Children are fostered when their biological family is unable to take care of them due to various reasons. However, fostering is not adoption and should not be taken to mean that it is the first step towards adoption.
There can be cases when, through fostering, the foster parents can eventually adopt the child but the aim behind fostering is simply not that. Children are fostered if it is in their best interests, that is, they are fostered for their own benefits and not for the benefit of the foster parents.
The foster parents are temporary carers and the child will be returned to the natural parents once the natural parents are fully capable of taking care of the child.
However, that point might be difficult to overcome and it is understandable because a bond would have formed between the carers and the child.
One has to keep constantly in mind that the ultimate aim in fostering is not to integrate with the foster family and become part of that family, but to be taken care of by the foster family until the biological mother is able to take care of the child by herself.
A family environment is far better than an institutional one and that is why fostering is a very important tool to be used in giving such children a family environment.
For children to be adopted, the natural parents must normally give their consent, even though there are circumstances when such consent can be waived.
Not all parents who might not be fully capable of taking care of their children during a particular phase in their lives would want to give their children up for adoption. Therefore, fostering is an alternative option for the children not to sever the legal ties with their biological parents while, at the same time, being brought up in a familial environment that is more conducive to the child’s stability and growing up.
Children should not be put in foster care without first ascertaining that the child’s family is truly unable to take care of the child.
Foster care is intended to help the child in question and only if the environment at home is not conducive to the child’s upbringing should he be put up for fostering.
Unlike adoption (excluding open adoption), in foster care the ties with the biological family are not to be severed and this is because the nature of fostering is temporary and it serves the purpose to help the biological family to put their house in order, so to speak, while providing a family environment to the child.
Contact with the biological mother is encouraged so that the ties between mother and child are not abandoned. In fact, a foster care agreement is drawn up so that the rights of the child are truly safeguarded.
Such a plan will cater for the foster parents’ decision-making powers, the visits between the child and his biological parents, the child’s care plan, matters regarding health, maintenance and education and any other ancillary matters to foster care.
Therefore, since at the heart of fostering is family reunification, then it is preferable that fostering would be as short as possible so that the child will not succumb to the rotation trauma.
However, a child cannot be returned to his family of origin if it is not in his best interests.
Therefore, a delicate balance must be found wherein the trauma must be limited while helping the biological family to take care of the child by themselves and, at the same time, providing the child with a family-based environment through fostering.
Fostering should not be seen as a stepping stone for adoption because that would go against the original rationale of fostering, that is, family reunification. Therefore, ties with the biological family are to be maintained as much as possible, such that the eventual transition back to the family of origin would be easier.
The role of the foster carer is not simply a ‘charity act’ but a professional role with the aim of facilitating reunification. In fact, “... they are increasingly expected to play a more professional role and to participate in the management of the case, working in partnership with social workers...” (Harriet Ward and Emily R. Munro, Very Young Children In Care In England: Issues For Foster Care, Elizabeth Fernandez and Richard P. Barth (eds), How Does Foster Care Work, International Evidence On Outcomes, Child Welfare Outcomes, London, 2010, p.138).
Not anyone can be a foster parent but whoever wants to foster a child must undergo training to determine the suitability or otherwise of the applicants. This and the continuous training and support strengthen the position that foster parents are there to help children in need to be brought up within a familial environment, away from an institutional setting, until the family of origin is able to fully take care of the child.
Dr Mangion is a lawyer and a published author with a special interest in family and child law.