The number of children in foster care is on the rise, according to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), with over 50,000 young people in foster care in England alone. And although there are still nowhere near enough of them, the number of foster carers is increasing too, with more and more adults recognising the rewards of looking after young people who, for a wide variety of reasons, have to be removed from their homes.
As a parent, this means you're more likely than ever to come across children in care. The problem is that with so many myths and outdated perceptions around fostering, there's every chance that you could say the wrong thing, inadvertently upsetting a group of young people who are already more vulnerable than their peers.
We talked to children in foster care, foster carers, care leavers and social workers to compile the ultimate guide on what not to say.
Being in care must be terrible
Not necessarily. "For some kids, foster care is their first experience of predictable, safe care," explains Alan Wood, spokesperson on foster care for BAAF and a long-term foster carer to two young people himself. "Remember that most children who go into foster care have been harmed by adults and often, over a long period of time. So whilst it's hard for children to be separated from their family, foster care is often a very welcome form of security."
Why are you in foster care?
Do you really need to know? No. Clearly, the answer isn't going to be nice, simple or easy and it is likely to do the young person more harm than good to even attempt an answer. That's assuming they even know the full story themselves. "All too often, children in care don't get access to their files until they are over 16," points out Matt Langsford, 22, who was in care for 10 years and who is now a consultant to New Belongings, a role that assists with creating the gold standard of leaving care services.
I understand how you feel
No, you don't. "My friends' parents used to say this and sometimes they would even give examples of times they'd been sad or lonely themselves as a child. But nobody really knew what my life was like, having been regularly beaten up by my dad and seeing my mum hurt too," says Josh Anderson, 26, who was in foster care from age 14 onwards.
"In fact, rather than making me feel better, comparing my mess of a life to their seemingly tame examples had the result of making me feel like they didn't think what had happened to me was even a big deal."
Children in care need empathy, not sympathy, he believes, and more often than not, that just means a listening ear if ever they want to talk.
School must be really hard
Studies show that looked-after children don't do as well as their peers educationally and that they are more risk of being excluded from school. "But that doesn't mean education is all negative for children in care. For me, school was the one safe haven throughout my time of being looked after. In fact, the four or five times that attempts were made to make me move schools, I refused to go," says Matt Langsford.
In any case, says Alan Wood, there is a much greater emphasis now on supporting fostered children in school and we should never generalise. "That's as good as giving up on kids and setting them up to fail."
Your mum and dad can't care about you very much
"I heard this from teachers when I was in care," says Matt Langford. "Not only was it hugely hurtful, but my mum had bipolar, which meant she couldn't cope. That's not the same as not caring."
Even when children have been hurt physically or emotionally by their parents, it doesn't mean their parents don't care, he adds. "Some people just don't know how to parent."
Then there are those who are in a foster family for reasons entirely unrelated to their parents. Perhaps another member of the family put them at risk – an aunt or sibling, for example. Bottom line – don't make assumptions.
You're the first foster child we've met
No child wants to be singled out for being different, particularly children in foster care who usually already feel different enough. Watch your terminology too – 'foster child' is a term that makes some children cringe. They've usually had a bellyful of labels already.
"Best not to bring up the fact that the child is in care at all, if you ask me," says Matt Langsford. "It shouldn't even be public knowledge and for the young person, the fact that you know could feel a real breach of confidentiality, throwing their trust in the whole system, which is fragile as it is."
What's it like having a new mum and dad?
"Many kids in foster care aren't looking for new parents. In fact, many – me included – felt pretty raw about not being able to live with our existing ones," says Sophie Armstrong, 31, who lived in foster care for a year as a child.
"Even the people I knew who did call their foster family Mum and Dad would have been horrified at the idea of anyone thinking the old ones no longer mattered. Also, the reality is that most kids in foster care have multiple placements, never really being able to settle in any one family."
Alan Wood adds that foster care is supposed to be temporary – the idea is that many kids are expected to either go home or be adopted, although that doesn't always actually happen, and there are a large number of young people in foster care who will remain being looked after until their 18th birthday. The new Government scheme called 'staying put' also supports carers and young people who decide that the young person staying put beyond 18 is the right thing.
What did you do wrong to wind up in foster care?
"There's this perception that children are often in foster care because of their own behaviour, but 99 per cent of the time, they are there due to their family's behaviour and for their own safety," says Matt Langsford.
"I can remember one teacher telling me it was all my fault that I was in care and it was only when the deputy head caught her saying it that he stopped it happening and apologised to me. If teachers, who are trained to say the right things to teachers, get it this wrong, it worries me that parents might also say something like this."
I'm sure you'll be able to return home soon
Whilst foster care is meant to be temporary, young people rarely know when they will return home, if at all. Others may feel terrified at the thought of returning home at all. It's also worth remembering that many children are in what's known as 'long-term' or 'permanent' foster care, which is similar to adoption. These children often come to stay with foster carers between the ages of seven and 12 years old, and will stay with their foster family until they are ready to fly the nest.
You must hate your mum and dad for letting this happen
"When I look back now, I wonder why on earth I didn't hate my mum and dad for making life so bad at home that I had to be taken away from them," says Sophie Armstrong. "But at the time, I felt completely loyal to them and would have rather died than said anything against them. Even those kids I knew that did say they loathed their parents would never have tolerated someone else saying it."
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