Date: 20 June 2022


Roger Bullock
Roger Bullock

Adoption & Fostering is an unusual journal in that it focuses on interventions rather than an academic speciality. But as separating children from their birth families is such an intrusive intervention, it has to incorporate a wide range of disciplines and take a broad view of the situation. Issues associated with law, health, social work, psychology, education and so on have to be considered and expressed clearly. It also has to present material responsibly given the seriousness of the subject matter.   

Highlighting the feelings and views of vulnerable children

Looked after and adopted children can be perceived in several ways and at different levels. First of all, they are individuals who are likely to have experienced maltreatment and trauma. While this is bad enough, they also have to deal with the secondary problems of separation, loss and adjustment to new living situations. Thus, we are unlikely to help them if we do not consider their feelings, views and ability to cope.

But separation, and the family reunification that commonly follows, can also be analysed as a dynamic process, confounded by guilt, insecurity, conflict and negotiation, as well demanding moves to unknown settlings and new relationships.

Looking even more widely, children are also involved in a service structure which is governed by law and administered by professionals, raising a different set of questions, such as whether the system is effective and fair. It is little use if those seeking to help children are prejudiced or if they are keen to do so but encounter inadequate resources and dysfunctional management.

Public perception

A further complexity affecting all of this is that the public perception of looked after and adopted children is often antipathetic. The young people usually come from poor backgrounds, admission to care is perceived as more damaging than therapeutic and reports of their mercurial behaviour do little to enhance their image or attract carers. In the UK, a stay in care still carries considerable stigma whatever the circumstances.

It is this relationship between the child’s history and needs, the challenges of coping with separation and loss and deficiencies in services that make them highly vulnerable or, as Kate Cairns once said, ‘wobbly in the things that all children have to do’. It is hardly surprising that outcomes in many areas of their lives are poor.

‘Keeping secrets: How children in foster care manage stigma’

One article that has clearly achieved success in combining all these factors and providing a model of what the journal can offer is Keeping secrets: How children in foster care manage stigma – currently our most downloaded and cited article.

Themes of stigma and secrecy emerged from an earlier study (How children in foster care engage with loyalty conflict: Presenting a model of processes informing loyalty) where 15 young people described their time in foster care. Their narratives highlighted how they feared that their care status would lead to bullying and how they often kept it secret as a result. This article shares the voices of these children, reviews the relevant literature and considers the possible effects of perennial stigma and secrecy. Implications for practice and research are then discussed. The focus on stigma proves to be illuminating as it is created, experienced and enduring and so informs the various perspectives needed to evaluate different aspects of the care system.


Roger Bullock, Commissioning Editor of Adoption & Fostering and Fellow of the Centre for Social Policy, Dartington Service Design Lab.