What’s In a Name?

By Aoife O’Higgins, Rees Centre doctoral student

What’s in a name? Finding the right words to describe people who are or have ever been in care is harder than it seems!

At the Rees Centre we commonly refer to the population we’re working with as ‘children in care’. By this we mean children who don’t live with their parents and are provided with accommodation and support by the state. There are a number of other terms we could use: ‘looked after children’, ‘children looked after’ or children in out-of-home care.

We use ‘children in care’ because it’s simple, broad and understood internationally. But is this choice really that simple?

While we find that ‘children in care’ is a convenient catch all, it’s not perfect. For starters, we’re not always talking about children, and even 15 to 17 year olds might prefer to be referred to as ‘young people’. The ‘in care’ bit is not straightforward either. ‘In care’ is a broad term. Do we mean children in long-term foster or residential care?  What of those who only spend a week in care at age 8? Or those in respite care, one weekend a month? And what about young people who live with their grandmother?
Does ‘child in care’ accurately describe their situation and does it reflect their experiences?

The Rees Centre also works with a lot of adults who were in care at some point in their childhood; we often call them ‘care leavers’. I’m comfortable with the term ‘care leaver’ to describe young people who continue to receive support from local authority leaving care services (usually to 21 or 25 if they are in full time education), but what of those who don’t because they’re 25, 30 or 45? Should they continue to be called ‘care leavers’? Do you ever get to escape the label? I try to use the term ‘care experienced’ because it is more inclusive, bringing together anyone who has ever been in care while saying nothing about his or her current situation. It also tells us that being in care is an experience, not just a legal status.

But why does this matter?

Choosing an appropriate term matters. It matters because we need to know who we’re talking to or about. But as I’ve learnt from writing this blog and researching terminology, I’m not sure we’re always describing the same group of people! More importantly, language and labels are important to reflect on because they assign meaning and images – positive or negative – to the words we use every day. When I say ‘child in care’ a mental image appears in my head. But is it the same one that appears in your mind? You might think of your experience, others will think of vulnerable children who need help and support, while others still might see delinquent teenagers. Because we have all heard, read and experienced different stories with regards to the care system, the term will have different meanings to us all. Language is also a powerful tool that can be used to manipulate the images and meanings individuals and society create.

Finally, we should consider what language and labels means to those we work with. When children, young people and adults are assigned labels, ‘child in care’ or ‘care leaver’, they are put in a box and assumptions are made about who they are, what they want and what they need. This can have dramatic effects on many aspects of their development, for example, if expectations of them are very low. More broadly, we should reflect on our use of labels and jargon and consider how this affects this population’s sense of self and identity. The best term to use is obviously the one a child, young person, friend or colleague want you to use, but when you don’t know what that is… what term do you use?

Read more about Aoife’s research..

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