster parents would provide the children with the love and support they need but now I am seeing that this is not true.