Fostering and birth children
For those people who are fostering children and have their own children; or people considering fostering generally, this page sets out some of the issues that can arise. It is intended to highlight points to be considered when a foster child or young person is placed within a family where the parents already have their own children. Clearly, since no two
situations will ever be alike, what follows illustrates the broad themes likely to be encountered.
Where a child is fostered in a family with birth children there will be positives along with potential negatives. Managing any negative aspects is clearly a priority. Generally, most sons and daughters feel they are happy being part of a foster family and recognise there are benefits. There is evidence that some will go on to become foster carers themselves, or progress to establish careers within the caring professions. There is anecdotal evidence from many birth children that the experience of fostering had developed their sense of empathy and social awareness. One study found that a third of birth children had the idea that they would become foster parents themselves. In a wider review involving fourteen studies looking at the experiences of sons and daughters of foster carers, each one showed the experience of fostering had some positive impact on their lives. Some studies have found that fostering can have beneficial effects on the communication and social skills of birth children.
Birth children of carers usually describe their role as presenting significant challenges. They commonly report some of their experiences are negative and difficult to deal with. It is this mixture of both the positive and negative that creates the main difficulty. This has been described as ‘living within a contradictory experience’. An additional burden can be that the birth children often feel unable to talk through their problems and issues with their parents.
There are also the unique strains on the foster carers themselves to be taken into account . They can have difficulties in knowing they want to provide the best for their birth children, but also for the child they foster. Foster parents can experience guilt if they feel too much time is being spent with the foster child – even if they feel their own children are getting benefits from the experience.
The challenges and problems birth children of foster carers face - along with many of the benefits - do vary according to the circumstances. These can often relate to the age, ethnicity and gender of the child or young person in placement. They will also change depending upon the length of the placement: broadly they fit within three main groups:
- Those based in their relationship with the foster child
- Those based in their relationship with their own family
- Those based in their relationship with social work agencies
Accepting a foster child into an established family creates a range of very new and unique elements. These feed into what is immediately a complex and fluid situation which can at times be volatile. Problems, for example, can arise around sharing – not just possessions but the time of the foster carers themselves. All the children can find themselves competing for attention at different times and for different reasons. Sharing can also mean sharing friends at school or space in the home. It can be difficult for birth children to explain to their friends why their family has a ‘new’ child in their home. It can also be very hard if a foster child has to move on if close friendships have been formed with the birth children. Studies have found when a foster sibling leaves, this can be the most challenging part of the fostering process. It can give rise to feelings of loss and sadness. It can also be particularly difficult for birth children if a foster child is behaving badly causing difficulties for the their parents.
- feeling part of a team
- appreciating their own families more
- making friends
- developing a caring attitude
- becoming more empathetic
- feelings of responsibility and worry
- expectations of parents
- sharing belongings, living space possessions and parents time easing burden on parents
- increased responsibility
Successful placement outcomes will in large part depend upon quality support being given to the foster carers birth children. This has to be reviewed regularly and fostering agencies all provide sensitive and timely intervention in anticipation. Public authorities are required to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their areas. They have obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to consult children about decisions which can affect them – as well as to promote family life. When authorities have placed children and where this may cause problems or difficulties for other children in the household, they have a responsibility to support the birth children.
International research in the area of the effects of fostering on carer’s children shows that being involved in the decision to foster helps birth children to manage. It is important that children and young people in the family are involved in the decision to foster and their views are given weight.
Keeping birth children informed about fostering and their foster sibling can reduce conflicts. When the decision to foster has been made, the birth children should be told what fostering involves covering both the positive and negative aspects. Good communication is very important: information should be given routinely not just when the placement starts. Being informed can make it easier to cope with difficult behaviour making birth children feel competent, involved and an important part of the fostering process. The evidence shows that where birth children are provided with relevant information they developed a significantly better relationship with their foster siblings. It is far easier for birth children to cope when it is possible for them to have open discussions about problems – mainly with their parents but also with social workers.
Effective time management is important. It is advisable that foster parents designate ‘protected’ time periods exclusively for them and their birth children. This should always be respected as it will emphasise to birth children that their unique status continues to be recognised and maintained.
Managing the ending of placements has to be done effectively and sensitively. Some birth children stated that this could be the most difficult aspect of the fostering process for them to deal with. If handled properly, the feelings of loss and grief that can arise can be kept to a minimum.
"My link worker has been very helpful, she is easy to talk to and reliable."
"I enjoy being a foster carer, I find it very fulfilling."
"The reward has been from my foster child seeing her blossom and flourish."