Exploring how children of foster carers make sense of family

Bethany Shelton is a project worker at The Fostering Network for our Moving On project. She is also the daughter of foster carers and carried out research whilst at university exploring how other children of foster carers make sense of family. This research was recently published in the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, and Bethany shares an extract of it with us.

‘We have a small family and we have our big family.’ (Shelton, 2023) 

We know that children of foster carers play an important role in the fostering household, so I'm thrilled to share the news of this research being made available to the public.  

This research is both of professional interest and personal importance to me. As a birth child of foster carers myself, I know there is so much to unpack about birth children’s experiences of foster care but often, we are quiet voices in such discussions, if we’ve a seat at the table at all.  

Talking about our families and our experiences can be a tricky thing to do, so I used a creative writing task to explore how birth children of foster carers experience family without having to reflect on their own specific circumstances. Seventeen birth children of foster carers, aged eight-49 years, wrote creatively in response to two prompts.  

I analysed these 34 completed stories, identifying three overarching themes: costs, family identity and empathy.  

We know that fostering comes at a cost. For the birth children who took part in this research, these costs include emotional endings, a change in family resources and family priorities to meet the needs of a new child joining the home. Despite these, participants often showed that they believe the costs are worth it.  

When describing their families, birth children often used language about being providers and inclusive, as well as an explicit awareness that fostering is different to ‘normal’ family life.  

‘It’s just like being part of any family only lots more fun and lots more difficult, and busy too.’ (Shelton, 2023) 

Birth children of foster carers showed to have high levels of empathy in relation to the needs of the foster child in the family, but also understanding that everyone will experience fostering differently. Many birth children were aware that the lessons and skills they’ve learnt through fostering will help them in later life, and some even want to be foster carers in the future: 

‘All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed being part of a foster family, so much that I am desperate to be a foster carer myself.’ (Shelton, 2023) 

This research is important in sharing how birth children of all ages make sense of fostering. The stories shared in this study support other research which suggests that better supporting birth children through the negative aspects of fostering will improve the experiences and outcomes of everyone in foster families.  

Understanding the impact of fostering on birth children of foster carers may then not only support the retention of current families who foster, but also support the recruitment of new foster carers. With more research like this, potential foster carers can make more informed decisions for their family, but also better support today may encourage more birth children to consider fostering themselves in the future.  

A big thank you

I’d like to say a massive public thank you to all 17 birth children who took part in this research – I hope I’ve honoured the stories you shared. 


To read the full article for free visit The Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care’s website.

Reference: Shelton, B. (2023). Making sense of family: a story completion study of birth children of foster carers. Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 22(1).

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