I’ve worked in this sector for approximately 13 years and seen tens of thousands of referrals for children which either whirl their way through the internet to my office or arrive following a frantic phone call to my team. One thing that I can’t fail to notice is how a label can have a profound effect on the opportunities of placements for a child, most often for the children who have the greatest need of a strong, supportive and loving home.
It is considerable how many times I have heard the words; “Oh no, I couldn’t take a child with a disability.” The foster carers are not being horrible and they do not intend to exclude for no good reason, but this is a reflection of an issue that exists in the fostering sector.
We have talked recently about stigma and labels. There is a definite stigma about a child labelled as disabled and yet the label ‘disability’ is so broad it offers no real measure of what a child is like. Those that have little experience of disability likely hold an innate prejudice. If we look at one definition of prejudice it is “any preconceived opinion or feeling either favourable or unfavourable”. Prejudice does not have to be exercised with any negative intent for it to exist. This is not an attack on foster carers, because my experience of foster carers in general is simply a reflection of our society at large. Either through lack of exposure or lack of interest, the majority of us are not in a position to understand what disability represents in its broadest sense let alone the many sub categories. And what happens when we do not understand something? We fear it, we distrust it and we feel uncomfortable.
Of course, there are hundreds of specialist disability foster carers in the UK and probably thousands who, although not specialist, are able and willing to consider a child with some form of disability if the match is right. It goes without saying that a child with a disability, like any child, may not be a match for a foster family. The specific needs may not meet with the foster carer’s skills or their family make up. However, the next child with a disability may have completely different needs, which given time, training and a willingness to understand could be a perfect match. I have known foster carers to say how positive it was for their own children and other foster children to have a child with a disability placed in their home. It had helped them learn about compassion, perhaps a little perspective, and without doubt they will have lost their fear of the label ‘disabled’.
If I were to guess I would say perhaps 70% of the foster carers in the UK would say no to caring for a child with a disability. The bottom line is that those children who have fewer families willing to care for them have less chance of their long term needs being met. As someone with experience of working with disabled children I know that probably 60% of all foster carers have the ability to meet some level of disability needs once they fully understand what those needs are. Sadly, children with disabilities often need to utilise residential accommodation for respite and even long term care, or end up having to move long distances from their support network in order to be placed with an appropriate family. To me this just seems unfair and at times unnecessary. So if you are someone thinking about fostering, take time to think about a child with additional needs, and if you are a foster carer who has a vacancy, when the next referral comes in and the word disability crops up, take time to consider what that specific disability really means. You just might be the perfect family for that child after all.