Allegations Against Foster Carers

This 2001 article presents findings of a small in-depth study of allegations made against foster carers in six agencies: how the allegations were experienced by foster carers, the consequences for them and the children involved, the antecedents of the allegations, and the implications for the support and training of foster carers. Sheila Bray and Brian Minty found that, although less than ten per cent of allegations were substantiated, no children removed during an investigation were returned to their foster carers. Foster carers were investigated in the same way as birth parents accused of child abuse, but without their legal safeguards, and they were sometimes denied support by their agencies. They manifested considerable stress symptoms as a result of the allegations, sometimes aggravated by insensitive methods of investigation. Although, for many, the allegation followed a period of difficulties between child and foster carer, the majority of carers were astonished at, and devastated by, the allegations.

Allegations against foster carers and the implications for local-authority training and support that many children are placed on their own (Utting, 1997). However, the same factors can also increase the vulnerability of foster carers and weaken their capacity to rebut false allegations when these are made against them. Foster carers are a precious resource, for whom social work agencies have a form of fiduciary responsibility. By opening their homes and families to children who have been abused and exposed to seriously inadequate parenting, they perform an immensely difficult task which only a minority of social workers would themselves undertake. The study reported below is an attempt to understand the nature, antecedents and consequences of allegations. Interviews took place with a sample of foster carers who had been subject to an allegation, with their family placement workers and with the principal family placement officers in each agency that participated in the study. Previous research Several large-scale studies of allegations of maltreatment in foster and residential care have been carried out in the USA. Perhaps the most thorough and focused on foster family care was that undertaken by Benedict et al (1994), who compared 443 reports of child abuse and neglect brought against 285 foster carers in Baltimore with all allegations made against birth families in the same period. They found a rate of allegations of physical abuse against foster carers that was seven times higher than that against birth parents, with the number of allegations of sexual abuse four times higher, although there were proportionately fewer allegations of neglect. However, this potentially horrific picture is considerably modified by the fact that a smaller proportion of allegations of physical abuse against foster carers was confirmed. Although there still remained a higher percentage of confirmed cases of sexual abuse in foster care, in 60 per cent.

This article presents findings of a small in-depth study of allegations made against foster carers in six agencies: how the allegations were experienced by foster carers, the consequences for them and the children involved, the antecedents of the allegations, and the implications for the support and training of foster carers. Sheila Bray and Brian Minty found that, although less than ten per cent of allegations were substantiated, no children removed during an investigation were returned to their foster carers. Foster carers were investigated in the same way as birth parents accused of child abuse, but without their legal safeguards, and they were sometimes denied support by their agencies. They manifested considerable stress symptoms as a result of the allegations, sometimes aggravated by insensitive methods of investigation. Although, for many, the allegation followed a period of difficulties between child and foster carer, the majority of carers were astonished at, and devastated by, the allegations.

Introduction.

The need to help foster carers cope with the stress of allegations has been fairly widely recognised since the National Foster Care Association (NFCA) set up a counselling and conciliation service for foster carers in 1989, following a number of requests from distraught foster carers and one suicide. The first author of this paper was involved with setting up the service, and in producing training material aimed at reducing abuse in foster care and helping foster carers avoid false allegations being made (Bray, 1994). Recent concern in the UK has, understandably, focused on trying to eradicate the curse of abuse perpetrated on children in residential and foster care. The Waterhouse enquiry (2000) examined abuse in residential care, but social workers have also had anxieties about the vulnerability of children in foster care, especially given its privacy and the fact Sheila Bray is a former foster carer and now manages a private children’s home for disturbed children Brian Minty is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Psychiatric Social Work, University of Manchester, and is also a former foster carer Key words: allegations, foster care, support, stress of those cases the foster carers were found not to be the abusers. In addition, as several commentators point out, while in both the USA and the UK there is a cultural sanction for birth parents to smack their children, foster carers are forbidden to do so by their agencies; and smacking their charges can lead to them becoming subject to child abuse procedures (Ryan et al, 1987; Zellman, 1990). Secondly, despite the fact that in the past (at least in the UK) the abuse of children in residential care has often gone undetected (Waterhouse, 2000), children who are looked after by the state are likely to be monitored considerably more closely than children in the community. Thirdly, it is not unlikely that some birth parents, from motives of either guilt, resentment or parental concern, are very ready to seize upon any sign of failure in the care provided by foster carers. Finally, some abused children in foster care, who have experienced repeated sexual or physical abuse, are likely to be at greater risk of either further victimisation, or of becoming abusers themselves in foster care (Carbino, 1988; Farmer and Pollock, 1998). In the UK the most comprehensive picture of allegations against foster carers is provided in two complementary studies by Verity and Nixon (1995) and Nixon and Verity (1996). The first of these was based on responses to a questionnaire in the magazine Foster Care, which is sent to all members of the National Foster Carer Association (NFCA).

