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A Sense of Belonging: Meanings of Family and Home in Long-Term Foster Care



Permanency has been a key goal of the child welfare system for nearly forty years, with most discussion of this issue focusing how best to achieve legal and physical permanence. Although there has been some attention to the subjective dimensions of permanence, there has been no exploration of how fostered children develop a sense of belonging to their substitute families. This article draws on interviews with fostered children and their foster carers, conducted in the course of a larger study of outcomes in permanent placements, to present a qualitative analysis of belonging in long-term foster care. Interviews with fostered children revealed four types of perceived belonging: ‘as if’, ‘just like’, qualified and provisional. These were shaped by the interplay of a variety of factors, including day-to-day family practices in foster families, the actions and commitment of foster and birth parents, children's mental representations of their past and current experiences in these families and the meaning that children ascribed to blood and non-blood relationships.
A Sense of Belonging: Meanings of
Family and Home in Long-Term Foster
Nina Biehal*
Professor of Child and Family Social Work at the Social Policy Research Unit,
University of York, UK.
Correspondence to Nina Biehal, Professor of Child and Family Social Work, SPRU, Alcuin
College B Block, University of York, York, YO10 5DD, UK. E-mail:
Permanency has been a key goal of the child welfare system for nearly forty years, with
most discussion of this issue focusing how best to achieve legal and physical perman-
ence. Although there has been some attention to the subjective dimensions of perman-
ence, there has been no exploration of how fostered children develop a sense of
belonging to their substitute families. This article draws on interviews with fostered chil-
dren and their foster carers, conducted in the course of a larger study of outcomes in
permanent placements, to present a qualitative analysis of belonging in long-term
foster care. Interviews with fostered children revealed four types of perceived belong-
ing: ‘as if’, ‘just like’, qualified and provisional. These were shaped by the interplay of
a variety of factors, including day-to-day family practices in foster families, the actions
and commitment of foster and birth parents, children’s mental representations of
their past and current experiences in these families and the meaning that children
ascribed to blood and non-blood relationships.
Keywords: Belonging, family foster care, permanency, family display, ambiguous loss,
Accepted: October 2012
The concept of permanence has been central to debates on social work with
children for nearly forty years (Goldstein et al., 1973;Rowe and Lambert,
1973). It has a range of meanings, referring not only to the legal and physical
#The Author 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of
The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
British Journal of Social Work (2014) 44, 955–971
Advance Access publication November 25, 2012
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permanence, but also to the emotional dimensions of stability, such as
continuity of relationships (Maluccio and Fein, 1983). Achieving perman-
ence for looked after children remains a key policy objective, with recent
English government guidance emphasising the need to ‘ensure that children
have a secure, stable and loving family to support them through childhood
and beyond’ (DfE, 2012). However, subjective perceptions of permanence
may be just as important for child well-being as objective permanence
(Lahti, 1982;Sinclair et al., 2005). What is missing from discussions of per-
manency is an understanding of how children make sense of their location
within and across birth and substitute families to create a sense of belonging
to one or both families. This paper draws on a study funded by the govern-
ment Department of Children, Schools and Families, to explore the
complex ways in which children in foster care may develop, to varying
degrees, a sense of belonging to their foster families.
Many looked after children are reunified with their families after a short
period and some are adopted or leave care by other routes but, in England,
most of those for whom long-term care is planned are placed in foster care.
The aim of long-term foster care is to provide them with a substitute family
at least until the age of eighteen and, ideally, into adulthood. However, al-
though foster care can offer permanence to children, it often fails to do so,
as placements may break down or children move for other reasons (Sinclair
et al., 2005). The focus of this paper is on those children who do settle in
long-term, stable foster placements, for whom the question of belonging
may be particularly pertinent.
The last fifty years or so have seen increasing diversity and fluidity in family
life (McKie and Callan, 2012;Silva and Smart, 1999). For children in foster
care, family fragmentation and change may be accelerated and compressed
into a relatively short period of their lives. They may experience the
repeated disruption and reconstitution of birth-family households, may
move back and forth between birth families and foster families, and may
also move between different foster placements, often experiencing
greater instability when living in their families than when they are in care
(Farmer and Lutman, 2009;Wade et al., 2011). They may be cared for by
a variety of parental figures before settling, if they are fortunate, in a
foster family that provides them with a long-term home. For children
such as these, notions of who is, or should be, ‘family’ may be particularly
difficult to resolve. All of these children are aware that they have more
than one family, even if they have no memory of their birth parents, so
making sense of where they belong may be complex.
Research on children who have experienced family change has principal-
ly focused on children in stepfamilies who, like fostered children, may have
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complex sets of family and family-like relationships which stretch across
several households (Silva and Smart, 1999). Children in complex family
circumstances may develop their own understandings of ‘family’, actively
negotiating a range of kin and non-kin relationships (Brannen et al., 2000;
Morrow, 1998;Smart et al., 2001). They may actively create a sense of
kinship, considering special relationships with people who ‘seem like
family’ as being family-like relationships, while acknowledging that these
are not ‘proper relatives’ in genealogical terms (Mason and Tipper,
2008). However, there has been little attention to the ways in which
looked after children, who are separated from both parents, negotiate mul-
tiple family identities.
Unlike most children in the wider community, fostered children may face
challenges to the formation of new attachments due to the adversities they
experience before entry to care and, in some cases, their subsequent experi-
ences within care. Some may have social, emotional and attachment diffi-
culties that may make it hard for them to bond with foster carers and,
equally, may make it harder for carers to develop relationships with them
(Howe, 2005;Lindheim and Dozier, 2007;Quinton et al., 1998;Schofield
and Beek, 2005). There is some evidence that children who do settle
successfully in long-term foster placements are likely to have entered
care at an earlier age (in this study, at 3.9 years on average, compared to
5.3 years for those with multiple placements) and are less likely to have
serious emotional and behavioural difficulties than those who experience
placement instability (Biehal et al., 2010). The repeated disruption of past
relationships may make it harder for children to trust new care-givers
(Schofield et al., 2012). Creating a sense of kinship with long-term foster
families may therefore be particularly difficult for some children.
