Greater priority needs to be given to working with parents of children in long-term foster care, according to new research by the University of East Anglia (UEA).
Parents of children in care play an important role in their lives but do not always get the information and support they need from social workers, foster carers and other professionals. The first in-depth study of its kind, it found that parents who are helped to overcome negative or angry feelings and receive regular information about their children's progress are more likely to co-operate with social workers, and be supportive of the child and the placement.
Entitled Parenting while apart: the experience of parents of children growing up in foster care, the study shows the importance of working with parents at all stages in the fostering process, from before court through to the children leaving care. This will benefit both the parents and the children.
Parents who took part in the research found child protection procedures, particularly court proceedings, a very difficult and often distressing experience, even when they accepted that the child needed to be in care. Most felt abandoned after court proceedings had finished, as they felt social workers' attention shifted towards the child and the foster placement. Social workers in the study also said they felt parents needed more support than they were able to provide at this stressful time.
The research was carried out by Prof Gillian Schofield, Dr Emma Ward and Julie Young in the Centre for Research on the Child and Family, at UEA. It examines the experience of parents separated from their children in foster care, and sheds light on how they manage their parental identity and role when apart from their children. The findings are to be presented tomorrow, September 22, at the 3rd International Network Conference of Foster Care Research in Switzerland, and will be used to inform future developments in foster care policy and practice, and improvements in services and social work practice with parents whose children are growing up in foster care.
"The stability and well-being of children growing up in foster care will be affected by many factors, but a key one will be the nature of their ongoing relationship with their birth families, most commonly through face to face contact with their parents," said Prof Schofield, lead researcher for the UK team. "We found that when parents felt starved of information it often led to an increase in negativity and so parents became more anxious and angry, more sad or detached. The messages from this study need to be taken up by social workers, fosters carers and other professionals at each stage, from providing family support, supporting parents during and after court, and ensuring that parents are enabled to play as constructive a role as possible in their children's lives."
Prof Schofield added: "Key to this process is acknowledging the full range of parents, from the most angry and negative to the most positive, accepting and supportive - and an awareness of how even angry parents can change over time. The message of the study is never to underestimate the impact of separation from their children, even when parents know this separation has benefited the child."
Parents spoke about their experience of the fostering process, including contact with social workers, foster carers and other professionals, with one commenting: "If they can remember what the person is going through, losing their kids and the pain that causes. We are not made of stone; none of us are made of stone."
The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted in partnership with linked studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and the University of Bergen, Norway. To date, little attention has been given internationally to the experiences of parents of children in foster care. The findings of the three studies are also of wider significance, as there continue to be major concerns in many countries about permanence in foster care and the appropriate role of biological parents, foster parents and the state as corporate parents.
Parents in the study had many problems prior to the children being taken into care, such as drug and alcohol dependency, mental health problems or domestic violence, often in combination with poverty and lack of family support. Their children had generally experienced significant neglect and, in some cases, physical and sexual abuse.
As well as contact with their child, having information about them, such as updates on their health, interests and progress in school, was very important to birth parents. Relationships between parents, children, foster carers and social workers varied and changed over time. Those parents who had good relationships with the foster carers tended to feel more involved in their children's lives, which had benefits for the children. One mother said of her daughter: "She sees herself as a lucky girl. She has got her foster carer and her foster family who love her to bits and they do all the normal things. And she has got me and her brothers and another family here. She is loved so much that little girl. She couldn't want for more."