The second was based on a questionnaire sent to social service departments in England and Wales. The sample of foster carers studied in the first survey may not be typical in that (a) not all foster carers are members of NFCA, and (b) carers who have had allegations made against them which were substantiated would have been more likely to be deregistered and therefore to have stopped being NFCA members. It is also necessary to bear in mind, when interpreting the findings of these two studies, that the agencies whose responses were reported in the second study were not the same as the agencies whose carers had responded to the questionnaire sent out with the magazine. Therefore discrepancies in the findings of the two studies do not mean that they contradict each other. In the survey of foster carers, a little over 500 carers replied, of whom 177 had experienced an allegation (Verity and Nixon, 1995). Almost half of the allegations were of physical abuse, 37 per cent of sexual abuse, ten per cent of emotional abuse and eight per cent of neglect. In half the cases the alleged perpetrator was the foster father and in 40 per cent the mother. Other alleged perpetrators included other fostered children, children of the foster family or other males. Almost two-thirds of the foster families who had experienced an allegation had been fostering for over eight years, in comparison with only 40 per cent of those who had not experienced an allegation. According to the foster carers, only six per cent of the allegations were substantiated, and almost 63 per cent were unfounded. In spite of the very low level of substantiation, two-thirds of the children at the centre of the investigation were removed, along with almost one third of all those fostered in the same placements. In four per cent of cases even the birth children had been removed. Most foster children (70 per cent) did not go back to their foster carers and in only a quarter of cases were all foster children returned after an allegation. In an earlier study, Hicks and Nixon (1989) found that the experience of an allegation, and its consequences, were traumatic and left foster carers in a state of unresolved mourning. For foster carers the risk of having an allegation made against them was calculated by Nixon and Verity (1996) as being four per cent per year in 1994. On the basis of a very comprehensive study of foster care in Scotland, Triseliotis et al (2000) estimated the risk to be three-and-a-half per cent per year, and 17 per cent over a typical foster care career. However, child abuse clearly exists in foster care, as confirmed by a recent study of all referrals of abuse and suspected abuse to a paediatric department specialising in assessing and treating cases of child maltreatment. This study by Hobbs and colleagues (1999) showed that the rate of referral for children in foster care in Leeds for abuse or suspected abuse in the early 1990s was seven to eight times the rate of children in the community. The authors accepted that looked after children are a particularly vulnerable group, monitored much more closely than most children in the community. They also confirmed that in relation to sexual abuse the perpetrators were the carers in less than half the cases (just over 40 per cent). In over 30 per cent they were members of the birth family and in over 20 per cent other foster children. The present study Twelve urban local authorities were approached in the North of England. Six agreed to participate and allowed us to contact all foster carers who had had an allegation made against them between 1991 and 1993. The definition of what counted as an allegation was left to the agencies themselves, but will be commented on later. We were also given permission to interview the agencies’ principal family placement officers, as well as those family placement officers who had acted as link persons between foster carers subject to an investigation and the agency.

The only agreed exceptions were to be families where criminal proceedings were imminent – although in practice this did not seem to affect any of our cases. However, as the study progressed it became clear that two agencies who had initially participated in the study were having second thoughts. For fear of criticism, they stopped supplying us with the names of appropriate cases but they did continue to allow us to interview family placement officers and principals. We were given the names and addresses of altogether 26 families, of whom four declined on the grounds that meeting us would be too upsetting. We were able to interview 18 out of the 20 family placement officers responsible for the 22 families, the remaining two being on long-term sick leave. We interviewed all six of the principal family placement officers. Semi-structured interviews were used throughout. While the interviews with principal officers were primarily concerned with agency policy and procedures, those with family placement officers aimed to discover whether there might be alternative views of what had happened in each case, as well as how family placement officers interpreted their role as ‘go-betweens’ in relation to agencies and foster carers, especially during investigations.

