There are over 70,000 children in care in England that need either fostering or adopting. They come from a variety of different ethnic and religious backgrounds and some may have disabilities or other special needs.
Most of the children have been removed from their birth families by the courts because their parents and wider families were unable to provide the care they need.
What the children all have in common is that they have had unsettled and sometimes traumatic experiences.
Why the children are in care
If you are thinking about looking after a child it is helpful to have an understanding of their past family life. Here are some of the circumstances that lead courts to make the decision that children cannot remain with their birth families. Birth families that are unable to care for their children have often faced multiple problems some of which are briefly described here.
Physical abuse: Many parents who abuse their children have had poor parenting themselves and have little idea about how to give their children good physical and emotional care. They may have poor control of their own tempers and can hit out at a child and cause injuries.
Emotional abuse: Children need sensitive care if they are to develop robust and resilient personalities. Parents who have not received nurturing care themselves as they grew up may struggle to provide such care to their children. Their children may have had a number of carers and no experience of being special to one adult. Sometimes a child can be treated differently from others in the family and humiliated for behaviour they cannot control, e.g. bed wetting. Being left without caring and regular attention can leave a child feeling worthless which is emotionally damaging.
Neglect: The neglect of children is now recognised as a major contributor to emotional harm. Neglectful parents find it hard to provide a routine for their children who often live in chaotic homes without boundaries. The children can be left alone for long periods without stimulation or regular meals and there is little protection from danger as children struggle to manage alone.
Sexual abuse: In some families sexual boundaries become blurred and children may have seen inappropriate sexual behaviour between adults or seen pornographic material which is hard for them to make sense of. Some children have felt pressurised or forced to take part in sexual activity that they cannot properly consent to because of their young age and vulnerability.
Mental health: There are parents who have ongoing mental health problems that prevent them from understanding the needs of their children because their own thinking and feelings are disturbed. Serious conditions can have an impact on how parents look after their children. If doctors and the court believe that a parent’s mental health is ongoing and will prevent good enough care of a child, it may be decided by the court that a child should grow up in a foster or adoptive family.
Learning difficulties: Significant learning difficulties can prevent a parent learning the basic skills that are needed to look after a child. When this leads to neglect and other difficulties a child may be taken into care. Sometimes there are children who have learning difficulties and may not be reaching their developmental milestones for a range of reasons. Perhaps children’s development has been affected by earlier neglect or damaged by a parent’s drug or alcohol abuse. These children need carers who can accept that there is uncertainty around their future development but will encourage and support them to reach their full potential.
Substance misuse: Drug or alcohol dependency can have serious consequences for how parents manage their lives. If the need for drugs or alcohol becomes the parents’ main focus, the children can be neglected and suffer significant harm. If a parent is dependent on drugs or alcohol during pregnancy there is concern about the potential damage to the unborn child such as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, (FASDs). These disorders include a wide range of physical, behavioural, and learning problems of varying degrees.
Attachment describes the emotional bond between the child and their parent or carer. Different patterns of attachment will develop depending on the parent’s availability and responsiveness to the baby’s or child’s signals.
Children who have had difficult early lives have often had their attachments disrupted and will have learned patterns of attachment that help them to cope in an insecure and frightening environment. If you are thinking about looking after a child in care, it will help you to understand the different attachment patterns that children can develop to protect themselves in an uncertain world.
To learn more about the importance of attachment go to First Steps which will help you think about how the less trusting patterns of attachment are formed and how to help a child become more dependent on nurturing care.