Around the world, the number of children growing up in foster families is increasing. Nevertheless, we know very little about how foster children feel. Their voices are hardly ever heard. Hans Grietens, professor of Remedial Education, is calling for more research from the perspective of the foster children. Ethics should form the basis of the research. ‘Our goal must be to really help foster children.’
Many people are involved in the process of placing a child in foster care: the biological parents, the foster parents and any children they may have, the juvenile court judge, a family supervisor, etc. ‘Nearly all those voices are heard during research projects. The aim is always to discover how the child is getting on, what it needs, and how we can best help him or her. However, the children themselves are hardly ever given a chance to speak.’
In the literature in particular, the voices of foster children are virtually inaudible. ‘Despite them being the ones with the most direct view of what’s happening. You learn much more about foster care by simply asking the children.’ In addition, Grietens feels that it is of the utmost importance that researchers think deeply about their ethical approach.
Grietens: ‘No-one will deny that the voices of foster children are relevant. But what are we going to do with all those stories? Researchers must take all kinds of vulnerabilities and possibilities into account. Of course some children will find it confrontational, but you simply cannot avoid it if you want to improve their situation. You should also always ask yourself how exactly to interpret the children’s stories. The children own their own stories, but our problem is how best to explain them to the outside world.’
According to Grietens, the starting point for the ethical issue is openness. ‘By being open towards all parties, we can ensure that all arguments against joining in have the wind taken out of their sails. Unfortunately, a lot of research grinds to a halt at the ‘gatekeeper’ point. Many studies have a high non-response rate because professionals are against the research.’ To a certain degree that’s understandable, thinks Grietens. ‘Family supervisors are often overworked, or don’t consider the child the right person to participate. I’d like the child to be given the chance to make that judgement. Let the foster child decide whether or not it wants to cooperate.’
Grietens has analysed the results of a few studies where children were able to contribute. ‘They raised a lot of themes that are only rarely encountered in foster care literature. One is the “loss of hope” theme. These children are struggling with loss and going through a sort of mourning process. At the same time they see that things are changing and they still have hope for the future. What is not yet known is how the care practice is dealing with this.’
Uncertainty is another important issue for many foster children. ‘A foster family always has something conditional about it. What will happen once I turn eighteen? Will my foster parents still care for me, or how long will my foster family still like me? These are just a few of the uncertainties that many foster children have to deal with.’ Grietens is strongly in favour of letting the foster children themselves talk about these issues. ‘Add to this a lot of pessimism and the fact that youth care is often painted in a very negative way. Nevertheless a high proportion of foster children have very positive experiences with youth care, and I think that that’s extremely relevant.’
‘The ideal ethical research is a utopian dream’, Grietens realizes. Nevertheless, he’s convinced that a good methodology will develop by paying more attention to the foster child and the ethical issues. ‘Research within remedial education should be aimed at breaking the silence surrounding vulnerable foster children. It is a privilege that researchers in our field are permitted to approach this vulnerable group. However, our goal must always be to really help them. There must be more to our research than mere scores and a nice publication to your name. More than in many other research fields, we have to attempt to lay something bare that will really mean something for foster children, even if it’s only something small.’
Hans Grietens (1965, Louvain) studied clinical child psychology and developmental psychology at the University of Louvain. In 1999 he was awarded a PhD in psychology, pedagogy and social sciences by the University of Groningen. In 2010 he became professor of remedial education at the same university. His research concentrates in particular on young children in youth care and foster care.
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