'Everything was strange and different': young adults' recollections of the transition into foster care.

Author:Reimer, Daniela

When children enter a foster family they face a new family culture. At the University of Siegen, Germany, Daniela Reimer and her colleagues analysed biographies of young adults who had spent some of their lives in foster care. Their aim was to explore how children overcome these cultural changes and the approaches that help them cope. This article highlights the manifestations of cultural tensions which, although seemingly trivial to adults, are extremely important for children. It is suggested that this perspective complements other significant factors associated with the success of foster placements.

It is self-evident that the process of growing up necessitates a number of transitions and, inevitably, these have a considerable impact on children's biographies (van Gennep, 2005). Much of the research on the life paths of young people has either focused on charting children's biographies (Sackmann and Wingens, 2001) or on normative transitions, such as that from adolescence to adulthood (Stauber et al, 2007). But in addition to normative transitions involving everyone, some children experience changes that are exceptional and a child entering foster care offers such an example. Going to live with a new family is one of the most radical transitions a child can experience, as it usually entails entering a strange world with unknown habits and conventions, and demands considerable efforts to cope successfully (Schofield et al, 2000).

Despite expectations of high professional standards, German foster care displays the similarly high level of discontinuity in children's lives that has been found in other countries. Many children experience several family placements during their stay in care. Twenty-five years ago, data gathered for a study of children placed in institutional settings who had already spent some time in foster families revealed this unsatisfactory situation to a shocked audience. The 650 children scrutinised had been in an average of 4.7 previous placements, 15 per cent having experienced five or more (Heun, 1984). This instability has continued and it is estimated that, currently, some 30 per cent of foster placements in Germany end prematurely (Blandow, 2004, p 146ff).

While any change of living situation is disruptive enough, transitions associated with admissions to foster care differ from normative ones by their tendency to be rapid and unprepared. They are characterised by the need for the child to cope with a plethora of new and strange things in a very short period of time. Often, also contrary to established good practice, the children in Germany seem to have limited opportunity to participate in the decisions that so radically affect their lives (Reimer and Wolf, 2009).

Until recently, transitions of foster children in Germany were mostly studied using perspectives derived from attachment theory. This, in combination with psychoanalytical knowledge, formed the basis of most professional training and practice guidance (Nienstedt and Westermann, 1999, pp 791-98). While these theories probably offer a better explanation of placement breakdowns and coping mechanisms than questions of culture on their own, it is now recognised that they do not constitute the only appropriate approach.

Growing up in foster care--from the children's perspective

In the Growing up in Foster Care research project at the University of Siegen, we did not originally plan to study transitions into foster care (Wolf and Reimer, 2008; Reimer and Wolf, 2009; Wolf, 2009). Rather, it emerged as an issue in the context of a broader study designed to explore the life courses of foster children. For this, we conducted biographical interviews with 15 young adults who had been in foster care and analysed them using methods appropriate for qualitative data.

The participants were aged 18 to 33 when interviewed and had been between two and 16 when first fostered. Their length of stay varied from several months to virtually their whole childhood but, with one exception, all had lived in foster care until the age of 18. Many then continued to live with the same family under a voluntary arrangement.

It was found that concepts derived from resilience research were especially fruitful for understanding the children's situations and a model of liabilities and resources was developed (Wolf, 2007). This echoes the 'risk and protective factors' perspective, developed over the past two decades in the US and UK for understanding child development, and includes aspects of the socio-pedagogical tradition in Europe that focuses on the relationship between the developmental tasks facing children and the resources they need to cope with them. The former foster children we interviewed frequently mentioned the factors that influenced the ways they coped with developmental tasks and the stamina needed to overcome problems such as poverty, violence, neglect, discontinuity, fractured relationships and geographical mobility.

When children's coping skills were further explored, many interviewees impressed us with their creativity in the face of difficult situations. This was especially the case when children harnessed the necessary resources from their social environment and were able to develop personal strengths through an accumulation of positive experiences. However, it also became clear that the outlook for children was especially bleak when adjustment difficulties and developmental tasks were compounded by a lack of resources.

This interest led us to consider further the particular resources that help children get along better. In this exploration, it became clear that the transition into a foster family played a major role in children's lives, with successful or failed adaptations or a lack of resilience having serious consequences for subsequent life routes. Therefore, in a complementary study, we looked more closely at how children experience the transition into a new, and in most cases strange, family.

The foster child's transition into a foster family--a cultural change

'I didn't understand at all.' We heard numerous versions of this statement in the interviews when former foster children recalled their arrival in their new families. As will be described later, they encountered a range of strange situations: from brushing teeth and eating together at a table, to the tendency for foster carers to show a keen interest in their personal and daily life.

To understand this experience of 'foreignness', we employed two concepts to aid further analysis: 'family' and 'culture'. Initially, they will be considered separately, then combined to form a concept of 'family cultures' which, we believe, improves our understanding of the feelings of 'foreignness' described so vividly by the young people.

While it is generally accepted that all families are characterised by spatiotemporal differentiation, privacy, continuity and proximity (Lenz and Bohnisch, 1999; Schneewind, 1999), the birth families of those interviewed were also marked by distinctive intergenerational relationships. During the course of their lives, adults affiliate to at least two different families: their birth family up to adolescence and their own family during adulthood. When people discuss their life...

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