The interviews with the foster carers were often long and distressing, even though the allegation had occurred at least a year before. However, many of the foster carers expressed appreciation at being listened to. Foster fathers and mothers were interviewed together, except where there was only a foster mother. In two families there had only ever been one foster carer, but in two further families the allegation had led to a couple splitting up, and in one case to the foster father’s suicide. Findings The age range of children at the centre of the allegations ranged from two to 18 years. Just over two-thirds of the alleged abusers were foster fathers, and in only our instances was the abuser alleged to be the foster mother. The main age-range of alleged perpetrators was from 33 to 45 years, although they also included two teenage sons of the foster carers and one foster grandfather (aged 82). The median length of time spent by the carers in fostering was six years, suggesting that most of the carers were very experienced. A similar finding has emerged in other studies (eg Ryan et al, 1987; Verity and Nixon, 1995). Their length of experience ranged from just one month to 19 years. A third were registered to look after children long term, and a fifth of the children had been with their carers for over five years. The main source of allegations was the children themselves, either on their own (in just over half the cases) or with their birth parents (in three cases). In a further three cases, the allegation was made by the birth parent alone, and in the rest of the cases by the child’s social worker, a nursery worker, another foster child and subsequent adoptive parents. The investigative panels came to one of three conclusions: that the allegation was true or ‘substantiated’; that it was false or untrue; or that it was ‘unsubstantiated’ (‘not proven’) or words to that effect. In three instances the agency failed to communicate any outcome to the foster carers. The outcomes will now be considered with respect to both previous and current allegations. Previous allegations Seven foster carers had experienced previous allegations – three for sexual abuse, all of which had been found to have been unsubstantiated.

In all three cases the second (ie current) allegation had also been about sexual abuse. In two cases there was no official outcome to the current allegation being founded, in one because the investigation was abandoned following the foster father’s suicide. In the third case the outcome for the current allegation was that it was unsubstantiated. These findings raise issues not only in relation to the difficulty of arriving at the truth, but also in relation to the possibility that problems or inadequacies in assessment led to the avoidable abuse or re-abuse of some foster children. The nature of the current alleged abuse and the outcome of the investigations There were ten allegations of physical abuse, nine of child sexual abuse, two of emotional abuse and one of neglect (Table 1). The foster carers were all white, but one of the children was African- Caribbean and two were of mixed heritage. Racial issues appeared to play a part in one allegation. Overall the police became involved in seven cases, but withdrew from all of them without pressing charges. Child sexual abuse All nine current allegations of sexual abuse involved girls (or young women), ranging in age from three to 20 years, the eldest of whom had learning difficulties. Four cases involved allegations that foster fathers had touched the children’s breasts or genitals, and in one case the foster mother was accused of the same thing. There were two instances of alleged oral sex by carers’ adolescent male children on younger foster girls, one of which was deemed to be founded. Other cases involved allegations (a) of a foster father ‘touching’ and taking nude photographs of two adolescent girls; (b) of the foster father inserting objects into the vagina of a three-year-old who also had a speech disorder and whose subsequent adoptive parents made the allegation a year later; and (c) of a foster mother touching the bottom of a 16-year old on the stairs and kissing her goodnight. It is clear from the nature of the last of these alleged incidents that it must have been extremely difficult to determine the facts, and the same must have applied in several other cases. As seen in Table 1, only one of the allegations of sexual abuse was judged to be founded and only one to be unfounded, ie false (an allegation that an 82-year-old foster-grandfather had touched a nine year-old’s genitals). In four further cases of alleged sexual abuse the investigative panel judged the allegation to be unsubstantiated, ie that there was insufficient evidence to decide either way. In a further two cases, the investigative panel failed to come to any conclusion. Physical abuse The age range of children involved in currently alleged physical abuse ranged from two years to 18. All but two of the allegations of physical abuse involved boys. One of these exceptions appeared to be a case of an ‘over-the-top’ slap given by the foster father to the thigh of a five-year-old who was caught twisting the arm of a younger child through the Table 1 ‘Official’ and adjusted outcome by type of abuse Official NAI CSA Other Adjusted total

Founded                                  3                 1***             1***             1*              2

Unsubstantiated                       7                 3***             4***            -                 8

Unfounded                              6                 4***             1***            1*                6

Not pursued                           3                  1***             1***            1*                2

Not known                              3                  1***             2***           –*                4

Totals                                    22                10****          9***           3*                22

*      One finding of neglect overturned by the ombudsman

**   Investigation dropped after the foster father’s suicide

***  Although no official finding, foster carers were deregistered bars of her cot, at           a time when three foster children were causing pandemonium at bed- time.

