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It’s Not Just the Missus. Male Foster Carers Challenge the Myths and Reflect on the Realities of their Role. Ros Thorpe, Chris Klease and Wayne Daly Department of Social Work & Community Welfare James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811 Paper presented at ACWA Conference

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Ros thorpe chris klease and wayne daly department of social work community welfare

It’s Not Just the Missus.Male Foster Carers Challenge the Myths and Reflect on the Realities of their Role

Ros Thorpe, Chris Klease and Wayne Daly

Department of Social Work & Community Welfare

James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811

Paper presented at ACWA Conference

Sydney, 20th August 2008


Male Carers

  • Neglected in much foster care research

  • Overlooked / undervalued in practice

  • Moral panic re risk of abuse

Foster carers jailed over abuse

Two men who sexually abused young boys placed in their foster care have been sent to prison.

The couple were approved as foster carers in July 2003

BBC News 23/06/2006

Current context

  • Material

    Crisis in supply of foster carers: need to recruit and retain a broader range of foster carers

  • Philosophical

    Feminist and Hetero-normative critiques re

    • Gender-role stereotyping

    • ‘proper’ / ‘normal’ styles of parenting and family life

Focus on untapped potential among inter alia men
Focus on untapped potential among, inter alia,Men

  • as single carers

  • as gay men – singly or in same sex couples

    Renewed appreciation ofMen

  • in hetero fostering couples

Research re male foster carers
Research re Male Foster Carers

  • Overseas Research

    • USA: Davids 1973; Cautley 1980

    • UK : Gilligan 2000; Newstone 2000; Wilson, Fyson & Newstone 2007

    • Sweden: Hojer 2004

  • Australian Research

    • Mackay Whitsunday Foster Care Research program

Sources of data re male carers mackay foster care research
Sources of Data re Male carers: Mackay Foster Care Research

In-depth Interviews with:

45 male foster carers[Thorpe and Klease]

41 in hetero couples; 4 single carers

29 General carers; 12 Relative or ‘limited’ carers;

4 ‘other’ carers (respite or informal Indigenous)

11 Indigenous carers; 34 non-Indigenous

59female foster carers with male partners

[Thorpe, Klease and Daly]

Focus Groups and Interviews with:

20 foster children and young people [Daly]

Aged from 9 to 22 years

3 Indigenous; 17 non-Indigenous

Key messages from research with male foster carers
Key Messages from Research with male foster carers

Diversity and Difference

Secondary Role —►Team Work —►Primary Role

↓↓ ↓

Support for partner Role Blurred roles



  • Using the strengths of each other

    He’s got discipline actions a little more fine tuned than what I have. He might stick to them more – I’d lapse if he wasn’t around [female general carer 109]

  • Working together towards a shared goal

    Tells partner stuff

    [comment from focus group with young people in foster care]

  • Mutual provision of practical and emotional support

    She and I help each other in that regard. If one sees the other as getting really stressed to the point we say ‘listen, take 5; have a break for a moment’[General male carer 173]

    Foster carers help each other – “would you like a cuppa tea?”[Lilo, aged 10]

Range of male foster carer role styles
Range of male foster carer role styles

  • Traditional western male role:

    employment, discipline, “blokey” activities

  • Modified traditional male role:

    work/home-life balance, shared domestic tasks, attentive to children’s needs

  • Non - traditional male role:

    nurturing, empathy, compassion, love

Traditional male role
‘traditional’ male role

  • I love the kids to be where I am, watching what I’m doing and learning what to do. I teach them basic skills and how to get on in life [male general carer 306]

  • I made him get a job at weekends. Get a bit of responsibility[general male carer 306]

  • My male partner was like a brick. He was the solid one – very level headed[female general carer 189]

Modified traditional male role
Modified ‘traditional’ male role

  • I like to be here when he’s come home ‘cos I can pick just by looking at him if he’s had a bad day and then we talk about it and get over it[male relative carer 010]

  • I spent a lot of time trying to get him to take the right things in his second year. I went and saw the Guidance Officer. I think I spent more time at the High School than he did!

    [general male carer 306]

Non traditional male role
Non-traditional male role

  • He has a maternal instinct – that’s very useful in fostering

    [female general carer 193]

  • You have to have love, and you have to be able to show it

    [male general carer 199]

Role modelling by male foster carers
ROLE MODELLING by male foster carers

  • First real encounter with a man in personal relationships (for some children)

  • Different gender-role identities and relations

  • New forms of intimacy, care and parenting

    This ‘everyday therapy’ may help “rectify distorted models of what is ‘normal’ in relations between a man and a woman, revealing the possibilities for constructive relationships between the sexes”

    [Gilligan 2000 p643]

Social and developmental benefits
Social and Developmental Benefits

  • Activities programmer and leader

    • Life skills

      “I teach them basic skills, and how to get on in life

      [male general carer 306]

    • Broaden horizons / feel included

      “I got to go to … (eg Tassie)”

      [John 18, Walshie 14, Jange 13]

    • Self esteem

      “They have to believe that activities like sport are good for your self esteem” [Jange 13]

  • Advocacy

    “My foster dad goes into bat for me” [Sas 14]

Activities a time to talk
ACTIVITIES – a time to Talk …

“He just loves fishing….I hate fishing. Sorry. It makes it really hard because … I had to take him fishing two or three times, and it was just very painful for me, I must say. But it was good to talk to him”

