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The foster parent's own children are often not a priority for the social services if conflicts arise with the foster children, says associate professor Cecilie Revheim at UiA.

Foster parents' own children are the forgotten children in child welfare services

Foster parents’ own children also need support from social workers if conflicts arise. This is of great importance for foster placement success.

When a child is placed in a foster home, the children quite quickly form a bond like siblings, for better or worse. The family’s own children take the task of getting a new sibling very seriously and commit themselves to the relationship. When a mutual warm relationship evolves, the children in the family are a great resource in the foster care situation.

But when the relationship does not develop as expected, everyday life can become difficult for the family’s own children. This may be due to anything from aggression to bullying and rejection.

“What hurts the most is when the foster child does not accept affection or the sibling relationship. The fact that children in foster care can reject the new family is a known problem, but there has been less focus on how that affects the other children in the family.”

This is stated by Cecilie Revheim, associate professor at the Department of Sociology and Social Work at the University of Agder (UiA). She recently defended her PhD dissertation Hva med oss andre som bor her? Profesjonsetiske utfordringer i møte med fosterforeldrenes egne barn - ‘What about us who live here? Professional ethical challenges in dealing with foster carers’ own children’.

The dissertation provides insight into the foster family’s inner life, from the perspective of the foster parents’ own children.

Not mentioned in the Child Welfare Act

Cecilie Revheim is associate professor at the Department of sociology and social work at the University of Agder.

The life situation of children who grow up in families who adopt foster children is a topic that has not been extensively researched in Norway. Revheim has reviewed the sparse studies conducted over the past 40 years in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

"The picture presented is that there is a group of children who are affected by having foster siblings, but who do not receive much support from the child welfare services," says Revheim.

To some extent, this is natural. The social worker's primary responsibility is to the child in placement, and Revheim says that the professional gaze is directed towards meeting statutory duties.

“Foster parents’ own children are not mentioned in the Child Welfare Act. They are part of the foster home and live in their own home with their own parents”, she says.

In Norway, children have strong rights through the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and Article 104 of the Constitution, which gives children the right to be heard in questions that concern them. “For actions and decisions that affect children, the best interests of the child shall be a fundamental consideration,” the law states.

“One can argue that these rights are not currently honoured, since child welfare social workers do not talk sufficiently with the foster carers' children about what they need help with”, says Revheim.

Recognition is important

Revheim’s research is based on the German social philosopher Axel Honneth's theory of recognition, stressing the importance of being recognised.

“Mutual recognition means that you care for each other and can tolerate a lot. Recognition among the children is essential for getting through difficult periods, but it is equally important that the foster family's own children be recognised by professionals. It is important for the child welfare social worker to see and acknowledge the efforts they are making”, says Revheim.

She describes several instances where much is solved when the social worker takes an active role towards the foster carers’ children, by having good conversations and providing conflict management guidance. But she also cites examples where the social worker never talked to these children.

“When the social worker focuses on the family as a whole and sees the foster family's own children as next of kin, it becomes easier to resolve conflicts and work on the relationships within the family”, she says.

Guidelines wanted

Child welfare services cope with limited resources, and many social workers have too many children on their caseload. Lack of time and resources means that many social workers only focus on statutory tasks.

In 2015-16, a parliamentary report was issued saying that the foster parents' own children should receive support, and that it is the responsibility of the municipalities and Bufetat (the Norwegian Directorate for Children, Youth and Family Affairs). But it does not specify what this support should consist of, according to Revheim.

“Laws and guidelines do not in themselves guarantee children's rights. Foster parents' own children depend on adults informing and involving them in what is happening, giving them the support and help they need”, says Revheim.

About the study

  • Cecilie Revheim interviewed ten children of foster parents aged 8-21. She met the children three times for interviews.
  • She also participated in courses for foster parents, interviewed a focus group of foster parents and conducted a systematic literature review.
  • Revheim’s research fellowship was part of the INNOS project (Innovation and Service Development through evolving Forms of Collaboration) funded by the Research Council of Norway through the PraksisVel programme for the period 2013-16.
  • The overall goal of the project is to increase knowledge of new collaborative relationships in the welfare field and to gain a better grasp of the conditions for developing knowledge-based and better services.

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