This was the only instance of an allegation of non-accidental injury being substantiated; and the fact that the foster father was quite open about what he had done made it easier to substantiate. He regretted his action but claimed he was under stress. Nevertheless, he and his wife were deregistered. There was a further case of a foster mother striking her ten-year-old foster son across the face. He and his sister were removed and the foster carers deregistered, even though the investigative panel did not appear to have come to a conclusion, and in spite of the fact that the foster children had lived with the carers for several years. Most of the allegations of non-accidental injury involved claims that a foster carer had punched or hit a child, usually across the face or head (and in two instances there were also allegations that the foster father had additionally kicked a child). All the claims of physical abuse related to one off incidents. Four out of the ten alleged cases of physical abuse were judged to be unfounded, and in a further instance the social worker’s conviction that a foster mother had punched a child in the eye was not pursued after a paediatrician specialising in child abuse had judged that the likeliest explanation was that the two-year-old had fallen on to a door knob. Emotional abuse and neglect. There were two allegations best categorised as emotional abuse and one as neglect. One of the allegations of emotional abuse was a claim by a six-year-old that his foster carers had been physically fighting in front of him, an assertion judged to be so implausible that it was not formally investigated. The second was by another six-year-old who claimed his foster father had pushed his head into a toilet bowl and threatened him with eating ‘shit’. This accusation was thoroughly investigated and judged to be false.Overall outcomes Altogether only three cases (13 per cent) were officially assessed by the agency as being founded (and, for reasons given below, it is clear that one of these conclusions cannot be upheld). Six allegations (27 per cent) were judged to be untrue, seven (32 per cent) unsubstantiated, three had an unknown outcome and three were either not formally investigated or officially dropped. In three of the cases of unknown outcome, the foster carers insisted they had not been told, and in two of these instances the relevant family placement officer confirmed this. The figure of six cases judged to be untrue needs to be supplemented with the two cases where the evidence for abuse seemed so weak that the allegations were not formally investigated. The figure of three ‘founded’ allegations needs to be reduced by one (and the seven unsubstantiated cases correspondingly increased by one), as a result of an appeal made by a foster carer to the local authority ombudsman. An African-Caribbean birth mother had made several accusations against a white foster mother of failing to take proper care of her daughter’s skin and hair. All these allegations had been previously investigated and found to be unsubstantiated. Finally, she accused the foster mother of bringing the child to a contact meeting with soiled knickers. The local authority judged this to be true and confirmed neglect. The (single) foster mother not only claimed the allegation to be untrue, but also felt the investigation had been incompetent and unfair, and complained to the ombudsman about the way in which the case had been handled. He judged the authority guilty of maladministration. As a result of this decision it does not seem right to continue to include this allegation in the category of ‘founded’ or ‘true’.

The impact on the foster carers The vast majority of foster carers described their reaction to the allegation as one of extreme shock and/or dismay, although in two instances there was a short initial reaction of laughter at the ludicrousness of the situation. For two foster carers the shock was heightened by the fact that their first intimation of the allegation was a policeman appearing at the door to arrest the foster father on suspicion of sexually abusing his foster daughter. The shock of the allegation (whatever its content) led in a majority of cases to symptoms of a psychological nature (see Table 2). In addition, one foster father collapsed and had to be rushed to hospital with a suspected heart attack, and two foster mothers suffered from high blood pressure. investigated, lost their symptoms soon after they had been informed of the outcome. Two of the three sets of carers for whom the outcome of the investigation was founded were extremely angry (with a certain amount of justification) that their treatment had been unfair. In one case the ombudsman had taken the carer’s side, and in the other, the carer felt aggrieved that he was ‘convicted’ of abuse for smacking a child. Those for whom the outcome was unsubstantiated were prone to depression and anxiety, often mixed with a lot of anger. They were frequently resentful that the panel had not cleared their names. The same applied to the three families who had not been informed, and so felt that they had been left unable to draw a line under the whole matter, as well as having been completely ignored. For carers in these latter two categories there was also a tendency for stresses and losses to multiply.