Most studies which have touched on the question of fostered children’s
perceptions of family identity have drawn on the perspectives of formerly
fostered adults. These have reported that some individuals may include
foster families in their representations of family and some may exclude bio-
logical parents (Gardner, 1998;Samuels, 2009;Schofield, 2002;Triseliotis,
1980). A few studies have focused on foster carers’ perspectives on the
integration of children into their families (Blythe et al., 2012;Leathers
et al., 2012;Riggs et al., 2009;Schofield and Beek, 2005), but researchers
have rarely sought the views of children on the question of family belonging
(but see Sinclair et al., 2005).
This paper draws on qualitative data from a mixed methods study of
outcomes for children in permanent placements (Biehal et al., 2010). The
study conformed to ethical guidelines of the Social Research Association
and was approved by the Ethics Committee of the University of York.
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The sample
The sample comprised 196 children from seven English local authorities
who had lived with the same foster family for three years or more, or had
been adopted from care. One-third (sixty-three) of these were in long-term
foster placements. Postal questionnaires were completed by foster carers or
adoptive parents and social workers, and carers were asked to discuss with
children whether they might be interested in participating in interviews.
Those who expressed an interest were sent an information pack including
a leaflet and CD for the child (developed in consultation with a group of
looked after children) and a leaflet for the carer. A total of thirty-seven chil-
dren, thirteen of whom were in long-term foster placements, gave written
consent to the interview (as did their parents or foster carers).
These thirteen fostered children were nine to seventeen years old at
interview, eight were male and all were white. Three were fostered by rela-
tives. Although the interview sample was inevitably self-selected, this did
not appear to result in sampling bias. The proportions in different age
groups and placed for different durations reflected those for the larger
sample of fostered children and the interviews revealed that the children’s
experiences of family life and perceptions of belonging were very varied, in-
dicating that the interview sample was not biased towards children with un-
problematic views of their place in their foster families
Data collection
Semi-structured interviews were conducted (separately) with children and
their foster carers. Interviews with children used open-ended questions to
explore their experiences and feelings and also visual methods, including
a warm-up drawing activity and a relational mapping exercise. Children
were invited to choose a small plastic figure to represent themselves and
asked to place this on a ‘feelings map’ on which a series of concentric
circles were drawn, labelled ‘really love’, ‘love’, ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’, to
show how they felt about key people in their lives, starting with friends,
various siblings (including step, half and foster siblings), then foster
carers and finally each birth parent (Sturgess et al., 2001). Their positioning
of the figures was used as a prompt for open-ended questions about why
they had chosen each position.
Interviews were recorded and transcribed. Narrative analysis of the inter-
views with children and foster carers, which included an exploration of
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children’s and carers’ representations of family and belonging, was supple-
mented by analysis of data on their histories from survey questionnaires
completed by the children’s social workers and foster carers. Cross-
sectional thematic analyses of child and foster carer narratives were thus
able to take account of the particular histories and circumstances of each
child. All names and identifying details have been changed.
Belonging for children in long-term foster placements
For most of the children, early experiences of family life had been charac-
terised by uncertainty and change. They had moved through a sequence of
placements with birth and substitute families, although all had since been
settled in their current homes for seven to twelve years. Despite the
length of their placements, perceptions of belonging to their foster families
were very varied and four patterns of perceived belonging could be distin-
guished: ‘as if’, ‘just like’, qualified and provisional. Children in each of
these groups had different histories and different patterns of identification
with foster families and birth parents.
‘As if’
For three boys, age nine to seventeen years at interview, their primary iden-
tification was with their foster families. Child and carer perceptions
appeared to mirror one another, conveying a sense that ‘you belong to
me and I belong to you’. These foster placements were essentially
quasi-adoptive in nature and the foster carers felt a strong sense of entitle-
ment to parent, rather than simply care for, the children. These children
appeared to be securely attached to their foster carers and viewed them
as if’ they were parents, although they were well aware that they had
birth parents too. They had lived with these families from an early age
(two were placed before they were one year old and one at the age of
four), remembered no other home and felt unreservedly loved by their
foster carers. None of them had seen their birth parents for many years.
The mothers of Alex and Reece had ceased to visit or phone (despite
support and encouragement) but, for Noah, contact had been prohibited
by the court. Reece’s foster carer explained that his mother used to
phone his brother, who was in the same placement, but never asked her
about Reece, commenting ‘It’s really just like Reece didn’t exist’. At this
stage in his life, Reece appeared to accept the lack of contact:
I don’t mind actually if I can’t see my real parents ...when I’m old enough
I’m allowed to see them.
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The other two boys were more troubled by thoughts of their birth
parents. Alex distanced himself from his mother, commenting ‘I met her
once, it was quite a few years ago’ but it was unclear whether he responded
in this way because he was uncomfortable with talking about her or because
he had few memories of her. His foster carer felt that ‘the past eats into him’
but, in her view, he had ‘learned to deal with it’. Noah, who had joined his
foster family at the age of four, appeared to idealise the birth parents who
had abused him. Yet although he felt occasional ambivalence towards his
foster carers, he nevertheless felt very much loved by them, explaining
that ‘they chose me’.
‘Just like’
Another four children identified themselves as members of their foster fam-
ilies, but appeared able to reconcile belonging to two sets of parents, repre-
senting their carers as ‘just like’ another set of parents. Sarah, for example,
described how the day-to-day practices of her foster family positioned her
as a ‘normal’ member of the family:
Just like any normal family, really. It’s just like they act, they act the same as
they would with their children .... They’re just basically my parents, to be
honest. I probably do really love them, ’cos they’re just like my parents.
