The language that we use in foster care is very important, both to us as a fostering provider, and to the young people we provide care for.
Our choice of language should be fluid and adaptable – not simply based on commonly used terms and phrases. Language in foster care should be able to change and evolve according to the preferences of the young people we care for.
This is why TACT established and led the Language That Cares initiative – which looks at the language used in the fostering sector, and how it makes our young people feel.
Certain phrases and terms used in foster care can impact on young people in two ways: how the choice of words make them feel directly, and the social stigma that is associated with those terms.
One such phrase commonly used in fostering is Respite Foster Care (or Respite Fostering) – when care is provided for a young person over a very short period of time, in order to provide a break for both the carer and child.
If we look at the Oxford dictionary definition of ‘respite’, it reads ‘a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant.’ It is immediately obvious why young people in care could find this term derogatory, unacceptable and simply inaccurate. No human being would want to be referred to as ‘difficult’ or ‘unpleasant’, or even as a something that another human would require relief from.
“It can be offensive as it means an escape or a break from something that is not enjoyable.”
Care-experienced young person
As an alternative to ‘Respite Foster Care’, The TACT-led Language That Cares study revealed that the phrase types young people preferred were based around words such as ‘break’ and ‘stay over’; phases that were less formal, avoided social stigma, and that highlighted that the break was for both carer and child.
However, the challenge is to take the views and preferences of young people on board, but also to consider the external wider understanding and/or implications of the new language. For example, if a person is looking to become a foster carer, with a particular focus on providing short break care, they may conduct their research using the more commonly used ‘respite’ term. They may become confused when they are confronted with different language to describe this type of foster care.
Additionally, another agency may wish to place a young person with a TACT foster carer, but that young person may have already been told by their agency or local authority that they are being placed with a ‘respite’ carer. This would not only be potentially confusing for children, but they would still need to deal with the respite label.
Taking everything into consideration, TACT has decided to use the terms Stay Over Breaks (for England and Wales) and Short Breaks (for Scotland) to replace the use of Respite Foster Care. They are phrases that don’t focus on the negative, and can be viewed as a ‘break’ for all involved.
“For children it can feel complex and overwhelming, and sometimes even embarrassing, as there is a lot of stigma attached to some of the terms used by professionals.”
Care-experienced young person
So, what is the long term solution? The fact of the matter is that the fostering sector is in need of a language shakeup, taking into account the views and wishes of young people whilst also retaining a linguistic transparency. Standardisation, with a responsive approach to review language in the care sector as and when it becomes inappropriate and outdated, is also required. However, until that happens, the most important factor is to ensure that fostering terms and phases do not make our young people feel more different, vulnerable and open to social stigma.
In short, we need to ensure that our language cares.
“We are not mistakes on pages, we are awesome novels with unorthodox beginnings.”
Solomon OB – TACT Ambassador.
Read more about Stay Over Breaks.
You can also read more about what young people think about the language we use in foster care by reading our Language That Cares report.