They were more likely to have had children removed and not returned, to be themselves deregistered and to find their marital relationships under strain. The marital relationship had been adversely affected for a minority of the married carers. Just over half of the married foster couples (n = 12) said either that the allegation had had no effect on the marital relationship (n = 5) or had brought them closer together (n = 7), but in a quarter of cases carers said the marriage had become ‘more strained’, and in a further two the foster parents separated as a result of the allegation and investigation. Tragically, as mentioned, one foster father killed himself. In one further family, where the alleged abuser was a son of the foster parents and the allegation of oral sex was substantiated, the relationship between parents and son eventually became more distant. The last four cases just referred to all involved allegations of sexual abuse and, although only one was confirmed, there remained a good deal of suspicion in relation to the other cases inside the family as well as in the agency. If our sample is at all representative, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that in at least a significant minority of cases allegations can have a long-term Between a half to three-quarters of the foster mothers and well over a third of the foster fathers suffered all of the stress/ trauma symptoms we enquired about: sleeplessness, panic, anxiety, loss of appetite, feeling depressed, and somatic aches and pains. Nearly half of the foster fathers and over a third of foster mothers who had initially reacted with stress symptoms had lost their symptoms within a month, but a third still experienced many of these symptoms a year later. Three foster fathers and five foster mothers had felt sufficiently stressed to consult a doctor, and one of the foster mothers had been referred to a psychiatrist. One foster father and another foster mother had suffered from depression for over a year, and five foster parents had become chronically much more anxious. All six sets of carers who had been told the allegation was untrue, including the two who had never been formally Table 2 Symptoms of stress Foster father Foster mother % No. % No.

Sleeplessness 78 (14) 77 (17)

Panic 50 (9) 55 (12)

Anxiety 67 (13) 68 (15)

Loss of appetite 26 (5) 50 (11)

Depression 67 (13) 77 (17)

Suicide 5 (1)

How long? (of those who suffered any symptoms of stress)

Less than 1 month 46 36

1–6 months 9 27

6–12 months 11 4.5

More than 12 months 33 32 destructive impact on foster carers’ mental health and family relationships, in some cases because they are probably true. As we have seen, a majority of carers initially experienced some symptoms of stress at the allegation, sometimes exacerbated by the manner in which the allegation was made. Cases where symptoms persisted mainly involved carers for whom the issue of ‘guilt’ had not been resolved, or who had not regained their reputation, or lost children to whom they were deeply attached, and lost their role as carers. Our impression on meeting the families was that many were still in a state of unresolved grief, with several still nursing a very strong sense of injustice against the agency. Allegations of abuse could be particularly destructive where children had been placed in long-term foster care. In one case, already referred to, two foster children who had been part of the family for several years were removed and the parents deregistered, following an incident in which the mother had struck her nine-year-old foster son across the face – a fact she did not deny. In almost a third of families, a parent’s employer was informed and in one instance (the case just described) the mother, who was a teacher, was suspended from work for several months. Her head teacher was her strongest source of support. Birth children in the family were also affected psychologically; foster carers reported an increase in anxiety or unhappiness or both, sometimes expressed in stomach aches and headaches. One child became withdrawn and depressed for several months. Family placement officers could also be adversely affected by the investigation. More than half admitted to having suffered stress symptoms, such as over anxiety, sleeplessness, somatic problems and feeling depressed. In three cases these symptoms had lasted more than a month, and one family placement officer had had to consult her doctor. In two cases they said the level of stress had seriously affected their work. The allegation and investigation had also had an effect on their attitude towards either the carers or the agency. Two family placement officers admitted to feeling very angry with other members of their own agency. Five felt that the investigation had damaged their relationship with the foster family, in three instances because they had been forbidden to support them. Three felt that the investigation had made them more suspicious, or on their guard, in relation to the foster carers. Length of the investigation In almost half the cases formally investigated (n = 9) the outcome was known within a month and in the two cases not formally investigated within a matter of days. If we exclude the cases where no findings were ever made known, in only two cases had the investigation taken more than three months. This compares favourably with the figures discovered by Verity and Nixon (1995), who found that in half their cases the average length of investigation was over eight months.