Sarah appeared equally comfortable with her relationship with her birth
mother and was keen to represent this as ‘normal’ too:
I like going to see her, she’s really nice, she’s quite small (laughs), like me
.... She buys us sweets. Then she buys us presents and everything so, basic-
ally, things like a normal parent as well.
These children had joined their foster families at a later age than the previ-
ous group (five to nine years), had been settled with them for seven to ten
years and were fourteen to seventeen years old at interview. Unlike the
group which viewed their carers ‘as if’ they were their parents, the ‘just
like’ group were in contact with their birth mothers and neither they nor
their foster carers felt that the foster family had in any sense replaced the
birth family. The carers of these young people unequivocally expressed
their love for them and the children said that they loved, and felt loved
by, their foster carers.
Although the foster carers felt ‘like a mother to her’, as one expressed it,
they were nevertheless supportive of the children’s relationships with their
mothers. For example, Sarah’s carer reported that Sarah had explained:
I love being here and I love you, but I want to be with my mum. Does that
make sense? I say ‘Of course it does’ (Sarah’s foster carer).
Although she visited her mother regularly and often stayed for weekends,
Sarah had no desire to live with her and told us that she would like to
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live with her foster carers until she was old enough to live independently.
Kate had a similar view of where she wanted to be:
I think my mum expects me, when I come out of foster care, to go to [home
town] and live there but, I’ve grown up round here and I feel that if I go back
there, it sounds bad, but I don’t want to end up like my sister ...I’d rather
stay round here, ’cos I’ve sort of got my own life here.
Nathan also felt a sense of belonging to his foster family and felt loved,
settled and secure within it. However, he displayed a greater sense of am-
bivalence, remarking that ‘a foster home can’t be the same as your real
home’. He appeared similarly ambivalent about his birth parents. He was
not in contact with his father, whom he said he did not like, but nevertheless
wondered whether he might like him if he saw him again. He saw his
mother, but only occasionally.
Nine-year-old Lexi, who had been fostered from birth but whose carers
had recently obtained a Residence Order (which provides legal guardian-
ship), felt settled and secure in her foster family but was similarly troubled
by confusion, ambivalence and distress regarding her mother, commenting:
My real mum never comes and visits, especially when she’s got a man in her
life. She comes and visits now and again, but not often. ...I pretended to ac-
tually like, love her but it weren’t, [pause] I didn’t really, because she left me
alone, she didn’t try to stop them from taking her away, being took away,
but I’m glad about that .... If she knew I didn’t really like her then she
would probably never come round.
These young people were able to reconcile belonging to two families and
indicated that they loved both their foster carers and their birth parents.
All were in contact with their mothers but none appeared to idealise
them, although Nathan was somewhat preoccupied with his family. For
two of these young people, birth parents behaved in predictable ways and
contact was regular and reasonably satisfying. The foster carers’ inclusive-
ness of the birth family facilitated this contact and none of the children gave
any indication that they felt troubled by conflicts of loyalty.
Qualified belonging
For five other children belonging to their foster families was qualified. They
appeared more troubled by feelings of hurt, anger and ambivalence towards
their birth parents and often by conflicts of loyalty, which appeared to
colour their sense of belonging to their foster families. All of them had
experienced rejection by birth parents and all but one had also experienced
abuse or neglect. They were nine to sixteen years old at interview
and had lived in their foster placements for seven to eleven years. Although
they had some occasional contact with their birth parents, this was
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intermittent and often distressing due to the parents’ frequent failure to
keep to the contact arrangements.
Gordon (thirteen) and Rachel (fourteen) had become looked after fol-
lowing the discovery of serious and persistent abuse by their mother’s
partner. Their mother had not only chosen to stay with her partner, but
had maintained only intermittent contact with them since. Both felt hurt
and angered by this, and both remembered the precise date of her last
visit over a year earlier. For them, the question of family belonging was ap-
parently straightforward, as they were fostered by their maternal grandpar-
ents. Gordon explained how the blood relationship with his grandparents
helped him feel secure:
I know that they are related to me and I can trust them.
Paradoxically, their grandparents’ commitment to them was more qualified
than that of other carers, despite the biological connection. They made it
clear to the children (and to us) that they would fulfil their family obliga-
tions if they looked after them until the age of eighteen, but that they
expected them to leave once they reached this age.
The reverse was true for the other children in this group. Their foster
carers spoke of their love and long-term commitment to them, but the chil-
dren were ambivalent about how far they belonged to their foster families.
Thirteen-year-old Josie’s foster carer was saddened by the recognition that
she ‘doesn’t want us too close’ due to her strong allegiance to her mother,
who had rejected her. In contrast, Aidan’s foster carer believed he felt that
he fully belonged in her family. His father made only erratic contact with
him, but she thought he had come to terms with separation from his
parents and felt fully part of her family. However, Aidan appeared less
sure about this:
I don’t feel this is my family .... I feel I’m in the middle and most people just
fall away from me. I feel so, being spaced out, I don’t feel loved.
Aidan had an autistic spectrum disorder, which may have had some effect
on his ability to form a close relationship with his foster carer.
The foster carer of fifteen-year-old Maurice (his aunt) was similarly
unaware that his sense of belonging was more equivocal than she imagined.
She fully accepted that ‘he loves his mum’ but believed that ‘He sees himself
more as our son now .... He’s like our own son’. However, when asked
whether he felt he belonged to his foster family, Maurice answered:
Not all the time, but some of the time .... It’s like when, when we have stuff
like family get-togethers and things and you think, hang on, I’m not really
part of this.
