By: Amanda Lyons

The term therapeutic has gained a lot of momentum within the state’s child protection and family welfare services over the past decade, particularly within the provision and practice of foster care placements for teenagers in the UK. The proliferation of this term is due perhaps to a deepening in our understandings of the prevalence of developmental trauma/complex PTSD (Frogley, 2018) throughout the population of young people who are removed from their birth families due to abuse or neglect. Many of these young people may have been exposed to multiple traumas in childhood, as well as the experience of loss and displacement that being taken into state care can create. There is also a growing awareness of impact that these negative past experiences can have on an individual’s level of disadvantage in the personal, social, and economic spheres across one’s lifespan if left unaddressed.

In a bid to tackle any further disadvantage for those in state care, a growing number of foster care placements are now being offered that are said to provide a young person with a therapeutic environment, through the enhanced training of foster carers. Yet, there remains relatively little evidence outlining whether foster carers’ enhanced training and learnt therapeutic practice models in fact filter down into the lived experience of the teenagers in their care. Understanding the lived experience of these environments is also complicated by the growth of the private sector within child and family welfare services, and the out-sourcing of care placements to a vast array of independent organisations. Within this increasingly devolved landscape of state care, independent providers draw their practices from an array of available theoretical approaches.

So, by utilising a phenomenological epistemology, intertwined with intersectional approaches and grounded in participatory frameworks of data collection, I explored the concept of a therapeutic foster home environment with young people aged 13 – 25, either currently in foster care placements or having recently left care. During the research, the young people created photo-diaries, attended individual photo-elicited conversations, and engaged in group art workshops to share their ideas and experiences of foster homes as therapeutic spaces. They also suggested what they thought were the key ingredients that enabled the creation of therapeutic foster home. I examined how these concepts, perceptions, and experiences varied across their differing identities and analysed whether the lived experience of the foster home as therapeutic coincided with or challenged the current adult perspectives, as set out in the existing theoretical and research literature.

Through the experiences they captured and the perspectives they shared, the young people led me to reframe the focus of my enquiry. Within the current research literature and in practice, there exists a tendency for the focus of our analytical lens to fall upon the foster carer as the centre of the therapeutic landscape. Yet, the young people de-centred the role of the foster carer within their therapeutic landscape, both through their individual photographs as well as within their shared narratives. With these findings, I proceeded to look at their contributions through the lens of Gesler’s (1992) Therapeutic Landscapes Framework. This framework helped me to understand and categorise the young people’s therapeutic experiences within the multi-faceted landscape of the foster home, where the physical and material environment, intertwine with both human and non-human relational aspects to produce an atmosphere which is conducive to a sense of healing.

This research suggests that understanding and capturing all the aspects of foster home landscape is an important part of the provision’s ongoing development, particularly with regards to limiting any further disadvantage across the lifespan. The research also highlighted the continued significance of gathering research data on not only the experiences but also the ideas of the young people in our child welfare system. As they are uniquely positioned with expertise on how to make the system more equitable for those within it.