However, given the nature of the allegations, some of our foster carers found a wait of between a month and three months a considerable strain. Almost a third of the family placement officers felt the investigation had taken too long. Foster carers’ views on the investigation There were other aspects of the investigation with which the foster carers felt dissatisfied, often extremely so. Four of the eight carers who had had the allegation against them judged to be unsubstantiated were very angry that the investigation had not restored their reputation. Another strong source of complaint was that they felt they had been denied natural justice in that they had not been allowed to give their side of the story during the investigation. In seven instances the allegation was dealt with by a ‘serious incident meeting’ and in eight by a multidisciplinary case conference, but in only two cases were foster carers allowed to attend these proceedings. Few were offered legal representation unless they paid for it themselves. Foster carers also appeared to lack natural justice in that carers who smacked heir foster children were dealt with under child protection procedures, leading in both cases to deregistration, and in one to the breaking up of a family that had been together for many years. It is difficult to believe agencies would have sought legal powers to remove these children had they been living with their birth parents. Although the carers’ behaviour was unacceptable, it is doubtful whether the use of child protection procedures was the most appropriate response, particularly since in both instances the carers openly admitted what they had done. Altogether, nearly two-thirds (n = 14) were dissatisfied with the way the investigation had been handled, many describing it as ‘abysmal’ or ‘appalling’. Six families felt the investigation had been handled well. This sub-group contained one of the two cases where the allegation had been dealt with informally. The other five instances were where the outcome was that the allegation was deemed to be untrue or false. Significantly, all these investigations had been completed within a month. Information and support In fact the most common source of complaint by foster carers was the lack of information as to how the allegation was progressing. This was a complaint of all but one foster mother. There were three aspects of deficient information relating to the investigation itself. Firstly, some carers said they had not been told exactly what they were alleged to have done to the child in question, sometimes to the extent of not even knowing once the investigation was over. Of those who had been told (the majority), at least half felt they had been informed in an unsupportive way. Secondly, most foster carers said they felt they had been left in a state of limbo between the initial allegation and being told the outcome, and that it would have been very helpful to have been told what was happening to the investigation. Lastly, three sets of carers denied they had ever been told the outcome – and in two of these cases their claim was supported by their family placement officer. second major complaint was about the lack of advice from the agency. Three quarters said they had assumed they were entitled to advice from their agency as to what to do after the allegation had first been made, but half claimed they had not been offered any advice at all, and a further sixth felt the advice offered had been inadequate. A third area of complaint was the lack of support. Half the foster parents admitted they had been offered some support by their agency, but nearly three-quarters said it had been deficient in some way, eg in only one-fifth of cases had anyone from their agency spoken on their behalf. The child’s social worker had been found to be supportive in only four cases, and in the rest to be ‘definitely unsupportive’. In half the cases family placement officers were described as being supportive, with a third ‘very supportive’. In a quarter of cases the family placement officers agreed with the carers’ view that they had not received adequate backing. Carers frequently obtained most of their support from their own families – except in instances where they suspected spouses or children were guilty of abuse. Friends and other professional people could be sources of support. Foster carer groups were a real source of help for roughly a quarter of the carers, but suffered from the disadvantage that they were usually agency led, and that some carers felt unable to share potentially shameful facts in such a group. Problems in providing information and support seemed to arise partly from a lack of clarity about the responsibilities of different teams within a social services department, and partly as a result of the way authorities viewed the role of the family placement officer after an allegation had been made. One of the agencies we studied had adopted a policy of officially For bidding contact between family placement officers and foster carers during the investigation, and another believed that the former should both offer support and assist in the investigation. However, a majority of the officers felt they had a responsibility not to withdraw from the foster family during the investigation. On the other hand, three-fifths did not see it as their responsibility to keep the foster family informed of the investigation’s progress.