Despite the fact that he was in a kinship foster care placement, Maurice
clearly felt some ambivalence about how far he belonged to his foster
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Nevertheless, all five children considered that their foster family would
be a family for life. In their imagined future lives, they envisaged continued
membership of their foster families. Maurice had even told his foster carers
that he would stay with them ‘until he is 50’. Josie wished to be in close
contact with both her foster carer and her mother when she grew up and
so imagined that she would live in a town exactly half way between the two.
Previous research has shown that looked after children may struggle to
reconcile a strong identification with parents with the experience of paren-
tal rejection and may devise narratives which explain and excuse their
parents’ past behaviour (Biehal et al., 1995). These children remained
hurt and angry towards their parents but also yearned for acceptance by
them. Their parents’ actions, or lack of contact with them, conveyed the im-
plicit message that they did not really belong to them, despite the biological
connection. According to Maurice’s foster carer, his occasional contact with
his mother ‘just screws his head up all the time’. He was also upset and
angry that his father made no attempt to contact him, commenting:
He’s got my number but he’s never tried calling me .... And so if he’s not
going to bother trying to call me I’m not going to bother to call him.
[Contact with his mother] is alright some of the time but we argue a lot,
about random things, I don’t know why. I think she likes the argument,
or attention or something.
Aidan saw his mother three times a year, but his account of his visits to her
revealed his ambivalence towards her:
Absolutely embarrassing .... ’Cos ...she wears second-hand clothes, she
stinks of smoke. It (the visit) goes quickly ’cos I enjoy it, but it’s more
slow, ’cos I’m so embarrassed. So I just stay one yard away from my mum
(laughing), behind her pretending I’m not part of her.
This ambivalence towards birth parents, and in some cases associated con-
flicts of loyalty, helped to shape these children’s sense of belonging to
their foster families. While their carers considered them to be very much
part of the family and showed an unequivocal commitment to them,
these children had a more ambivalent, qualified sense of belonging to the
foster family.
Provisional belonging
Finally, for one child, whose placement appeared close to breakdown, his
sense of belonging was provisional. Brian, aged twelve, had first been
placed with this foster family at the age of one due to his mother’s
serious mental health problems but had not finally settled until the age of
five. His carers had clearly loved him, had fought to keep him and saw
him as a son. He called them ‘Mum and Dad’ and had said he wanted to
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be adopted by them, but social workers had refused to pursue this because
his mother objected. Although Brian very much wanted to remain in this
family, his sense of belonging had been undermined by the actions of key
adults in his life. Between the ages of one and five, social workers had
moved him back and forth between his mother and foster home, making
it difficult for him to develop a secure sense of belonging to his foster
family. By the time he was twelve years old, the growing seriousness of
his behavioural and emotional difficulties and the mixed messages he was
given by adults compounded his anxiety about his place in his foster
family. His foster carer had been widowed a year earlier and found his de-
teriorating behaviour difficult to cope with alone at a time of grief and loss.
She and her adult daughters had recently told him that, unless his behaviour
improved, he would have to leave. Seven years after the placement was
made, Brian was understandably uncertain about whether he belonged to
his foster family:
No not really, ’cos my foster mum’s daughters don’t really like me .... I feel
a bit sad. I like it here sometimes.
Belonging in practice
The accounts of most children and foster carers suggested that these chil-
dren were fully included in day-to-day family life and, in most cases, had
been accepted by their carers’ extended families, too. In this sense, they
experienced ‘enacted permanence’—a situation in which all concerned
behave as if the family is a lasting unit (Sinclair et al., 2005). This concept
resonates with recent developments in the sociology of the family, which
have conceptualised families as ‘an active process’ rather than a fixed struc-
ture, involving the day-to-day practice of ‘doing family things’ (Gubrium
and Holstein, 2001;Morgan, 1999, p. 16). Consistent with this, psychologists
have argued that it is advantageous for children if foster carers not only
expect that their relationship with the child will endure, but also act accord-
ingly (Dozier and Lindheim, 2006).
The children described the ways in which their membership of foster fam-
ilies was enacted through their inclusion in routine family activities on
special family occasions, such as birthday celebrations, family outings and
holidays. They spoke of being treated the same as their foster carers’ bio-
logical children, of feeling close to them, of fighting with them as
‘normal’ siblings do or staying overnight with their carers’ adult children.
For these children, membership of the foster family was implicit in the
family’s day-to-day practices. These routine activities and communications
shaped children’s lived experience of family life and helped to create and
sustain their perceptions that they belonged to, and would remain in,
their foster families. Several children indicated that they wished to repre-
sent their family life as ‘normal’. For example, Sarah explained:
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Like they take us out for days out and stuff. We go on a lot of holidays. Just
like any normal family really. It’s just like they act, they act the same as they
would with their children and stuff.
Foster carers may similarly represent their relationships with fostered chil-
dren as family-like relationships, both to themselves and to others (Blythe
et al., 2012;Nutt, 2006;Riggs et al., 2009).
Displaying family
In understanding certain actions to constitute ‘doing family things’, both
children and foster carers displayed the family-like quality of their rela-
tionships. This routine display represented their own definitions of family
membership to themselves and to others, privileging these over purely
biological definitions of family (Finch, 2007). The use of names was an
important aspect of this display. Calling foster carers ‘Mum and Dad’,
as most of them did, was of considerable symbolic significance to the
children, as this represented both their membership of the foster
family and the ‘normality’ of their relationships with this family. It was
similarly common for children to refer to their carers’ children and
other fostered children in the family as their ‘brothers and sisters’. For
them, names did not function as unambiguous statements of family mem-
bership, as they also referred to their birth parents and siblings as Mum,
Dad and brothers or sisters.
