Understanding a foster child's cultural heritage


Understanding a foster child’s cultural heritage: advice from a social worker

Author: Jamie McCreghan  On: Nov 1, 2022  In: Advice for Carers
Understanding a foster child's cultural heritage

London is a large and wonderfully diverse community, made up of people from different cultures, ethnicities, backgrounds, cultural heritage, religious beliefs and practices.

So, it’s not only quite possible, but quite likely, that if you’re a foster carer in this beautiful tangle of a city, you might well find yourself looking after a young person who comes from a different background to you.

It’s something we’ve been thinking about at Lika recently, as people around the UK mark Black History Month.

In this article, we take a closer look at how foster carers who come from a different background to the young person they’re caring for can thoughtfully engage with and celebrate their young person’s heritage — whatever that heritage might be!

Your guide for this conversation about cultural heritage, identity and foster care will be Lika’s Supervising Social Worker, Sasha Dickson. She’ll provide some specific advice later in this article but, first, let’s get some context.

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cultural heritage
As young people get older, they become more accountable for their behaviours.

Foster care, cultural heritage, ethnicity and religion

Before we get started, if you’re new to foster care or you’re thinking about becoming a foster carer, you might be wondering how cultural and religious differences in foster care are handled by foster care agencies like Lika when making a placement.

We have another really useful article that covers everything you need to know. That might be a good place to start, if you want to know answers to questions like:

  • Could my religious or cultural background stop me becoming a foster carer?
  • Will you match me with a foster child from the same background as me?
  • What if I only want to foster a young person from the same background as me?
  • How does fostering a young person from a different background work in practice?
  • Will you give me training to look after a young person from a background I’m unfamiliar with?

The backgrounds of young people in foster care in the UK

As a Supervising Social Worker, Sasha spends a lot of time talking to foster carers and young people, supporting them in their placements.

“Foster carers may not be aware that there is a disproportionate number of children of colour in the foster care system,” she said.

In fact, UK Government data shows black children are more likely to be in care (seven per cent) compared with their share of the under-18-year-old population (five per cent). By way of comparison, white children were less likely to be looked after (74 per cent) compared to their overall share of the population (79 per cent). (By the way, those terms — “black” and “white” — are aggregated ethnic groups, as used by the UK Government. As you’ll see in a moment, in reality, the picture is much more complex than that.)

Of all the young people who are in care in the UK, 39 per cent are aged 10 to 15 years old.

“That’s quite an important age for children of colour to be in the care system,” she said. “As young people get older, they become more accountable for their behaviours. Adolescents and children of colour are at a higher risk of exclusion (from school), for example. They’re also disproportionately stopped and searched (by police).

“For me, being a Supervising Social Worker, it’s important to bring those issues to life for foster carers, so that they’re aware of these things and how sometimes behaviour can be misunderstood or misrepresented. Particularly for our most vulnerable and children in in the care system”

We’ll come back to these kinds of situations and how to handle them a little bit later.

Misunderstandings, stereotypes, prejudices and ideas of “black” culture

Let’s turn, briefly, to the idea of “blackness”. From the terms used by the UK Government to the very name meant to celebrate black heritage, “Black History Month”, we’re constantly given the impression that being “black” is a singular, monolith identity. It’s far from it.

There are myriad ethnic, racial, cultural, national and religious differences that make up all of those broad groups used in the UK Government data we mentioned above. “Black” is really no more instructive as a term than “white” or “Asian”.

foster kids talking
There are myriad ethnic, racial, cultural, national and religious differences within London’s black communities.

Here’s how Sasha explained it, using just one small example from her own family heritage.

“I could be Black Caribbean Jamaican, but Black Caribbean from Saint Kitts and Nevis, we have a different culture,” Sasha said. “So, it’s about not making those assumptions. You could be thinking all Caribbean people are the same. We are not.”

Cultural heritage and identity for young people in foster care

That matters, Sasha said, because young people are still forming their identity; they’re still working out who they are and where they fit in the world.

That means foster carers have a really key role to play in helping their young people discover their cultural  heritage. That job goes well beyond making sure you get your young person the right products for their hair, or even beyond ensuring they have a mentor.

“It’s about how you are educating that child to have a sound awareness of who they are, what makes up their own identity,” Sasha said.

“It’s about exploring and educating yourself as a foster carer and gradually feeding that to the young person. You share it with them, and they’ll take what information they think is going to be the most relevant or what will stick with them, and the rest of it might be used later on in life.”

young foster children
Little things help build up a child’s narrative about their identity.

