Louise Hughes is one of our Story of Care Ambassadors. This is the fourth in a series of blogs exploring her experience of care. The first one is about being a sibling in care. The second one is about being a Christian in care. The third one is about education and care.

The care system is often viewed as dysfunctional and chaotic. Children and young people in foster care are often subjected to stigma due to them being in care and not living with their birth parents. This is certainly true for me.

People often believe that children and young people come into care because of something they (the child) did but in reality that’s far from the truth! 

In the journal “Keeping secrets: how children in foster care manage stigma”, Dansey et al define stigma as:

Stigma is a social process involving identifying and discriminating against a person or group based upon perception of difference.*

When I first came into care, I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want to. It was different, and it made me different. I’d started a school year half way through so already I was an outsider. It was when I was at secondary school that I began to tell people – mainly because my sisters started telling people.

One of the reasons I didn’t tell anyone was because of the fear of bullying. I was bullied anyway, but not about being in care. This fear isn’t unique to me. In their research, Dansey et al say that “themes of bullying, stigma and secrecy [are]  part of the dominant narrative”. But why should children in care and care leavers be scared of their label?

If you read my Education blog you’ll have seen that I was the Children In Care Keyworker at a secondary school. I made it a part of my job to challenge the stigma that these young people face. One of my young people was very open about her care status; one not so much. They both initially saw being in care as a negative and I wanted to find out why.

It was due to the stigma of being in care. 

Dansey et al also say that children in care want to be seen as ‘normal’ – we are normal! We’re not some alien race coming to probe everyone on Earth. We’re just people who have had serious misfortune happen to us meaning we’ve had to be placed into care.

‘Stigma needs to be addressed on multiple levels in order to support the development of healthy and positive sense of identity and self-esteem for children in foster care.’**

Children in care need to be able to build positive relationships with those around us. If teachers, mentors, and therapists already see these children as ‘problematic’ then they’re not going to be open or build relationships.

My young people felt able to build a positive relationship with me as I was open about my time in care too (making sure not to break any professional boundaries). Because of this, they knew they could be open and tell me things that needed to be shared with education staff, social services and foster carers. If we can “enhance(ing) empathy and understanding of diversity within schools and other groups” this may increase support and acceptance for children and young people in care.

I want to finish with a question: what can YOU do to challenge the stigma of children and young people in care and care leavers?

* Dansey, D. Shebero, D. John, M. (2019). Keeping secrets: how children in foster care manage stigma. Adoption & Fostering. 43 (1), 35-45
**Dansey et al: 2019, 39