Thus, Noah, who viewed his carers ‘as if’ they were parents, was able
to hold in mind ‘my real mum and dad’ while also calling his foster
carers ‘Mum and Dad’. Sarah had chosen to call her foster carer
‘Mum’ when very young, wishing to emphasise the normality of her cir-
cumstances in response to questions from other children. As a teenager,
however, she often took her friends along with her on regular visits to
her birth mother and was open about the fact that she had two different
‘mothers’ in her life.
The use of names is a family practice which may be used to constitute
family relationships. However, most recent discussions have typically
focused on surnames rather than on names denoting categories of relation-
ship, such as ‘Mum and Dad’ (Davies, 2011;Finch, 2008). Family member-
ship may need to be ‘“displayed” as well as “done”’ (Finch, 2007, p. 66) and,
in the absence of a biological connection, the use of names such as Mum and
Dad may be of particular symbolic value. These children used names to
display and reinforce the family-like quality of relationships to themselves,
their foster families and the outside world, in order to represent perceived
family connections. Displaying the ‘normality’ of their relationships with
foster families in this way mattered to them greatly because, although
family practices positioned them as normal members of these families,
they were aware that their situation was far from normal.
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Belonging and loss
Children who experience long-term separation from parents may be pre-
occupied with their birth families, and this may have an impact on their rela-
tionships with new parental figures (Biehal et al., 1995;Kohler et al., 2002;
Triseliotis, 1973). They may feel a sense of connectedness to family
members they have rarely seen or do not remember. Sants (1964) has
described the sense of ‘genealogical bewilderment’ that may be experienced
by children with uncertain knowledge of one or both birth parents. They may
experience a state of confusion and uncertainty about their birth parents that
undermines their sense of security and, as they grow older, they may become
preoccupied with these parents. In this study, some children were also pre-
occupied with siblings they had never met, or could not remember.
However, although blood may symbolise a connection, what matters is the
meaning that people ascribe to blood relationships, and indeed to non-blood
relationships (Lawler, 2008). Children who have experienced the symbolic
or actual loss of parents may therefore create a self-defined ‘real family’
while also feeling a sense of belonging to a foster family, developing
complex and fluid definitions of family which ‘transcend the boundaries of
biology and law’ (Samuels, 2009, p. 1233).
The qualified belonging group had lived for many years with foster fam-
ilies which were inclusive and caring but yearned for, or felt ambivalent
towards, birth parents who were rejecting and unreliable. In circumstances
such as these, fostered children may feel a sense of ambiguous loss, namely
a loss without a clear boundary or ending or socially recognised ritual for
grieving the loss (Boss, 1999). The individual perceived to be lost may
either be psychologically but not physically present, for example when a
parent loses a child to adoption, or physically but not psychologically
present, as might occur when a family loses a member to dementia
(Samuels, 2009). Children in long-term care have often experienced mul-
tiple losses during their lives which may remain unresolved and ambiguous,
including the loss of one or both parents, siblings and former foster carers.
The parents of the qualified belonging group were not physically lost but
were essentially absent, as they rarely visited or demonstrated any interest
in the children. However, they remained a strong psychological presence.
Ambiguous loss of this kind may make children uncertain about truly
belonging to any family, which may help to explain the ambivalence that
this group felt both about their parents and about their place in their
foster families.
The children in the ‘as if’ group had experienced a different type of am-
biguous loss. Their parents had been physically absent for many years but
remained psychologically present, to a varying extent. This was less of a
problem for Alex and Reece, who had lived with their carers since
infancy. The early placement of these children and the total absence of
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parents from their lives made their situation quasi-adoptive, making it
easier for both children and carers to represent their relationship as a
family-like relationship. While holding their birth parents in mind, in
day-to-day life, Noah, Alex and Reece identified principally with their
foster families and did not appear unduly troubled by the boundary
between their birth and foster families at this stage in their lives.
The parents of children in the ‘just like’ group were a consistent presence
in their lives, as they maintained regular, although not always frequent,
contact with them. However, what mattered was not only the contact per
se, but also its quality and what it represented to the children as a marker
of their parents’ continuing interest in them. These children were less
troubled by the boundary between their two families and appeared to
have reconciled, both cognitively and emotionally, the two family systems
to which they belonged, making it easier for them to view themselves as
belonging to their substitute families as well as their birth families. They
were not overly preoccupied with their birth parents and did not appear
to idealise them or wish to return to them. This made it easier for them
to make a wholehearted emotional investment in their foster families
which, importantly, was reciprocated. Like the ‘as if’ group, they were
willing to settle for living in a foster family.
The extent to which children feel a sense of belonging to their foster fam-
ilies is therefore likely to depend, to some extent, on how they make sense
of their histories and of any current experiences with their birth families.
Other research has similarly shown that the success of foster care may
depend on, among other things, how children locate their foster families
in relation to their birth families (Sinclair et al., 2005) and that the strength
of children’s bonds with foster families may be directly related to the nature
of their bonds with their birth families (Ellingsen et al., 2012).
Most fostered children have experienced a variety of parental figures. In
order to construct a sense of self and family identity, they have to make
sense both of their own memories and of the various accounts of their
complex histories provided by others. Children’s notions of self and
family identity, and their associated sense of belonging to different families,
will already be positioned by previous telling of their life stories both by
themselves and by others, including social workers, parents and foster
The degree of ambivalence the children felt about belonging to foster
families depended a great deal on the ways in which they located them-
selves in relation to their birth families. Those who found the ambiguous
loss of parents difficult to resolve or who were preoccupied with unreliable
or rejecting parents were more troubled about where they belonged than
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those who had found other ways of making sense of separation. Children’s
stories about their parents’ actions were informed both by their memories
of these, if they had any, and by the nature and quality of parents’
current presence in their lives (or by their absence). Their mental represen-
tations of their birth families influenced their thoughts and feelings about
their place in their foster families, making it easier or harder for them to
settle for ‘belonging’ to another family.
