Where to find identity if you live in shadows?

July 30, 2004

As the Children Bill continues through Parliament, Terry Philpot looks at the problem of private fostering and speaks to two champions of child wellbeing

The horrific details of Victoria Climbie's death obscured one important fact about her life: that she was privately fostered. But Lord Laming's report, which investigated the circumstances surrounding her abuse and murder, reviewed the legislation governing this shadowy practice and, as a result, new provisions have been introduced in the Children Bill, which is before Parliament.

It is a long way, however, from the statute book to protecting the unknown numbers of children cared for in this way. That the practice is a stubbornly underground activity is clear from the experience of the Institute of Education's Thomas Coram Research Unit, London University, which has just completed a two-year study funded by the Department of Health.

This is the first academic work in a field in which there was no comprehensive study between 1976 and 2001, when my book A Very Private Practice was published. The Unknown Fostering by Bob Holman, a former professor at Bath University, came out after that, but research is still very thin.

A child is considered privately fostered when he or she placed for more than 28 days with someone who is not a (legally defined) close relative.

The estimated figure of 10,000 such children applies only to those of West African origin. (West Africans are known to use private fostering for several reasons, including to save on child care costs, a belief that their children will prosper with white families and a traditional use of wide social networks for parenting.) There could be more than 30,000 privately fostered children, and very little is known about them.

Widespread flouting of registration requirements allows local authorities to deny that private fostering exists in their areas. Only in the most extreme circumstances can a child be removed from a private foster home.

Most children who are known about live in just-about-acceptable conditions.

Despite extensive press coverage and advertising, researchers from the Institute of Education could contact only three parents, 37 carers and 12 adults who had been privately fostered as children. The researchers also looked through eight local authority case files of children who came into care after having been privately fostered.

Sofka Barreau, research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, says: "There's a resistance to any research in this field. It is the carers who have nothing to hide who come forward; parents have a lot of guilt about what has happened. There are very delicate issues involved, and people are unlikely to talk about painful matters. Whatever pain a child felt at two or three years old, and however they rationalise it as adults, it is still real to them. Also, everyone involved in this is 'invisible' because this is a hidden practice.

"This was the first time that these people had talked about their experience. Some had bad experiences, and a few had good experiences, but all resented their parents and some felt abandoned."

The institute distinguishes between the "traditional" private fostering with strangers and "local fostering", in which teenagers live with a friend's family, often because of a family dispute.

The traditional carers and their partners to whom the researchers spoke were all white and English, and most were fostering West African children.

But few of them understood such children's cultural needs and tended to ignore racism, and they were unable to instruct the children on how to deal with it. Hardly surprising, then, that most of those who had been cared for in this way as children had identity problems and were not sure of where they fitted in culturally. It is my experience that many privately fostered children live on out-of-town estates where the only black face they see is the one in the mirror.

When children regularly stay with carers for the first five years of their lives or longer, they become highly attached to them. Often they have no idea why their parents have fostered them, and this can lead to problems.

The 12 adults who were privately fostered as children were aged 22 to 45.

They were mostly single with no children, and only three were in long-term relationships. The sample, Barreau says, is too small to draw conclusions from, but she finds the information she has gathered "striking". Equally striking is the fact that the only one of the group of 12 who did not have a degree was in a managerial job.

Children who are privately fostered come from a variety of backgrounds. In addition to children from West Africa and those who have been alienated by domestic disputes, the group includes those whose parents work unsocial hours, children at language schools or on exchange visits, those coming to the UK because of national disasters, such as Chernobyl, children whose parents are in prison or have been deported, and asylum-seeking children.

But Barreau says: "It is important to define children not so much in terms of groups to which they belong but in terms of their vulnerabilities and needs." The new legislation might take those aspects into account as it distinguishes between "traditional" and "local" arrangements.

The hope is that the legislation will allow children and carers to get support from health and social services and will weed out bad carers. But its success will hinge on how much private fostering can be coaxed out from the shadows.

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