What might that look like in practice? Again, Sasha shares an example from her own life.

“I remember when I was a kid, I did not like ackee and saltfish — and I’m Jamaican! My mum explained to me, ‘Do you know that this is our national dish?’, I was like, ‘Really?’ And then, for some reason, I began to like it. “I have grown to really enjoy and have a love for Caribbean food – as well as Ackee and Salt Fish!”.  “I’m not saying that’s for everybody, but it’s those little things that help build a child’s narrative about their identity.

“I’m not saying that’s for everybody, but it’s those little things that help build a child’s narrative about their identity.

“With young people in foster care, obviously they’re living away from home, so just feeding them little bits of their own culture, that helps them feel connected.”

Looking after young people from different backgrounds

Clearly, there is a lot to think about when fostering a young person from a cultural, racial, ethnic or other diverse background that is different from your own.

Hopefully, this should feel less like a challenge than it does a wonderful opportunity for learning, discovery and celebration.

So, what advice does Sasha, from the perspective of a Supervising Social Worker, have for foster carers looking after young people from a cultural, ethnical or racial background that is different from their own?

foster kids writing
Educate yourself on your young person’s background and heritage.

Educate yourself

“We’re talking about carers actively taking responsibility around educating themselves around a child’s history and heritage and sharing this information with the young people they’re caring for,” she said.

“Doing some independent learning around that child’s particular heritage and where their parents are from. Talking about the stories they have read, to help educate and develop a sound knowledge and understanding about that child’s cultural heritage.”

Sasha suggested starting a conversation around the dinner table, with something as simple as, “Guess what I found out today?”

Be mindful

Secondly, Sasha suggested foster carers be mindful of prejudices, stereotypes and preconceived ideas.

“Just being mindful of your own feelings and how you are reacting to what your young person is saying,” she said. “It’s just being aware of yourself. We call that self-reflexivity, being aware of yourself, and how it is that you may possibly be feeding into a stereotype of that child based on your own experience.”

black foster child
Foster carers should aim to have a good relationship with their young person’s school.

Similarly, Sasha recommends every foster carer has a good relationship with the young person’s school, where there could also be an environment where stereotyping or profiling is causing unfairness, challenges or difficulties. Having that good relationship with the school helps you advocate for your young person more effectively.

Have the hard conversations

Earlier, Sasha mentioned some of the situations young people of colour are statistically more likely to experience than their peers, like being excluded from school or stopped and searched by the police.

Sasha said it was important to make sure young people in foster care (from any background) were aware of their rights.

“Help them with the tools they need in those situations,” she said. “What are their rights? What can they do? When you don’t know your rights, you’re at a disadvantage from the beginning. I think we need to be having those conversations quite early on. The best way to go about that is to have the conversation before we have a problem happen.”

black lives matter
Be curious and don’t shy away from difficult conversations, including teaching your young person their rights.

Of course, not all young people will come into contact with the police. The above is just an example. But the fact is, if your young person is vulnerable and at more risk of coming into contact with authorities, depending on their choices (perhaps around their peer relationships or drug misuse), then it’s better to have open channels of communication with them.

Be curious

Sasha’s final piece of advice is based in therapeutic principles. It’s the same advice we give to foster carers all the time: be curious.

“Keep an open mind,” she said. “Take personal responsibility for learning about the child’s lived experience and where they’re coming from.

“We don’t always get the referral information, so we don’t always get the full context of how that young person came into care. There are going to be different stories connected to that child. Sometimes you can’t always work out where the truth is. But I think young people have their own lived experience and they appreciate adults more when we ourselves are just curious, rather than jumping to conclusions.

“Use an air of curiosity and support with that young person,” Sasha said. “Regardless of what has happened, they are still human and they’re a feeling individual and they need that support from a foster carer.

“Don’t be afraid of risk in conversations. Be open and transparent.”

You’re not alone; help is always at hand

At Lika, we provide all our foster carers with the training and resources they need to create transformational change in the lives of young people. Every carer receives tailored training to ensure they have the skills they need to do good work for young people in need.

We teach our carers how to use the therapeutic principles mentioned above, like curiosity, risk and self-reflexivity, to support the young people in their care.

Our carers also have access to 24/7 support from our team, including from our Supervising Social Workers like Sasha, so they never feel alone.

For more information

If you’re in south or east London and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at Lika a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.

We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea. 


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