Some children were able to reconcile belonging to both their birth and
foster families, while others were more troubled about where they
belonged. However, their sense of belonging to their long-term foster fam-
ilies clearly did not develop in a vacuum. Fostered children are embedded
in a complex network of family and family-like connections. These are both
real, in the sense that they are biological, spatial or legal connections, but
are also imagined, as children make sense of their experience to construct
a sense of belonging to one or more families. Their imaginings of family
are not shaped by choice alone but also by histories, contexts, relationships
and, crucially, by the meanings they ascribe to these (Finch and Mason,
2000;Gillis, 1997;Smart, 2007).
Other key factors were the continuing emotional commitment of foster
carers and the child’s inclusion as a full family member in the day-to-day
practices of family life which, implicitly or explicitly, were understood to
be about family. In Bourdieu’s terms, this was a form of ‘practical
kinship’, namely something which is ‘continuously practised, kept up and
cultivated’ (Bourdieu, 1977, cited in Morgan, 1999). Apart from explicit
communication about how much they loved the children, the inclusive
ways in which foster families engaged with the children in everyday life con-
veyed the implicit message that the fostered child was part of the family.
Foster carers and children together created a virtuous circle in which
child and foster family understandings of belonging were mutually
Children in long-term foster families may come to consider a foster
placement as home while also feeling a sense of connection to their
birth families. For them, ‘home’ may not be a stable origin in a single
place, but rather a set of spatial, social, psychological and temporal
domains in which they feel a sense of belonging (Blunt and Dowling,
2006). The movement they experience between birth and substitute fam-
ilies may not only disrupt old constructions of home, but also establish
new ones (Ahmed et al., 2003). Gilroy’s (1993) representation of the
multiple perceived connections of diasporic communities as the ‘routes’
of home travelled over time, rather than the ‘roots’ of a real or imagined
home, therefore offers an appropriate metaphor for the ways in which
fostered children come to develop a greater or lesser sense of belonging
to long-term foster families.
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Implications for policy and practice
The quality of children’s experience of long-term foster care, including their
sense of belonging to their foster family as well as their birth family, should
be viewed an indicator of well-being as important as more objective
markers such as placement stability. Children in long-term foster place-
ments will find different ways of positioning themselves between their
birth and foster families, and these positions may subtly shift over time.
While it is essential to acknowledge the importance of children’s relation-
ships with their birth families, it is important not to discourage children
and foster carers from behaving as if they are ‘just like’ other families in
the way they represent their relationship to themselves and to the outside
world, if this is what the children want. Helping children make sense of
their location between two families and supporting their sense of belonging
to their foster families as well as to their birth families should be a priority
for social workers.
Strengths and limitations
A strength of this study is its exploration of children’s views and their loca-
tion in the context of wider information gathered from foster carers and
social workers. Its main limitation is the small number of fostered children
who agreed to be interviewed.
This research was funded by the former Department for Children, Schools
and Families (now the Department for Education).
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... In terms of the impact that contact may have, some studies have found that visits can interfere with the daily routines and activities that have been established within the foster family, as well as potentially generating in the child feelings of anger, anxiety, and sadness, conflicts of loyalty, and rule-breaking or other disruptive behaviors (Biehal, 2014;Carvalho & Delgado, 2014;Morrison et al., 2011;Prasad, 2011). It has also been found that problems of this kind tend to emerge following some kind of negative incident during the visit, or when the birth mother has failed to attend as agreed (Biehal, 2014;Delgado et al., 2016;Morrison et al., 2011). ...
... In terms of the impact that contact may have, some studies have found that visits can interfere with the daily routines and activities that have been established within the foster family, as well as potentially generating in the child feelings of anger, anxiety, and sadness, conflicts of loyalty, and rule-breaking or other disruptive behaviors (Biehal, 2014;Carvalho & Delgado, 2014;Morrison et al., 2011;Prasad, 2011). It has also been found that problems of this kind tend to emerge following some kind of negative incident during the visit, or when the birth mother has failed to attend as agreed (Biehal, 2014;Delgado et al., 2016;Morrison et al., 2011). ...
... Moreover, previous studies by our group that have examined the views of children, birth families, foster carers, and social workers regarding contact visits during non-kinship foster care García-Martín et al., 2019;Salas et al., 2021;Salas et al., 2016) have noted that a high number of visits are rated as poor quality, and also that birth parents often lack the emotional, communication, and parenting skills needed to relate successfully to their child. In line with other researches (Biehal, 2014;Urrea-Monclús, Ichaurrondo et al., 2021, Urrea-Monclús, Ponce et al., 2021, these studies also highlighted the need to provide children, foster carers, and birth families with better information, preparation, and support in relation to visits, and also to ensure that professionals have the training required to facilitate and mediate these encounters. ...
Full-text available
Despite the important impact that contact with birth parents during non-kinship foster care can have on a child's well-being, there are few psychoeducational programs aimed at improving the quality of visits. The purpose of this study was to analyze the perceptions of changes in birth parents who have completed the first program of this kind to be developed in Spain, here in its pilot application. The aim of the program Visits: a context for family development is to improve parents' emotional, communication, and parenting competences, and it comprises a total of seven sessions: six individual sessions that take place in the hour prior to consecutive scheduled visits with the child, and one group session involving all participating birth parents. A total of five families began the program, and three mothers completed all seven sessions. We conducted semi-structured interviews with mothers before and after the intervention so as to explore their perceptions regarding changes in their parenting competences and the quality of visits with their child. These data were complemented by participant-observer notes taken by one of the researchers during program sessions. Through content and semantic network analysis of interviews, we were able to identify changes in relation to five aspects of contact visits following participation in the parenting program. The results suggest that the program has the potential to enhance the parenting competences of birth mothers, to improve parent-child interaction during contact visits, and to encourage collaboration between the birth and foster families. These preliminary findings support the utility of the program for improving the quality of contact visits between birth parents and their children in non-kinship foster care.
