Our sector is at breaking point. Whilst we have a multi-disciplinary team that rise above and beyond the day-to-day needs, there needs to be a general shift, on a national level, about how we view the social care sector and in particular, fostering.

Language is an integral part of society. Used correctly, it can explain, nurture, evoke conversation and enable understanding. But it is only if used properly, so that those who are defined by words find it accessible, acceptable, agreeable and non-judgemental.

We have failed if we use adult-centric language that no child or young person entering care has the capacity to understand. We need to be more direct and say what we really mean.

We have already integrated some changes in our day-to-day language and practise. We consider ourselves a service rather than an agency, and we are keen to implement this terminology in everyday practice. We feel the term ‘agency’ is clinical and could relate from anything to travel, estate or advertising. It is also a huge word to comprehend when you are young and entering care for the first time. We believe ‘service’ is more direct and means exactly what it says; we are here to serve our children and young people in the best way possible.

We are also trying to remove the word ‘placement’ and substitute with ‘home’ or ‘arrangement.’ Children and young people in care know their situation; they don’t want to be repeatedly reminded. Using the term ‘placement’ can be insensitive, reinforcing the idea that this isn’t actually the young person’s home and all it does is serve to polarise those placements and reinforce the stigma attached to it. Everything we try to achieve in fostering is to match a child to a secure and nurturing family where they are treated as equally and as part of that family as anyone else, no matter how long that might be for. By suggesting this is a ‘placement’ rather than a home, undoes everything we’re trying to achieve.  

But we don’t always get it right.

Unfortunately, as with most things, language is highly subjective. When we posed a change from ‘care leaver’ to ‘care experienced adult’ one of our young people who has left the care system found the change to be unnecessary and slightly derogatory. ‘By changing the language from care leaver, it feels like you’re taking away a part of my identity. I am a care leaver. And I’m not ashamed to be so but by feeling the need to change it almost adds shame.’ And this of course undermines the exact thing we’re trying to achieve. So although we always have the best intentions for our children and young people, we cannot really begin to assume what change is needed and what is best for them, without seeking their guidance first.

And once consultation is sought, received and reviewed, it needs to be implemented on a national scale.  It won’t be easy; we have been using the same language for the last 30 years or so. But the landscape we are facing has evolved, the complexities of our children and young people have heightened and society as a whole has changed. We cannot expect real change if something as significant as language remains unchallenged and we continue this decade-long approach of not consulting those who understand it most. Whilst there has been significant research over the last few years within the sector about how language can and must be changed, little has been done to implement it. It’s enough for one service to use it within their practise but we need local authorities, clinical providers, management, software databases, government and all children services to become accustomed to change.

We’ve started to use those key terms that we know have been approved, such as ‘fostering service’ in our everyday practise. We plan to hold conferences over the next year with individuals from the sector- clinical leads, care leavers, charities and local authorities to gain their views. Then we hope to instigate an impactful change.

It will take time. We need to be practical. We won’t always get it right. But in order for us to evolve, we need to continue to ask questions and challenge those who are unable or unwilling to see the need for change because doing the same thing over and over gets the same results.