Foster parents between voluntarism and professionalisation: Unpacking the backpack

Lieselot De Wilde, Jochen Devlieghere, Michel Vandenbroeck, Bruno Vanobbergen - Children and Youth Services Review


Foster care is currently preferred over institutional care when children are in the care of the state. There seems to be a consensus on the voluntary origins of foster care, nonetheless there also seems to be a growing momentum for the professionalisation of this form of youth care. We contribute to the debate by means of an analysis of 33 semi-structured interviews with foster families in Flanders, exploring the tensions between voluntaristic and professionalising tendencies in foster care. Foster parents overall labelled themselves as loving volunteers as this creates a space to fail. Yet, they also appropriate themselves a specific know-how necessary to make educational decision concerning the child. Foster parents oscillate between the position of professional and volunteer, as becomes clear in discussions on how the foster child should name its foster parents, as well as in how foster parents conceptualise the past of the foster child, metaphorically conceptualised as its backpack. The search for the ‘right name’ and ‘the backpack’ metaphor illustrate the inescapable complexity of the foster placement. Conclusions on the nature of foster care are related to the conception of ‘the parent’ and ‘the nuclear family’, as well as to what shared upbringing may bring to the discussion.