‘You cannot promote foster care without promoting qualitative foster care’, Maud Stiernet

In this interview Maud Stiernet speaks of her work as Chair of the Belgian NGO La Porte Ouverte. La Porte Ouverte is a full member of Eurochild since April 2015 and is based in Battice, Belgium (Wallonia)

Maud Stiernet

Maud, what is your role in La Porte Ouverte? Can you describe briefly what you do? 

We are an NGO that brings members together who are all foster families. I communicate La Porte Ouverte’s message, advocate and bring the different ideas from the members together to improve foster care. Our members are very diverse, they represent society very well. We work with foster families from all kind of backgrounds. For example, kinship families, single foster parents, really any kind of family situation is represented. It is very interesting to work with them and to gather these different opinions.

You yourself are a Foster mother. How does that influence your outlook on your work?

Yes, that’s true. Combining personal life and advocacy is not always easy. I am a foster mother and at some point I decided I did not only want to witness what was happening in alternative care but do something. I then started volunteering for La Porte Ouverte and tried to see how I could align the professional and the personal without mixing them, but the two reinforcing each other. I have to bring an authentic message across, but when I speak for a group of people I cannot speak only from my emotions. It is easy to communicate messages when they are true to you, on the other hand you need to represent all the members.

This year a 3 years old foster child in Wallonia was supposed to be taken away from the foster parents and placed in an institution. After a decision from the judge the child eventually could live in a family again. Can you tell me a bit more about the decision?

Yes, the child was placed with a foster family again. This is of course not an isolated case of ‘reinstitutionalization’. If placement services want the child to go back to an institution, we have to see if and how we can empower foster parents. The particular case with the child was a short-term placement, and the foster family said that if there was no other alternative for the child they wanted to become long-term foster parents. Placement services still wanted the child to go to an institution, saying short-term foster parents could not become long - term, so then La Porte Ouverte assisted the family through research, lots of reading and finding the right people the foster family could receive advice from. Eventually, the family wrote a well-motivated letter to the judge and in the end the judge agreed to leave the child with his foster family. 


What are the difficulties with such types of cases?

In the majority of the cases the child goes back to the biological parents. Sometimes, if the situation hasn’t improved then the child ends up in an institution again. The problem is that in this process, the former foster parents are not even contacted, nor informed. That is a pity because after some months, or even years they still can feel very involved. Of what I know, many of these foster parents would have liked to have been informed as they might have taken the child into family care again. These kind of situations in which for example the family cannot go easily from short term to long-term care, or circle situations in which the child goes from foster family to biological family to institutions are very sad, as it ‘loses’ the child in a way.


What is the biggest challenge for La Porte Ouverte in carrying out its work?  

Especially in French speaking countries in Europe there is the problem of, what you can call, ‘ballotage’; the child doesn’t have a fixed place.  Authorities do not always strive for permanency. Foster families need to be well informed to be able to tell the judge what they think.  This also implies that they need to have the time and energy to go to court.  70% of foster families in Wallonia-Brussels are kinship families: relatives, neighbours or people the child already knows. These families sometimes come from the same socio-economic index as where the child came from and also need some guidance themselves. For half of the foster families in Wallonia there is no accompaniment or support. Normally, for a foster family there should be a follow-up by a placement service. Here families receive the regular social assistance, but no help from social workers or people who have been specifically trained in foster care and who have experience working with and ‘in between’ two families. 

A challenge eventually is also the lack of political will. We cannot do without changes in legislation. We can base ourselves on international and European legislations, but these are not always well-known in our own country. I think this is the trickiest part of the work. Legislation in Brussels is different from the Walloon one. In terms of youth help and even in terms of juridical recourse. Imagine when you have to help a foster brother and sister living in two different regions and you try to explain why it takes months for one child to get permission for a school trip, where the other got it in one week. I do not gain anything if I cannot get different groups together around the child. At a Wallonia-Brussels (regional) level, Youth Help legislation should include quality standards for foster families and foster youth regarding support, training and participation. At a Federal level, Belgium is preparing a legal basis for foster families so that their co-parenting role can be recognized and that the child in care can live a normal life and benefit from decisions regarding school or medical treatments.


*image taken from traditioninaction.org

Who are the stakeholders for you to target when advocating for foster care?

At the moment I am asking the academic world in Wallonia to address foster care and include foster families into studies on ‘regular’ family issues.  I would like them to develop studies on the topic of attachment and something which remains understudied probably in whole Europe: siblings in foster care. I refer here to the relation between biological children of the foster family and the foster children on the long run.  These relationships have a great impact on their lives. In academia the institutional world is analysed, but foster care is often studied apart, not in an interdisciplinary and plural way, or does not focus enough on a specific aspect of foster care, such as attachment. 


In Wallonia there are many children in need of a foster parents but there aren’t enough foster families.  How do you promote foster care? 

This is quite ambiguous in Wallonia-Brussels. Foster care is being promoted through campaigns but at the same time institutionalisation continues. It is very nice to promote foster care, but you cannot promote foster care without promoting qualitative foster care. You cannot recruit new families and not support nor train them. Now there is a focus on prevention and helping children and families in their own environment, this is very important, and we support this. We want to put the family forward. The institution should be the last option. Yet, when is said that there are not enough foster families, then we should look for the reasons; there is no parental leave for all foster parents, it requires a lot of administration and foster families do not have enough rights. If you want to support families and foster families, you need to promote deinstitutionalisation in terms of the interest of the child and not just as a cost-saving measure.


With regard to your work, how do you see the role of networks like Eurochild? Do they help La Porte Ouverte - and in what way?

The final objective for us is the interest of the child. But to put that into words, it is good to have theories and policies to base ourselves on. Eurochild not only provides us with theory but also concrete practices on how to deal with certain aspects. For example, how to make children participate and how to translate the voice of the child in practical terms. It gives us both a theoretical framework and examples on how this was implemented in other countries. We are a small NGO, so we don’t always have the time and the resources to participate in everything. But what I appreciate is that you communicate a lot in ‘second instance’, so if we are not available to attend somewhere, you often provide the possibility to follow seminars via web streaming so we can still benefit from it. 

When is foster care a success? I read you speak of the child ‘integrating the story’.  

We say that foster care is often a success when the child ‘integrates his story’. Of course the child will always question the situation and have difficult moments, but he should feel he is allowed to ‘play’ with the situation: the situation does not always need to be so ‘loaded’ for foster children. It is important he can draw, write about it, whatever the child likes, and make his own story. This ‘narrative process’ is key. It provides a structure and enables the child be an actor by creating his own story and that is really beautiful to see.


What are your hopes or dreams for the future?

I hope that families will be put first. But one should not forget that there are children who do not have or live in a family. Ultimately, I hope it will become easier for a foster child to be a foster child. I would even say, I hope that a foster child will be able to be proud of being a foster child. That having a foster family can be seen as a strength or that it is ok to have two families. In this way, the child can consider the foster family maybe like an added value instead of a handicap.  I think that even worse than judgment of foster children is determinism. It is good to protect a vulnerable child, but at the same time he or she is also very often seen as a victim or a troubled child. Foster children should not suffer from this kind of discrimination. Make them feel proud instead of stigmatizing them.




                                                   Drawings by foster children, provided by Maud Stiernet




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