Fostering Breakdown


Ron Dare was a Consultant Educational Psychologist to the Cotswold Community in the 1970s and 1980s and he was a member of the Community’s Managing Body, a sub-committee of Wiltshire County Council’s Social Services Committee. After retiring as a Senior Educational Psychologist for Wiltshire’s Education Department, in addition to his consultancy work at the Cotswold Community, he became involved in training foster carers and this article arose from that work.

John Whitwell


Extract from Community Care, 15th March 1979

I believe that couples who foster children, especially children at a later stage of their development, can submit their families to a most exacting and possibly threatening experience. I also believe that in placing many of our children in a foster home we could be giving to such children the best possible alternative to the home they have lost. Foster homes can give our children a substitute family life, wherein could lie the best possible chance of their developing to their fullest potential.

These considerations may evoke certain feelings in social workers concerned with fostering. We may well feel a profound and understandable admiration for people prepared to put their families’ happiness in such a hazardous position. We should also be extremely grateful to people who, after all, are helping us in our work, in some cases to deal with especially difficult children. Further, they could make us feel we are giving these children the best possible environment in which they could be helped; that is, foster parents can make us feel we are doing our job particularly well.

Deeper, and less likely to be acknowledged, could be feelings of guilt on our part, guilt because in fostering we are dealing with people who are prepared to take our problems into their homes for 24 hours a day, while we are not doing this. These feelings of guilt may be quite an important factor in the breakdown of fostering.

In some areas the incidence of breakdown may be as much as 50 per cent. It was my experience of the attendant misery that made me try to examine the underlying causes of such breakdowns. It seemed to me that we were prepared to examine the needs of the children to a far greater extent than the needs of the foster families and of the social workers. These omissions seemed to be the main factors in continued breakdown.

The understandably positive feelings of the social worker towards foster parents which I have mentioned could blunt his or her faculties and, when under great pressure to place a child, could cloud his or her judgement. Foster families play a valuable part in life and all of them have positive and disinterested motives in taking children into their homes. They can also have needs which they look upon children to satisfy, and social workers must be trained and prepared to look into these deeper aspects of the fostering situation. I have, therefore, tried to look into some cases where fostering broke down, and with hindsight, to see if some of the causes of breakdown could be established. This work is difficult because each family is in some ways unique, with its own particular pattern of needs. I did, however, find two considerations which seemed to be general.

The first point emerged from group work in which I was involved with foster parents. This was a deep need on the part of foster parents that they show themselves to be good people and good parents. Underlying such expressions as “I wanted to do something worthwhile”, or “I wanted to share my home with an unfortunate child” lay a great need for reassurance from the foster child that they were doing something of value.

The situation arising from such a need, always implicit but rarely explicit, is fraught with danger. Such is the nature of many of our children, that the one thing they cannot do is to make the adults who care for them feel reassured or rewarded. As we all know many of our children need to test, reject and even punish parent figures. Nevertheless we often collude with the demands of the foster parents by examining mainly the behaviour of the difficult child. We refer such children for psychiatric help, or, under pressure, place them elsewhere. In doing so we avoid dealing with the bi-polar nature of the problem, and the foster parents, possibly through our collusion, are cushioned from having to face their own needs, when this happens no one learns from the situation and no growth takes place.

The second general point emerged in a particular pattern of needs. It occurred when one partner in a marriage had a wish to foster, either to satisfy a need in themselves, or to use the child as a means of relating to, or satisfying, the other partner. Generally, I have become suspicious of fostering where one partner of the marriage seems to have an overwhelming desire to foster.

I will try to illustrate the difficulties of judging the outcome of fostering with examples. In the first case an infant girl had been fostered to a mother who had recently lost her own child. At first, the fostering was quite happy but after some years things went badly wrong. I am sure that in the light of mother’s needs the foster child had to take over the role of her dead child. The mother was unable to bear the unendurable anguish of mourning and the fostering had in some way enabled her to by-pass the mourning process. The role which the foster child had assumed made it impossible for her to develop her own identity; under the pressure of the foster mother’s need the child had to be someone other than herself. Understandably, she became very disturbed and had to leave the foster home in order to be free to establish her own identity.

Again a wife, unable, as she put it, to present her husband with a child, undertook the fostering of a six-year-old boy. Such was the nature of the marriage that the boy had to be a worthy and acceptable gift to her husband. This meant that the expectation of goodness in the boy was extraordinarily high and when difficulties did arise, it was the mother who had to take the blame. All this presented the boy with an impossible task, in no way could he satisfy the needs of this marriage.