Difficulties in the placement prior to the allegation Caring for the child at the centre of the allegation had usually been stressful prior to the allegation. Nearly all the carers (20/ 22) claimed that they had been worried about the child prior to the allegation. In just over four-fifths of cases there were concerns about the child’s antisocial behaviour, and in two-fifths because of sexualised behaviour, with some children having both kinds of problem. A brief description of five of the children’s behaviour and the foster family situation illustrates the difficulties carers were trying to cope with. The first consisted of a 16-year-old girl who had been in two secure units catering for particularly disturbed children and who had made two serious attempts at suicide. Her family made violent threats against the foster mother after the girl had made an allegation of sexual abuse by her, which was unsubstantiated. Another family were caring for a nine-year-old girl who had taken several overdoses and opened car doors on motorways, threatening to jump out. It was she who accused her 82-year-old foster grandfather of sexual abuse. It appeared she had previously had a sexual relationship with her own grandfather and the allegation was unsubstantiated. A third family was caring for a boy of six and-a-half who had made the whole foster family feel dysfunctional by his disobedience, aggression and verbal abuse. It was he who, after being moved from the foster family, accused the foster father of pushing his head down the toilet and telling him to ‘eat shit’. The allegation was unfounded (ie judged to be untrue). A fourth family consisted of a foster mother, a 15-year-old foster son, who had been with the mother for ten years, and the mother’s new husband. There were tensions between the couple and the boy alleged he had been kicked and smacked across the head by his new foster father, an allegation which was also unsubstantiated.

In the fifth of these five families, foster carers were looking after two adolescent girls with learning difficulties and sexualised behaviour. They also had a 16- year-old daughter of their own who was showing sexual behaviour. When the parents asked for help from their agency with the 16-year-old they were told the girl was not the responsibility of the department. Both girls made allegations of sexual abuse (ie of foster father undressing them at a swimming pool and touching their breasts). The couple claimed they had never been informed of the outcome of the investigation, but they were deregistered. Although these were among the more difficult situations we heard about, there were others equally, or almost as, problematic. Just over two-thirds of the foster parents had asked for additional forms of support, including allocating a social worker, more social work visits, respite care, more money to cover destructive behaviour, and help with difficult behaviour to cope with the child. Only two were entirely satisfied with the help they received. Four were extremely dissatisfied. In four cases the foster carer had asked for the child to be removed and in at least one of these the agency had complied with the request. Sharing information before placement Some foster carers felt they had been wrongly denied information possessed by the agency prior to the child being placed with them. A third felt it had withheld information about previous abuse, and a further fifth felt they could have been informed about the child’s difficult behaviour prior to placement. Many of these carers considered that if they had been informed about these problems beforehand, the outcome might have been very different. Only just over a third (36 per cent of carers) felt the agency had shared all the information it had prior to the placement. However, nearly half agreed they could not be sure that the agency had the knowledge in the first place. On the other hand, one of the principal family placement officers admitted that it was agency policy not to reveal all the information they had because of issues of confidentiality, although the other five agencies stated it was their policy to share with carers all they knew. According to the foster carers, over a third of the foster children had been sexually abused and roughly a quarter physically or emotionally abused or neglected prior to placement with them. These may well be underestimates.

The outcome for the children In less than a quarter of cases (n = 5) was the child at the centre of the allegation able to remain with the foster carers throughout the investigation and afterwards. Five were moved at the time of the allegation and a further three at the end. Two ran off and preferred to stay away. A surprising number of seven had moved prior to the allegation, in at least two cases years before. Sadly, none of the children who moved at the time of the allegation ever returned, although three of the foster mothers went to considerable lengths to try to maintain contact. Continuing to foster Fifteen families (68 per cent) continued to foster, although some only did so with more restricted categories of children. Two withdrew and six were deregistered. When those who continued were asked why they had done so, they mostly spoke of their strong identity as foster carers, although several also added because ‘we are crazy’ or words to that effect. The reasons for making false allegations Over a third of the allegations were found to be untrue (and not just unsubstantiated). In six cases that was the decision of the investigative panels and in two more instances the allegation was dismissed as groundless without a formal investigation. This raises the question as to why untrue allegations were ever made. As we have seen, the vast majority of allegations were made by the children themselves, although in at least one case, after what appeared to be parental ‘tuition’. In the course of this study we believe we came across instances of the following kinds of reason:

Behaviour was misinterpreted. For example, an adolescent interpreted a push on the bottom by her foster mother in passing on the stairs, together with a goodnight kiss, as signs that more serious abuse was to follow. Children and adolescents were trying to get back at foster carers, either for a severe dressing down or a chronic failure in the relationship, and made the allegation after running away.

