Children in the 21st Century: Children in Car

Dr. Kwame Owusu Bempah, Professor
University of Leicester, UK


Drawing on his own background, childhood experiences and the society in which he lived and operated, Erik Erikson predicted that the nature of a given society will be reflected in the psychological problems typically experienced by members of that society. He argued, for example, that while sexual inhibition and repression were predominant concerns in Freud's time, the complexity, mechanization and rootlessness of contemporary industrial society has led to a shift in emphasis.

Given that Erikson's main concern deals with problems of identity, especially in adolescence, we must add to these factors: childhood separation, the unrelenting force of globalization or “macdonaldization” and “microsoftization,” in order to comprehend the combined magnitude of the multiple psychological stressors facing youngsters in the twenty-first century, the potential for them to experience a sense of rootlessness, and, therefore, identity-confusion, with its mental health implications.

Childhood separation

Childhood separation is one of the major and common stressors facing children and young persons in the twenty-first century. Regarding those in care, the public care system entails separating them from their biological families. Thus, this paper discusses the social, emotional and psychological difficulties facing children separated or semi-separated from their genetic parent(s) and, consequently, their genealogical and social-cultural roots as a result of the care system. In so doing, it presents the notion of socio-genealogical connectedness (S-GC) as a novel theoretical and therapeutic framework for studying and promoting their growth and development.

Children in care: who are they?

Children in care (“Children looked after” [UK] or “Children in out-of-home care” [USA]) are children and young people (under 19 years of age) whose biological parents cannot, for various reasons, be expected to adequately care for them. They include children in foster care as well as those in institutional (or residential) care.

How many?

Worldwide the number of children being cared for by people other than their biological parents is unknown. However, some statistics are available:

  • For example, current official figures show that some 70,000 children are in the care of local authorities in England alone. Of these, some 2,900 are unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children.
  • Figures from the USA indicate that in 2006 there were 750,000 children in the public care system.
  • In Eastern/Central Europe and Russia, UNICEF (1997) data show that in 1994 Romania and Russia had the highest number of children in institutional care (98,397 and 102, 593 respectively) while Albania had only 500 children in institutional care.

With the exception of the USA, the above figures exclude those children in kinship care.

Why do children enter care?

Children enter the public care system for a whole range of reasons:

  • single parenthood
  • parental death
  • parental mental illness
  • abandonment
  • child abuse (physical and/or sexual)
  • rejection or neglect
  • alcohol and/or substance abuse
  • divorce or marital/relationship breakdown
  • domestic violence
  • poverty (unemployment, poor housing, etc.)
  • poor parenting
  • homelessness

The mental health problems and other developmental difficulties facing these children are not caused by a single factor. Rather, they are attributable to a complex relationship between the experiences of being in care and the adverse circumstances which led to their admission into care. A further confounding factor is that, while in care, many of them move so often between placements that their lives lose the constancy, or stability, and pattern which they need in order to thrive. Thus, they lag far behind their contemporaries in almost every area of development: physical health, educational attainment, social and psychological functioning as well as behavior.

Family backgrounds

Research indicates that, compared to other children, children in care are more vulnerable to mental health problems. However, the rates of mental disorders appear to be greater among children:

  • In lone-parent compared with two-parent families (16% cf 8%)
  • In reconstituted families rather than those with no stepchildren (15% cf 9%)
  • In families with five or more children compared with two children (18% cf 8%)
  • If parents have no educational qualifications compared to those with a degree level or equivalent qualification (15% cf 6%)
  • In families with neither parent working compared with both parents at work (20% cf 8%)
  • In families of lower social class compared with middle/upper social class (14% cf 5%)
  • Whose parents are social sector tenants compared with owner-occupiers (17% cf 6%)
  • In households in an economically prosperous rather than striving neighborhood or area (13% cf 5%)

The families from which a large proportion of children come into care have many of these characteristics. For example, a UK large-scale study involving 2,500 children in care reported these family characteristics (Gallagher, 1999):

  • 75% of the families were living with only one of their parents (usually the mother)
  • 75% received income support (social welfare)
  • 80% were social sector tenants
  • Over 50% lived in poor neighborhoods (wards or areas)

Mental health: a definition

Good mental health in children involves the absence of significant impairment of behavioral and emotional development. It also includes:

The ability to develop psychologically, emotionally, intellectually [and spiritually]; the ability to initiate , develop, and sustain mutually satisfying personal relationships...the ability to use psychological distress as a developmental process, so that it does not hinder or impair future development. (NHS Advisory Service, 1995)

Mental health problems

The most common mental disorders which these young people suffer from include:

  • Anxiety, phobias, depression and conduct disorder
  • Some develop serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar affective disorder (depression), with psychotic symptoms
  • The experience of early sexual abuse and violence may predispose some victims to become abusers themselves or to fear they will do so
  • Very often the despair about their lives or the need to draw attention to their dire predicaments leads to suicidal attempts and self-harming behavior
  • Low self-esteem
  • They may put themselves at further risk by running away
  • The use of drugs and alcohol, promiscuity, prostitution and criminal acts
  • Hostile or angry feelings and aggressive behavior

Data from the UK and the USA suggest that some 45%-85% of children in care experience one or more mental disorders.