In another case the working out of an Oedipal situation was related to the breakdown. A girl fostered shortly after birth, was rejected by the foster mother in her fourth year. The foster father’s deep attachment to the child was intolerable to the foster mother. At the start of the marriage the wife had a need to be the dominant and the father the submissive partner. The increasing attachment of the foster father to the little girl took on the nature of a declaration of independence on his part. The reason given for the rejection – that the child must leave because she is threatening the marriage – is one with which we are all too familiar. The rejection of a foster child postpones, but generally does not prevent the breakdown of the marriage.

The last case of breakdown was quite unexpected. It occurred in a family where other children had successful long-term fostering. The going out to work of an older foster child made room for a young six-year-old boy. The lad had no mother but was deeply attached to his father who was, however, incapable of looking after him. The boy was uncertain of his father’s love but clung desperately to his fantasies about his good father and had to exonerate father completely from blame for his not living with him. One thing he could not do was to allow the foster parents to be father and mother surrogates. Seeing his foster parents as good would betray his own father. At no time was his behaviour particularly difficult, but he had to keep his inner integrity in a world that was separate from the foster home. The boy’s inability to reassure the foster parents about their value led to his sudden and traumatic exit from the family.

All these cases promised well, all the children concerned were capable of forming depth relationships, they lasted a considerable time and the breakdown was sudden and very painful for all concerned. With hindsight one may wonder why, in some of these cases, fostering was allowed at all. The people concerns were all sensitive and caring. In fact it was the advent of a child into the home which revealed the unacknowledged underlying needs of the marriage which were the rocks upon which the fostering foundered.

The initial investigation into the nature and personality of the foster parents gave one a reasonable assumption that fostering could succeed. There is an obligation on the social worker to look more deeply into the situation. One has to try to find the “hidden clauses” in the marriage, to look at what is often “the secret” in the family, and to accept that there may well be a shadowy side to the marriage.

In the cases I have mentioned the hidden, unsatisfied needs of the foster parents were the last factors to be revealed. We can fail to realise that fostering is an interaction between the needs of the child and the foster parents. We can concentrate on the former and fail to look as deeply as we should at the latter. In my opinion, the existence of the underlying needs I have mentioned was not a necessary cause of the breakdown.

There are very few marriages which do not have hidden contracts. It is the failure to discover the needs, face up to them, and to work through them before the fostering, that led to the breakdown. Many of the breakdowns I have encountered could have been avoided with deeper insight by social workers. However, the acceptance of seemingly unpalatable needs can lead to happy fostering. One foster father I met was brought up from infancy in a children’s home. He accepted the fact that if he could be paid to love and cherish “strange” children, then he could believe that those who were paid to look after him could also have loved him in his childhood. He needed to feel that chance relationships with children could be loving ones. This, what some may regard as, unlikely basis for fostering, in fact produced a good foster home, in someone really prepared to accept his own deeper needs.

Finally, I do not want to disparage the needs of foster parents for reassurance in their undertakings. I am sure that we social workers share that need, in fact it must be an important factor in our choice of profession. Our motives in seeking promotion, increased salary and greater authority may be, in fact, expression of our deeper need for reassurance about our own value and our own competence. We are also “professional” people and this implies that our motives and needs are open to scrutiny . Furthermore, we have an obligation to look to ourselves as deeply and as critically as we need to examine our clients.

We are not always going necessarily to find fully adjusted and mature people as foster parents, but we could hope to find people who are prepared to look at, accept and work through their own needs. Just as the receiving of salary is an important factor in our self-esteem, so could the payment of an adequate allowance be, in the case of foster parents. It is conceivable that the payment of an adequate salary could give foster parents the reassurance that they had hitherto looked for in the children they foster. This could ease the intensity of the expectation laid upon the children, and so reduce the hazards of the undertaking. Furthermore, the payment of salary could justify our expectation of the professional acceptance, on the part of prospective foster parents, of an in depth investigation of their motives and needs, and an obligation through group or individual discussion to work through such needs where they seem to indicate areas of difficulty.

This, of course, places upon us the obligation to look in sufficient depth at foster parents and to be able to help them to accept a deep level of self awareness. I think the acceptance of these ideas and of the professional nature of fostering is the only way in which we can hope to minimise the hazards and pain of these situations.