Another view of attachment – a response to Cathy Glass’ blog by David Clarke

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David Clarke has been fostering for nearly six years with TACT. He is currently undertaking a BA(Hons) in Social Work at Glasgow Caledonian University. He has an interest in Social Work research, particularly social work theory and its applicability to working with children.

David wrote this blog in response to Cathy Glass's lastest monthly blog.

Social work theory has long been the exclusive property of academics and social workers, often used to evidence good practice, make decisions about a child’s life and to formulate the basis for complex assessments.  It’s what deems these individuals as professionals.  It’s something that the foster carer needs know little about.  Other than attachment theory, of course.

Attachment theory training appears to feature prominently within foster carer training packages.  We learn about Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth’s “classification system” and use, quite confidently, terms like “secure” “insecure” and “disorder”.  We might even start to use them in our carer diaries, at hearings and during supervision.  We are using theory in our practice, and this is not only encouraging, but exciting given the on-going (although improving) need to recognise the professional status of foster carers within the child protection arena.  Articles like Ms Glass’ are further examples of the increasing intersection of theory and foster caring.

Theory can be simplified but never simple

Unfortunately, when it comes to theory, whilst it can be simplified it can never be simple.  Theory is very much contested.  As Beckett (2006, p. 186) writes, “it’s all good in theory”.  Furthermore, Beckett argues that it is important to be critical of it, and to be aware of overzealously trying to make a particular situation fit to a preferred theory.  It is the last point he makes that resonates with me: making theory fit, or, more specifically, making attachment theory, as the traditional ‘popular choice’ fit to foster care through complete ignorance of other, perhaps more apt working theories.

In this blog I seek to engage in discussion with all carers about two major concerns:

  • The compatibility of attachment theory principles with modern foster caring
  • The lack of consideration of other theories within social work and foster carer training

When reading this phrases such as:

  • “Children who did not successfully bond”
  • “prevalence of attachment disorders in adopted and fostered children”
  • “children have failed to bond”
  • “the child’s unacceptable behaviour”

I wonder how easy these words sat with foster carers.  In fact, it prompted me to open my laptop on a Friday night to write this article, in lieu of an hour in front of the big screen.  Are foster carers truly happy to use terms like these, to have kids in their care described in such a way?

Foster carers, from my experience, are the most anti-discriminatory, person-centred, understanding professionals within social care; their values impeccable, their commitment to advocating for children unquestionable.  And yet, we are told, nay, trained by highly paid experts to recognise the signs of deficiencies in children, their failures and inabilities such as their failure to bond.

When was the last time you high-fived your own children?

The ‘skill’ of identifying, recording, reporting and treating things children don’t or can’t do well has somehow, absurdly, become evidence of understanding the needs of a child in your care.  Of course, we can all say good things about kids, but ask yourself, when was the last time you spent the majority of time in a school meeting, hearing or review talking about a child’s strengths?

Or, put it this way: when was the last time you high-fived your own children for successfully bonding with you?  I hypothesise that this isn’t standard parenting protocol.  But why, if we don’t do this, do we spend so much time considering the deficits of children in care and their ‘failure’ to attach to their primary caregiver?  Why are we so transfixed on things that have gone wrong?

Many carers reading this will attest to the ease with which people involved in their foster child’s lives recite the “unacceptable behaviour” they see them demonstrate.  Perhaps it’s the schoolteacher who declares, “She just can’t focus” or “He just can’t behave himself at lunch time”.  Or, the football coach who remarks, “He won’t listen to me, he just needs to listen”.  Or, the care worker who describes the child as “difficult”. 

Some readers may not take issue with the above and, of course, that is their prerogative.  However, I have to, once again, pose a question, the definitive question: How does all this actually help the child?  Or, how does attachment theory help the child?

It’s time to think again.

I end this article with full acknowledgment that I failed to expand on my concern relating to the lack of use of alternate theories within foster care practice, but alas, this piece is already longer than I intended.  I promise that I will address this in my next submission.  I further promise that you do not have to read it. 

In the meantime, I’m off to high-five my child.