Theoretical explanations

The prevalence of developmental and mental health difficulties facing children in care is high indeed. The mean rate of 65% is significantly higher than the prevalence of mental health issues among children living with their families.
It proposes that a sense of connectedness to one's origins is essential to children's adjustment to separation, to their identity and to their emotional and mental health. Its basic tenets are:

  • The amount and/or quality of information children possess about their biological parents determines the degree to which they integrate the parents' backgrounds and ancestral roots
  • Children who possess adequate and favorable information about their birth-parents have a deep sense of connectedness
  • Conversely, children who possess no, inadequate, or damaging information about their parents are less likely to integrate it and, therefore, have a shallow sense of connectedness
  • Children who have a deep sense of connectedness are better adjusted than those who have no or a shallow sense of connectedness

My research over the past 15 years supports these hypotheses.

Socio-genealogical connectedness (S-GC) hypothesizes that the potent driving force behind all human activities is the need and quest for self-knowledge (the need to know who one is), and to be able to answer such fundamental questions as: "Who am I?" "What am I?" "Whence did I come?" "Where do I belong?"
Unlike attachment theory, S-GC does not construe physical presence or actual contact as a prerequisite for a child's sense of being linked to her/his biological parents or relatives. Socio-genealogical knowledge, the amount or quality of it, does not have to be provided directly by the parents themselves.

Socio-genealogical connectedness, identity and mental health

From an S-GC perspective, none of the mental health problems that children in care experience is surprising. These children came into care with a history of physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse, rejection or neglect. A very large proportion of such children entered the care system with these adversities having already taken their toll. These difficulties are frequently further compounded by the care system in the form of separation.

In adolescence in particular, the harmful psychological impact of these adversities on the young person's identity, self-esteem and mental health have been well documented. Shants (1964) captured the psychological effects of these adversities and the care arrangements on the children's sense of belonging, self-esteem and, consequently, their mental health in the phrase genealogical bewilderment:

A genealogically bewildered child is one who has either no knowledge of his natural parents or only uncertain knowledge about them. The resulting state of confusion and uncertainty fundamentally undermines his security and thus affects his mental health. (p. 133)

In the case of children who entered care as babies or infants, many are unlikely to know who their biological parents are. Others, such as those who entered the care system in childhood, may have knowledge of their parents, but such knowledge is often fuzzy or shaky and tainted by negative experiences of the parents.

Such experiences cause confusion in the children's minds. Because they frequently blame themselves for their plight (not being with their parents), they wrongly assume that they do not belong because they are unworthy of love and affection. At other times, when they believe that it is their parents who have failed them, they still try hard to cognitively separate the parent as a person from the parent as his/her abusive behavior. In other words, although they do not like the parent's abusive behavior, they love him/her as a parent nonetheless. This frequently jeopardizes their adjustment to placements; such children commonly run away from loving and supportive foster families to their inadequate, abusive parents. Inexperienced or uninformed child welfare professionals often find this behavior just bizarre. S-GC provides at least a partial explanation for this phenomenon.

Policy/practice: Parental contact

One of the characteristics that a large proportion of children in care share with other separated children is loss of contact with one or both of their birth-parents. Entry into care frequently results in a loss of contact with or curtailment of information about the parents. Besides other research, my own studies, based upon the notion of S-GC indicate that a loss or lack of parental contact or information is one of the major factors which threaten the children's adjustment to placements.

What and how much information should they have?

Promoting mental health in children in care and dealing effectively with those with mental health problems is an important task for those concerned. So, if S-GC proposes that parental knowledge be incorporated into interventions, the central question to be addressed, then, is what kind of information and how much openness is necessary given the children's negative experiences with their parents. This is, of course, a matter not just for practitioners, but equally for policy makers and researchers.

To childcare workers, I propose the following as a positive start:

  • Intervention must include helping the care givers to appreciate the importance and value of giving an accurate picture of the biological parents' assets and liabilities
  • Answering the child's questions in simple and unambiguous language with honesty tempered with discretion
  • Refraining from brutal honesty
  • Refraining from providing the child with negatively distorted information about the parents

Suggestion: for further study consult bibliography and ponder the following

  1. What groups of children do you consider as separated children?
  2. Consider the ways in which social workers may maintain or foster a sense of socio-genealogical connectedness in children in the public care system.
  3. Consider the ways in which a child's sense of socio-genealogical connectedness may be destroyed or undermined.


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