Myth #2: Kinship Care and Foster Care harm children.
In our previous posts we discussed the way that our popular culture has embraced stories about orphans and how it shapes our attitudes and beliefs about vulnerable children. Today we’re looking at the second big myth:
Kinship Care and Foster Care harm children.
Kinship Care in Fiction
When we think of foster care and kinship care in popular fiction, we can very easily believe that kinship care and foster care are harmful.
Sometimes they are outright abusive: think about the Dursleys and the ways they torment Harry in the Harry Potter series. Or Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge from James and the Giant Peach. Or most famously, the evil stepmothers in Cinderella and Snow White.
Anne’s experience with the Hammond and Thomas families (as recounted in Anne with An E ) is pretty typical for foster care at the time. Orphans were looked down on as less than animals and were used as free labour. No, really – in 1908, there were more animal rights laws than there were children rights laws. Orphans were passed from family to family with little supervision from the orphanage or anyone else. In fact, Marilla in Anne of Green Gables just “sent word” that she wanted a child. No one checked out her character or her family. There certainly were no police checks! These are the abusive situations we recall when thinking of foster care in popular fiction. And maybe, these views intensify in our minds, as we look at the serious failures of the foster care system in western countries. Our emotional response creates the belief that foster care is harmful. So we advocate for children in developing countries to go to orphanages. Which, as we looked at last week, does yet more harm.
The benefits of kinship and foster care
Foster care and kinship care play an important role in helping children without parents receive love and care, and be healthy members of society. By living with a family, particularly in long-term care, children can form secure, healthy attachment with their careers. They can learn the skills they need to develop into functional adults, and learn to do so within the normal social boundaries of their culture (Better Care Network). Family care also provides interaction with a wide cross-section of society where children learn how to interact with adults from a range of backgrounds, rather than mostly learning from other children (Save the Children). Studies conducted with children themselves have shown that children would rather live in a kinship or foster care placement than in residential care (Better Care Network).
Poverty is the main reason children are sent to orphanages. Yet financially supporting families to look after children, and having caseworkers who care for the families, is a tenth of the cost of running an orphanage. So not only are the outcomes to the child better, the return on investment is better too. (Save the Children) By supporting family-based care, you can help children to grow up in a loving home with the support they need to develop emotionally, nutritionally, socially and educationally.
Vulnerable children need loving and caring adults
But there is another theme that emerges from popular fiction. Most of the time, it is the role of the child to win over their kinship or foster parents. Whether it is Pollyanna’s aunt, Heidi’s Grandfather, Mary Lennox’s absent uncle, or even Marilla Cuthbert herself, it is the role of the child to save the adult. The child brings out the good found in adults carrying hurt from the world. We have this image of orphans who have to prove that they are valuable by showing the love that their foster families should be giving them. As modern readers and viewers, we need to remember that this is a tool used by writers at this time: authors were trying to create the idea that children, particularly orphans, could be valued members of their communities. But that does not mean this is how foster care is. When they’re selected, screened, and trained properly, foster families provide spaces of love, care and acceptance for the children they take in. That’s usually exactly why people choose to foster children in the first place. (Of course, there are exceptions. That’s why we do background checking and interviews prior to placing a child with a family!)
Think of Matthew Cuthbert. In the Anne series of books, Matthew always advocates for Anne just when Anne needs him the most. This theme is drawn out in the ‘Anne with an E’ series. Matthew shows the courage and counter-cultural approaches that foster carers take to caring for vulnerable children. His recognition of Anne’s need to belong, his consistent love and care, and his decision to adopt a daughter when others would have argued for a boy as hired help, remind us that not all people at the time responded to orphans out of fear. And now, most adults respect and care for children. It is a reminder that what vulnerable children need most is acceptance and belonging. And where children belong is in families.
We would be lying and negligent to imply that family based care is as easy as returning institutionalized children to their homes and celebrating a job well done. We would also be lying to say that family based care does not have its own challenges. Reintegrating children from institutions, caring for abused and at-risk kids, and supporting families who have accepted a child is long process. That is why at CIF we have a long-term view of foster and kinship care. We meet with families every month – from the day the kids enter the family until the day the child becomes a functional adult member of society. We are unique in Cambodia in the length of follow up our staff give to families. But we believe that it is important to ensure that children are being cared for. We also believe families should be supported throughout their parenting journey. It is also why our foster families attend training together so they can care for and support one another.
The complexities around orphan based care is also why we work with Orphanages. As part of our outreach program, we help Orphanages learn the social work skills needed to reintegrate children back to their families in a healthy manner. And we help them find foster carers if living with parents or kin is not possible. This is also a major part of the work we are doing within the Family Care First Initiative. Family Care First is a coalition of a NGOs creating a national wide framework for family based care aiming to ensure that no child gets placed in a family and then overlooked. Children belong in families, and families belong in communities. Together we can strengthen families and communities to have the resources they need to love and care for each other and the children in their care.
And we pray that one day, all children who cannot live with their parents, can know what it is to be part of a family. That they can form attachments that last through their lifetimes and that helps them to achieve their goals. And we pray that one day, all orphans will become as much a valued and loved member of society, as Anne Shirley is in her world.