1 The circumstances of separation
In this first section, we want you to think about the circumstances of children separated from their parents, why such separations might occur and the different places in which children can live.
Activity 1: Learning about children who live apart from their parents
As you read through these quotes, note down a few issues that are raised by the children's experiences.
We got moved around a lot. I think we had about 27 different foster parents in the end and probably twice as many social workers! We only went for a few days when mum was ill but when things were really bad, some of us went for longer. Me and my sister usually got to stay together but we never all got put in the same place, as there was eight of us. We didn't know the people sometimes and we were both afraid that because we were very ‘naughty’ most of the time, we would get put in secure in the end like some of the other foster kids we knew.
(Christina (name changed), informal interview, 2005)
As a nine-year-old coming into foster care it was a very daunting and frightening experience. One day, whilst I was at school, my social worker visited me and told me my mother was ill and that I would be staying somewhere while she recovered – it ended up being nine years.
(Colin, quoted in National Foster Care Association, 1994, p. 4)
I'm resentful towards my mum because I was in a wheelchair and I was the one that had to come here … for one day I would think it was because I was in a wheelchair, for another day I thought it was because I'm the only black kid my mum's got.
(Lenny, quoted in Morris, 1998, pp. 4, 5)
I used to hate it when I either had to change social workers or change placements, or something like that, because it was just another thing to get used to – just settling into new families and starting all over again … fitting in with other kids that live there, especially if it was their birth children. It varied how they treated you, especially when they compared you to their own, or when they got annoyed with you because you didn't know how to take them or anything.
(Eliza, quoted in Skuse and Ward 2003, p. 115)
Well I went to live with Auntie C, she was my mum's sister, when mum got to go back to Jamaica and there was all her kids that was much older than me. She made nice cake and it was nice for a while, as it was family, and there were pictures of my mum and Gran in the room.
(Germain (name changed), informal interview, 2005)
These quotes represent the voices of just some of the children who live away from their parents. Listening to such children can help us to learn something about their situations and what they feel about them. The children quoted in this activity talk about experiences of separation from their families, other familiar people and places. Some separations were planned but for Colin there was no preparation, and the separation was long lasting. A sudden lengthy separation is more likely to have longer-term effects than one that is planned or occurs under easier circumstances or where the carers are familiar, such as relatives or friends (Rose and Philpot, 2005). Separation can sometimes feel like rejection. Lenny links his feelings of rejection to the fact that he is disabled and black.
Children often describe vividly the pressures and stresses they felt as a series of changes took place. Christina talks about the self blame that she felt. Eliza refers to the unfamiliarity of frequently changing environments and the pressures this put on her. Germain, however, explains the benefits of living with his wider family in kinship care, the importance of knowing those he was living with and his positive response to seeing photographs of his mother and grandmother displayed in the house.
Colin, Lenny, Christina and Eliza were fostered by carers chosen by local authorities acting as their parent. This happens when there is no parent or relative available to the child or when there has been a serious relationship breakdown between the parent(s) and child and the parent(s) is considered unable to take responsibility for the child.
In most circumstances, parents and children should be involved in making decisions about where a child goes to live and with whom. This may not be possible; however, when children require urgent protection and a ‘place of safety’ is needed. Following this kind of situation, many children will return to their family, but for some, the journey may be from parents to relatives, or a foster family; or from a foster family to an adoptive family.
Being financially well off does not prevent parents from needing help (Bullock et al., 1993) but differences associated with wider social and economic inequalities are often reflected in children's experiences away from their family of origin. The child who goes to a fee-paying boarding school, for example, is likely to encounter an educational environment that is rich in status and resources. For children living in forms of care such as local authority accommodation, outcomes can be a lot less favourable, especially in relation to their educational achievements (National Statistics, 2005). Children living away from their parental home may be safer, they may have more material possessions and they may experience loving and caring environments. Alternatively, they may experience poverty, racism, constant change, separation and loss.
Occasionally, the effects of adverse experiences children have had mean that living in a family of any sort is not appropriate for them, and they may be placed in some form of residential accommodation. In this type of setting, children need to get to know several different carers, but they have a ‘key worker’ who takes on some aspects of the parenting role with the child. The experience of residential accommodation may be particularly familiar to many children with disabilities. Children coming to the UK as unaccompanied refugees may also find themselves living in residential settings or with carer families, at least initially, particularly if they are older.
All these children share the experience of separation from familiar people, familiar places and even possessions.