Secrets, lies and untruths - why foster carers don’t keep secrets

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In this blog, Sarah Morgan, Specialist Advisor for Education and Children's Social Care, at The Shropshire Academy and Learning Trust, explores the concept and possible impact of keeping secrets within foster families.

Children that arrive in foster families have all too often been coerced into keeping secrets. It is the very nature of these ‘so called secrets’ that can relate to the sustained and hidden abuse of children. Through their implicit vulnerability, children are often unable to physically ‘show’ and emotionally ‘tell’, their hidden trauma or sustained abuse.

Silenced into a world of acceptance, their pain-based behaviour can go unquestioned by the untrained or unprepared eye. This ‘secret silence’ leaves children exposed to the continuation of neglectful and abusive parenting, through continuous exposure to possibly physical, emotional and sexual harm. Anglin, J (2014)

A brave child steps forwards, or an intuitive professional or connected person starts to become professionally curious or concerned. The child finally begins to ‘show and tell’ the harm that they are suffering, alongside the hidden secrets and untold truths.

A foster family policy - no secrets

Foster families play a vital role in teaching and guiding children, entrusted to their care, the difference between a good or a bad secret. Children that have been coerced into holding silent secrets, by abusive and manipulative adults, can remain vulnerable throughout their lives.

Children subject to the holding of harmful secrets (NSPCC) have learnt that adults are empowered by the rules of coercion, and may remain a vulnerable target for bullies and future predators, unless positive and early intervention is offered, and authentically modelled, once the child has been removed from the harmful situation that they have suffered abuse and coercion within.

Children must re-learn some important communication lessons to safeguard and protect them from any further form of future harm. Early intervention, positive support and encouragement, and permission to speak up and be heard, will give abused children the skills and confidence to share their feelings rather than stay silent and afraid.

No quick fix

Children that are coerced to keep secrets to protect abusive adults, within an unhealthy family or relationship dynamic, have often become adept at avoiding the truth, and may misrepresent information to protect themselves from the perceived threat of further harm. These are survival and coping strategies that need to be carefully thought through, and responded to, with consistent responses from predictable caregivers. This approach ensures that the child feels able to learn from a situation, rather than feel blamed or punished.

Foster parents have a crucial role to play in the reframing of this important process. ‘A no secrets policy’ should be promoted within the home, and a family agreement should be talked about to protect all children, whether they are fostered, adopted or part of the birth family.

Abusive adults count upon the fact that children will keep secrets, and will often ‘test out’ small or seemingly innocent secrets to see if the child will comply and keep bigger secrets later on.

Foster families and families in general, should not teach children to keep secrets around seemingly small, or what adults perceive to be, relatively minor things. 

Telling a young child that they can have an ice lolly, but then telling them that they must not tell their sibling when they are collected from school later, not only singles children out to believe that they are special, but also encourages secrets. This scenario may also give children explicit messages that they are expected to be collusive, whilst normalising adult untruths or deception.

Offering the opportunity to a child to keep a secret, however minor, reinforces the pattern of an adult power imbalance. If we teach our children that they should not keep minor, or what could be perceived to be harmless secrets, we are instilling in them the confidence to speak up, and not remain silent in potentially unsafe circumstances. 

Sensitive teaching and curious exploration around ‘truth and lies’ and ‘good and bad’ secrets is paramount.

Simple tips and practical resources for foster families

  • Agree a ‘no secrets’ rule to safeguard all children within, or visiting the family home. This not only gives children explicit permission to speak up and be heard, but also supports safer caring principles for additional children that may visit or live with the foster family.
  • Compile an agreed family dictionary on your kitchen notice board, and check out, or remind each other about the key words. Explore what they mean to you as a family, as and when a positive teaching situation may arise.
  • Add to the family dictionary and encourage children to do the same. This not only helps to normalise conversation around potentially sensitive subjects, but can also help with a child’s spelling and writing at the same time.
  • Empower children to speak up and be heard. Provide opportunities for children to write, record or draw their concerns if you spot that they are unable or unwilling to verbalise them.
  • Introduce a ‘no secrets box’ that children are encouraged to post their drawing, thoughts or worries into if they feel unable to say their worries out loud.
  • Choose an appropriately calm time, when you are emotionally available to your child, to explore the sharing of their thoughts through their postings.
  • Be curious, invite conversation and provide opportunities for positive intervention and support.
  • Children must be praised for telling the truth, for not keeping secrets and for being honest.

Sarah Morgan (2017) www.shropshirealt.org.uk