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Don't deny children in the care system their pasts

Social worker Selina Anderson looks at some of the lessons from her experience growing up in care

Selina Anderson (social worker)
Selina Anderson

Aged five, I had my first experience of a social worker. My mum suffered an emotional breakdown and struggled to maintain her mental health, which never really improved. My siblings and I were fostered, where I remained until I went to university.

When I was younger, a job with “social services” was not on the horizon. For many who have lived experiences of the system, the idea of working within it can evoke emotions that you might not want to re-visit every day.

There was a great deal of stigma surrounding my mum’s mental health within the community. One man who heard the gossip of what had happened told me that my mum had turned “stupid”. 

In 2008, I began to work alongside social workers in a virtual school for children in care. Shortly after, I gave a talk about long-term permanency planning. A member of the audience said I had made her re-think planning on a family she was working with.

Three years later, I began my Masters degree in social work. Since then, I have had the privilege of championing the voice of children and young people in care nationally and now as a fostering social worker.

In this role I often reflect back on what enabled me to become a confident and resilient person despite the adversity I experienced. There were a number of factors that had a huge impact on how I viewed the world and promoted my self-esteem. 

My siblings were good role models – my older sister was supportive, she went to university and I followed in her footsteps. I lived locally, so I retained my friendships and school. I was able to see my mother regularly and the foster family I lived in promoted my cultural identity.

Before qualifying, I had worked with children and young people in care in a variety of settings. Nothing could ever prepare me for some of their lived experiences and many were not afforded the same opportunities I was. 

Some children lose everything familiar to them when they come into care. At times professionals can have a real lack of understanding of just how much of an affect this can have on their behaviour. 

As strong willed and confident as I am, there’s no question that I still have inner doubts as an adult. 

Recently, I was surprised when an uncle mentioned how proud he was of me. Rather than feeling overwhelmed with happiness, I was conflicted. In my own mind I wished my dad had felt the same or could verbalise his love for me. 

Over the past couple of years, I have noticed that the needs of children in care are becoming more complex and that we are searching now for residential units for children younger than ten. 

Last year, 1,890 children in care were living in secure units, children’s homes or hostels. We need to look creatively at finding ways to be able to provide for and nuture children with a family wrapped around the residential aspect.

In order to help children overcome these emotional barriers, we need to talk more honestly about the conflict they will naturally feel and not deem it to be something that is going ‘wrong’ when this does happen. 

There were plenty of times when I challenged and tested boundaries and said things that I did not mean. For instance, I remember on more than one occasion saying to my foster carer that “you are not my mum”, and the feeling of guilt afterwards.

All children need a safe space to be able to express their ambivalence without feeling as though this is a concern or taken out of context. 

The bond between children and parents is so strong (I never called anyone else mum but some children do).

When a child is placed within a family they will feel a sense of displacement so they might say things that they do not mean. When a child is acting out, it is useful to consider the reason behind the behaviour first before making any assumptions or labelling them. 

It is not necessarily a bad thing if they are showing emotions, as no child can be happy all the time. 

Lastly, all professionals need to get better at feeling confident to talk to children about their past while in care, with the support of others around them.

Selina Anderson is a specialist fostering social worker

This article appeared in the July/August issue of Professional Social Work. Subscribers and BASW members can access the full magazine including our investigation revealing a slump in demand for MA social work courses at English universities, dispatches from social workers based in very different parts in the UK, a practitioner’s top tips for surviving in social work, and a US social worker’s take on life in Trump’s America.