Birth parents were trying to disrupt a placement.

Children were transferring expectations, eg from a birth grandfather to a relationship with a foster grandfather.

In one case a social worker rushed to the conclusion that bruises on a toddler’s face implied abuse without waiting first to listen to the carer’s explanation.

Discussion It is only possible to highlight some of the major issues raised by this study. The research brought home to us the very considerable difficulties allegations create for virtually all concerned – sometimes with extremely destructive consequences. Establishing the truth was very difficult, and there was little leeway for error since failure to identify abuse that had occurred may have led to permitting carers to perpetrate further abuse, as was suggested by our evidence that nearly a third of carers had previously been accused of abuse. At least two of them appear to have sexually abused children in the allegations currently investigated, although in neither case did the investigating panel seem to reach any conclusion. On the other hand, failure to exonerate innocent carers could give them a label as possible abusers, which, if it happened on a large scale, might lead to an undermining of the fostering service. Wilson et al (2000) found that the experience of having allegations made against them was a factor associated with foster carers contemplating leaving the service. In just over a third of cases the investigative panels did come to a conclusion of sorts, but only to the extent that they found the allegation unsubstantiated – a verdict which was quite compatible with deregistration. For dedicated carers who had done no wrong, and who were committed to their foster children and to fostering, it is difficult to think of a more severe reversal of reputation and life aims than being unable to clear one’s reputation of possible child abuse. In addition, some carers lost children to whom they were deeply attached. The foster carers who continued to have symptoms of stress were particularly those who failed to have their reputation fully restored in one way or another, and who began to suffer other losses as well: eg their foster children and sometimes their foster role. In addition, a few either lost their husbands entirely or lost their view of them as decent people. In some respects we found ourselves studying a similar situation to that of social workers operating the child protection service in general, as described by Gibbons et al (1995), in that a great deal of time and effort were spent pursuing less serious forms of child maltreatment. These certainly needed investigation and help, but were often not helped when the response was the use of child protection procedures. In relation to two or three cases, there seemed to be a need for a greater use of the ‘complaint’ category in place of the term ‘allegation’. Also carers would sometimes have benefited from a constructive dialogue with social workers and foster children, rather than the full weight of a child protection investigation.

Confessed slapping and smacking were cases in point. The need was for carers to learn to use new skills under stress. This is not to deny that there is abuse in foster care, which can lead to great distress in children, and sometimes to distortions in psychosocial development; and all social workers have a responsibility to try to root it out. Although the major focus of this article has been on how carers responded to allegations and how they were treated, we are not advocating that concern for foster carers must be achieved at the expense of ignoring children’s needs, including the need for protection. In fact, it is possible that additional and more sensitive support for carers could often lead to a better deal for foster children throughout placements, and not only after an allegation. We found that support had been needed throughout placements. About half the carers had been really struggling with their foster children before the allegation, and it is possible some allegations might have been avoided with a better response to that stress. Prevention is better than cure. Only 20 per cent of foster carers said they had been warned by the agency prior to being registered about the possibility of allegations being made against them. It is difficult to see how agencies can now avoid informing prospective carers that allegations are a serious occupational hazard. They also need to provide training that would prepare carers for the eventuality of allegations, and help them cope better with situations that might either lead to abuse or be misinterpreted as abuse. The first author of this paper was involved in producing a booklet for foster carers on ‘safe caring’, ie adopting practices which are likely to reduce both sexual abuse in foster families and untrue allegations of abuse, or at least provide some alibi if false allegations are made (Bray, 1994). These practices include simple rules of behaviour such as keeping daily diaries, not walking about the house naked, and avoiding male carers undertaking the intimate care of female children. In spite of the assumption by family placement officers that 75 per cent of the foster carers had received training in safe caring, the vast majority either claimed they had not received such training, or showed by their answers that they did not understand what it entailed.

The very high levels of stress reported among foster carers and its persistence in a significant majority of cases, reinforce the need for changes in relation to at least four aspects of the investigation:

the need for greater natural justice;

the need, at times, for a more creative response than simply following child abuse procedures;

the need for information at all stages of the process; the need to support carers during the investigation, sometimes by providing help from outside the agency.

Note

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