... The United Nations Convention on The Right of the Child (UNCRC) promotes child-centric perspectives in all actions and decisions concerning them (UNCRC, 1989). In the United Kingdom, there is a growing body of research of foster children' voices and their care relationships (e.g., Biehal, 2014;Schofield, 2002;Schofield et al., 2012), suggesting that acknowledging children's views on family relationships is central to their everyday emotional and practical well-being. A direct engagement with children in research (Holland & Crowley, 2013) to better understand their views on and experiences with family life might improve foster care services (Schofield & Beek, 2009;Whiting & Lee, 2003). ...
... Analysing how people 'do family' is at the heart of valorising the lived experiences of family (Finch, 2007;McCarthy & Edwards, 2010). Some research has used these sociological concepts as base for interpreting the multiple belongings experienced by children and young people who are in foster care (e.g., Biehal, 2014;Sità & Mortari, 2022;Wissö et al., 2019). Some scholars emphasise the con- cultures. ...
... Mahat-Shamir et al. (2018) also suggest that commitment to a biological family is not necessarily based on the quality of the relationship but to biological ties. Processes of care, support and love are primary criteria for the concept of family for many children (Biehal, 2014;Schofield, 2002;Van Holen et al., 2020). Some studies also found that some foster children depicted a fluid understanding of family that was based on doing family things through everyday rituals such as spending time together, shared meals, vacations and celebrations (Mahat-Shamir et al., 2018;Schofield, 2002;Van Holen et al., 2020). ...
Full-text available
This article employs concepts from family sociology to explore how ‘family’ is conceptualised in 14 life narratives of young people in foster care in Spain. The article draws on a multi-method approach with young people who are in long-term non-kinship foster care. Seven girls and seven boys aged 10 to 22 took part in the study. The empirical material reveals an interplay between biological preference and foster family affective practices in young people's narratives, illuminating a struggle to make sense of the concept of family in foster care. Most of the participants understand family as shared affective practices sustained through love, commitment, consistent care and reciprocity rather than blood ties. Some show a preference for biological connectivity, while others describe family as determined by rituals and family displays. The key practice implications highlight the importance helping young people positioning themselves in birth family relationships, and supporting their sense of family belonging.
... Studies of supervised contact visits demonstrate both the potential risks and benefits to children's wellbeing (Boyle, 2017;Collings et al., 2019). Pros include the prospect of preserving family relationships, facilitating the child's identity development, reducing the sense of loss and abandonment, and promoting a sense of belonging and attachment to the biological family (Biehal, 2014;Fuentes et al., 2019;Kenrick, 2009;McWey et al., 2010;Sen & Broadhurst 2011). On the con side, meeting with a parent who has engaged in abuse or neglect can be a traumatic reminder of extreme states of emotional distress which can undermine the child's sense of safety and security (Howe & Steele, 2004;Kenrick, 2009). ...
Full-text available
Children who have been removed from their homes as a result of maltreatment and abuse and have been placed in foster care or are in the process of adoption often continue to meet their birth parents by court decision. This contact is often held under supervision. Supervised contact is intended to provide children the opportunity to maintain the parent-child relationship in a safe and neutral setting. Findings have shown that in some cases supervised contact can be harmful, undermining the children’s sense of security and placement stability. It has been suggested that agencies have limited practice skills to help build constructive relationships through contact visits, and may thereby be failing to offer sufficient support for supervised contact. While the literature highlights various aspects that need to be implemented to improve visits, there is a lack of a trauma-informed approach, whereby professionals supervising visits can address the traumatic experiences that led to the circumstances of supervised visitation and respond to the difficult emotions of all those involved. This paper provides practice guidelines for professionals accompanying supervised visits using principles of Child-Parent Psychotherapy, a trauma-informed dyadic intervention model for young children. Case vignettes illustrate how professionals supervising contact might address the child’s trauma history and help birth parents and foster/adoptive parents respond to the child’s attachment needs following trauma, and how professionals can support birth parents and foster/adoptive parents, thereby promoting safety and improving child-parent interactions. Recommendations are offered for attaining the best clinical practices in supervised contact, using seven practical guidelines.
... I feel like they don't care or love me like my old foster mum did. (Young person in Children's Commissioner for England, 2015, p10) Biehal (2014) found that feelings about being fostered were strongly related to how young people conceptualised their relationship with their birth families. Those who found it hard to accept the loss of parents were more troubled about where they belonged than those children who found ways of making sense of separation and came to terms with it. ...
... This is supported by Vincent (2016), who argues persuasively that the relationship between love and professionalism is more a matter of interpretation of the latter than one of inherent conflict. Finally, on naming practices, Biehal (2014b) reports that use of parental terms is very common in long-term placements, while like other researchers (De Wilde et al., 2019) noting that this remains a very sensitive issue. ...
Full-text available
Following decades in which professionalisation was widely assumed to be a permanent (and growing) feature of foster care in England, the government signalled a clear anti-professional turn in its 2018 publication Fostering Better Outcomes (FBOs). This rejected the notion that foster carers should be regarded as professionals and indicated that there should be a return to the term foster parent. This article analyses FBO, its feeder reports and evidence submitted by stakeholders to map the shifting debate surrounding professionalisation. This includes both direct commentary on its (de)merits, but also discussion of components such as pay, conditions, motivation, training, expertise, a national college or register and related questions of supporting and valuing foster carers. A number of important flaws are identified within the review process. These include an ahistorical and insular treatment of professionalisation, its conflation with employment, a homogenisation of foster care and deployment of a familial discourse that fails to engage with its complexities and ‘hybrid’ nature between work and family. The consequence is a confused policy stance where professionalisation is rhetorically rejected while many of its core elements are endorsed. Implications of the anti-professional turn for policy, practice and research in England but also internationally, are discussed.
