“Over the next 10 months, Jake and his brother were moved 11 times, sometimes in short succession.” This quote is from a report issues by the Saskatchewan Advocate, Bob Pringle. The report details the events that occurred to Jake prior to his death. In taking a child into care, we enter into a bargain with them that care will be better. As the report notes, Jake was a vulnerable child.
Our investigation found that Jake was vulnerable in many ways due to his young age, the challenges presented by his parents, his inability to talk along with suspected delays in other areas, and his 11 placements during his 19 months in care. (p.5)
This is a serious challenge for a child. Coming from dysfunction, systemically Jake was placed in a form of systemic dysfunction but with strangers. Pringle also notes that the role of child protection when a child is in care is to act as a parent so they should do that – which can be tough when the parent is a system that cannot offer stability in placement and relationships. Children can pay a price for that.
Child protection did not prioritize Jake’s developmental health in the management of his case, as they should have when acting as his parent. As a result, many opportunities to address his suspected developmental delays were missed. (p.5)
It is not that others were unconcerned, as the report notes that several other professionals had raised their worries for Jake. As the report title suggests, Jake got lost in the system.
I pondered the issues of foster care as well when I saw the story of Detective Jack Mook. He is a Pittsburgh police officer who found two boys living in foster care in what is described as horridly deficient conditions. His story is reported by the Huffington Post. However, this is a story of a system that appears to have lost sight of two boys who ought not to have been living in the home. It appears not to have been a fit place for them. Fortunately, this story has a happier chapter now being written.
Fostering got a further bad rap as a Calgary foster parent was convicted of sexual assaults of several children in his care over a period of years. The Calgary Herald reports that the abuse seems to have gone on for about 9 years.
Yet, fostering is tough work typically done by highly dedicated people who seek to offer temporary or longer term care to children who cannot be with their families. Research recently published by Thompson, McPherson & Marsland remind us that there is a cost, particularly for family who have their own biological children in the home. Relationship change as a result of the foster children. These researchers note that biological children place importance in their position within the family (e.g. oldest, youngest). This forms part of how they relate to their parents. This positional security can be disrupted with foster children also present. Foster children also bring competition for parental resources – a competition that biological children must enter.
Foster parents and their children need support. As the story of Jake illustrates, children coming into foster care arrive often with significant challenges that can place a great deal of demands on the whole of the family system. The biological relationships still need nurturing while creating room for the foster children to be part of the family.
As children come into care we offer them a bargain that this will be better. We have a real obligation to honour the bargain. But we also have an obligation to effectively support foster parents and their biological children.
Thompson H, McPherson S, Marsland L (2014) “Am I damaging my own family?”: relational changes between foster carers and their birth children, Child Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry. OnlineFirst doi:10.1177/1359104514554310
Dr. Peter Choate is a Registered Social Worker and Member of the Clinical Registry and Approved Clinical Supervisor for the Alberta College of Registered Social Workers. He is an Assistant Professor at Mount Royal University in the Faculty of Social Work and Disability Studies and a Professional Development Instructor at the University of Calgary. His particular emphasis is on parenting capacity as well child and adolescent mental health including maltreatment, neglect and abuse (physical, sexual, emotional) and these issues within family systems.