[‘limited’ carer 017]

… and to have Fun

“We had fun, the kids had fun and, I mean, I thought that was what it was about”[male general carer 610]

“He’s a full-on ‘happy Jack’; you never know what he’s going to do”[female general carer 609]

Therapeutic benefits healing from harm
Therapeutic BenefitsHealing from harm

Overarching commitment to non-violence

  • Has a good relationship with the child

  • Communicates without violence

  • No violence, and encourages you not to be violent

  • Listens to what you say

  • Makes you feel big not small

  • Makes you feel important

  • Doesn’t make you feel like crap

    [young people in foster care Focus Group]

Role modelling non violence
Role Modelling non-violence

My foster father is brave. I remember at baseball game two kids were fighting. My foster dad went and broke it up and said “there’s no point in fighting.”

[Sas 14]

Building resilience
Building Resilience

I’m hoping that by giving the children a safe, caring, sheltered place to live and grow, they’ll grow into caring, sharing adults

[male general carer 165]

It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes years of training, years of workin’ together, years of growing with the kids, and it slowly, slowly happens, sometimes it don’t … I cannot change these kids overnight

[male general carer 179]

Advanced empathy
Advanced Empathy

“It was a sexual abuse issue so the kids weren’t allowed to be alone with him. They had to have a supervised visit.

I think that from the first time we did that, it was a bit hard, making conversation with [natural father], but he’s mad about cars and motorbikes so [my partner] was able to make him feel a bit more comfortable and now they talk cars and bikes, and the kids love it that they see us as old friends.

Advanced empathy therapeutic outcomes
Advanced Empathy:Therapeutic Outcomes

… I think that it’s easy to judge people. Yes, they did terrible things to their children . . . but to try to look for the good points for the kids’ sake … to encourage a good relationship with them. And maybe sort of then that helps the kids work through the bad things too.

But not having any relationship with them at all. I have to see that as only a bad thing.”

[non-Indigenous female general carer 310]

Male carers views and experiences
Male carers’ views and experiences

Education and training:

  • Barriers to male participation

  • Timing conflicts with employment

  • No compensation for lost earnings

  • Female ‘atmosphere’

  • Male carers views and experiences cont
    Male carers’ views and experiences cont

    Education and training

    You need training when you find yourself in a situation. It’s like at the front line – you want more bullets

    [male general carer 125]

    It has prepared us for the unexpected

    [male general carer 006]

    Whether it’s sexual abuse, difficult behaviours, you learn from every one of them[male general carer 306]

    …and also help to understand how to deal with discipline and everything else that’s involved with fostering itself

    [male general carer 120]

    Male carers views and experiences cont1
    Male carers’ views and experiences cont.


    Sessions with other carers would be alright

    [Indigenous male general carer 240]

    I like the carers to talk with another carer

    [Indigenous male carer]

    I’m lucky, I still have my Elders when I get stressed that I can go to them. When I leave from there I always feel better[Indigenous male respite carer 232]

    Male carers peer support
    Male Carers’ Peer Support

    In Caerphilly, Wales

    “male foster carers have set up a networking group that addresses some of their specific concerns and provides the support they can find lacking in the usual forums traditionally centred on women.

    The meetings have a different feel from the traditional coffee mornings. They are structured towards peer mentoring and members feel they can be more open about issues like sexual health”[Parsons 2008]

    Implications for policy and practice
    Implications for Policy and Practice

    • Recruitment, selection, assessment of male carers in their own right

    • Research-informed practice: matching; sensitive placement processes

    • Respectful practice with male carers: recognition, involvement in decision making, peer support, male-centred education and training

    • Clear and supportive policy/protocols re abuse prevention and the handling of allegations

    Implications for worker education
    Implications for worker education

    Research-informed education and training

    • Gender stereotypes

    • Prejudicial assumptions

    • Risk pre-occupation v. positive practice

    • Working with men

    Implications for further research in australia
    Implications for further research in Australia

    • Gay couple carers

    • Single male carers

    • Metropolitan studies with male carers

    • Peer support for male carers

    • Male-focussed training

    Key references

    GILLIGAN, R. (2000) Men as foster carers: a neglected resource? Adoption & FosteringVolume 24, Number 2, Summer 2000 , pp. 63-69

    HICKS, S. (2005) Genealogy’s Desire: Practices of Kinship amongst Lesbian and Gay Foster Carers and Adopters. British Journal of Social Work 36(5) 761-776

    HOJER, I. (2004) What Happens in the Foster Family? A Study of Fostering Relationships in Sweden Adoption & Fostering, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 38-48.

    Ros thorpe chris klease and wayne daly department of social work community welfare

    MALLON, GP. and BETTS, B. (2005) Recruiting, Assessing and Supporting Lesbian and Gay Carers and Adopters. London: BAAF

    NEWSTONE, S. (2000) Male foster carers: what do we mean by ‘role models’? Adoption & FosteringVolume 24, Number 3, Autumn2000 , pp. 34-47

    RIGGS, DW. (2007) Reassessing the Foster care System: Examining the Impact of Heterosexism on Lesbian and Gay Applicants. Hypatia 22(1) 132-148

    WILSON, K., FYSON, R. & NEWSTONE, S. (2007) Foster fathers: their experiences and contributions to fostering Child and Family Social Work Vol 12 pp. 22-31.