This article examines the emotional work that young adult care leavers perform during their transition to adulthood. It is based on 30 biographical interviews with young adults (formerly) placed in care. Among researchers, social workers and policy makers, there is a need to understand what young people do about their feelings when they have been exposed to bereavement, abuse, neglect and conflict. Furthermore, it is important to understand how feelings associated with growing up with hard times impact young adults’ everyday lives. To understand what young adults who have been placed in care think and do about their feelings in relation to their birth parents, I draw on Hochschild's model of “deep acting” and “surface acting” [Hochschild, A. R. (1979). Emotion work, feeling rules, and social structure. American Journal of Sociology, 85(3), 551–575.; Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The managed heart: Commercialization of human feeling. University of Chicago Press]. The study reveals that these young adults constantly engage in emotion work to manage feelings towards their birth parents that do not fit within social guidelines for how to feel about one's parents. These “misfitting” feelings include hate, anger, disgust and distrust but also love and admiration towards the birth parents who neglected and abused them. Managing these feelings leaves the young adults in moments of pinch or discrepancy that they must act on to successfully transition to adulthood.
Good social research is usually informed by theory. In this chapter, Gwenzi draws from both classical and contemporary sociological theories of family to inform the study on the social construction of family by adolescents and youths in child welfare institutions in Zimbabwe. The chapter discusses how social constructionism and symbolic interactionism can be used to make sense of who and what is family for young people growing up outside of biological family care in Zimbabwe. In contemporary sociological studies of family, Morgan’s (1996) family practices and Finch’s family display concepts provided a way to understand diverse family structures and meanings. Additionally, the study which is conducted in an African setting also necessitated the use of two Afrocentric theories: ukama and Ubuntu, which explain African social relations.
Background Foster carer commitment to the child has been shown to be of paramount importance in young children's recovery and development following abuse and neglect. In Dozier's definition of commitment in the US, there is a focus on both emotional investment in the child and committing to an enduring relationship with the child. How this relates to the routine practice of short-term, temporary, foster care has not been studied. Objective This is the first qualitative study to explore the drivers of, and barriers to, commitment in short-term foster care within the broader aim of examining whether short-term care is meeting the needs of maltreated young children. Participants & setting Fourteen foster carers took part in research interviews and five focus groups were conducted with infant mental health professionals. Methods Interviews and focus group data were subject to qualitative thematic analysis in order to identify patterns of commonality in relation to our research questions. Results Three broad themes pertain to commitment and the meeting of young children's needs in short-term foster care: Influence, Timescales and Choice in the fostering role. These themes were found to house both drivers of, and barriers to, commitment in short-term care, which are influenced by systemic normalisations of fostering practices. Conclusions The emotional investment facet of commitment is more alive in the ‘psyche’ of short-term foster care than commitment to an enduring relationship. A long-term outlook for the child may be an undefined facet of commitment that is more akin with short-term placements.
Whilst it has been suggested that fostering involves being both a parent and a professional, little is known about how foster carers manage these roles. This study aimed to develop an explanatory theory and model of the processes involved in fostering looked after children and the relationship between the roles of parent and professional. Ten foster carers offering intended long-term placements to looked after children and five social care professionals who provide support to foster carers were interviewed. Data were analysed using grounded theory. A preliminary model was developed which suggested that the relationship between the two roles changed over time. Many described initially identifying with the parental role before experiencing challenges that necessitated also taking a professional one. Over time, these separate roles appeared to blend and become interconnected, such that foster carers became ‘professional–parents’. These findings extend our understanding of the complexity of the foster carer role and may link to existing role theories. They may also have important clinical implications for the support and training of foster carers, particularly in the early stages of the fostering journey. Further research, including the use of more diverse samples, is needed to extend these findings.
This exciting new book offers a survey of the field of child abuse and neglect from the perspective of modern developmental attachment theory. The book opens with an account of the theory and describes the ways in which attachment difficulties manifest themselves in children's behaviour. The following three sections look at abuse, neglect, and compound cases of abuse and neglect, backing this up with empirical research evidence and vivid case material. The final section provides a comprehensive review of attachment-based interventions. This is a clear and compelling textbook, anchored in research evidence and geared in its structure to answer the kinds of questions practitioners and student practitioners specialising in child welfare are most likely to ask.
The body, in common with time and space, has become an increasing focus of attention in sociological enquiry. Indeed, these three concerns are closely linked since bodies necessarily must be seen in time and space. However, some of the literature on the body appears to have little connection with families or, indeed, other collectivities or relationalities. As I noted in 1996, family sociology and the sociology of the body appear to have few points of intersection (Gabb, 2008; Morgan, 1996). Where issues of children and childhood are discussed in terms of embodiment (e.g. Prout, 2000) the relevant sites are more often than not outside the home, in the school or playground for example. There is, perhaps, a danger that the body may be understood in individualistic terms through the connections between discussions of the body and the phenomenology of the self.
The Lives of Foster Carers analyzes the contradictions, conflicts, and ambiguities experienced by foster carers arising from the inter-penetrations of public bureaucracy and private family life. Topics covered include: social policy pertinent to childcare the history of foster care service available literature on the experience of foster carers public versus private domains in foster care motivations and roles of foster carers how foster carers perceive themselves and their foster children. Based on a wide range of literature and in-depth interviews with forty-six foster carers, this book provides a valuable insight into the concerns, processes and experiences of foster carers in the UK. Jargon free and accessible, it will appeal to foster carers, practitioners, students and academics in social care, youth work and childcare as well as policy makers in children's services.