Gillian Schofield is Professor of Child and Family Social Work and Co-Director of the Centre for Research on the Child and Family at the University of East Anglia, UK, where Emma Ward is a Senior Research Associate.

Here, they answer some questions about their research and new book, Understanding and Working with Parents of Children in Long-Term Foster Care.

This book fills a research gap about the experiences of parents of children in long-term foster care. What accounts for this gap, and why did you write this book?

The gap in research on parents of children in foster care is in part because parents are often more difficult to reach and to interview, but also perhaps because research and research funding has tended to focus on the welfare of foster children. It may also be assumed that all parents would be sad and angry and so nothing new would be gained.

We undertook the research (funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – ESRC) and wrote the book because we felt that not only were parents entitled to have their experiences and views heard, but that better practice with parents would help them to recover from their sense of loss and act in the interests of their childen by supporting the placement. In the long run, therefore, parents, children and foster carers would benefit from good social work practice with parents.

Tell us about the process of interviewing parents. How did you prepare for them?

Preparing for the interviews with parents who may have been separated from their children for some years often meant first building some trust between the parent and the researcher over the mobile phone. During the interview it was not unusual for parents to cry when they talked about the events that preceded the children coming into care. As the book describes, parents had often suffered abuse in their own childhood and then suffered from domestic violence, drug and alcohol problems as adults and while parenting their children. They often had regrets about what had happened, but most still hoped to be able to be a good parent to their child, even if this was through contact visits. Interviews were very moving, both in terms of the parents’ distress but also their hope.

What common themes came out of your interviews with parents? From your interviews with social workers?

With parents , the most powerful theme was that of managing loss over a number of years of knowing that their children were being brought up in another family. There was always a fear of losing the identity and role of parent completely. Parents felt that, with a few exceptions, social workers did not and could not understand what it was like for them as parents of children growing up in care. There was stigma to bear as well as the emotional loss. In contrast, social workers talked of being aware of the parents’ distress and loss, but often not having the time to see parents, because they were focussing on work with and for the child, or simply not knowing how to help parents.

What were some important or surprising lessons learned from these interviews?

The most important message was that there was wide range of experiences – parents were very different in how they felt about their situation. It was perhaps surprising to find that some parents who had been very angry when children were removed had come to appreciate over the years that children were doing well, in their behaviour and in their education.

What was important was that some parents did make big changes in their lives – coming off drugs, recovering from mental illness or choosing a stable partner and having a new family. This did not mean the child should go home, but that parents could be more actively involved and supportive of the child and the placement.

What are some important implications of this research for developing good social work practice?

Certainly more attention needs to be paid to how parents can be helped to overcome their powerful feelings of loss and be able to contribute what they can more positively to the lives of their children in foster care. It seemed important to be aware of parents’ worrying histories, but to allow for the possibility that people may have the capacity to change. This meant thinking about how parents were kept in touch with their children’s lives by getting good information.

One area for action would be to see whether more foster carers would be willing to speak to and, from time to time, meet the parents. In those cases where parents received even occasional phone calls from foster carers or felt they could ring the foster carer, they felt remarkably included in the foster family’s life and less distanced and despairing. They were better able to trust the carers to look after their children.

Also, children undoubtedly need more help to manage their contact arrangements; it was clear from the parents’ accounts that contact remains difficult in most cases. If as researchers we found the interviews at times distressing, how much more complicated must a child’s feelings be after each contact or whenever they thought of their parents.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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