Everyday Worlds in Foster Care: Exploring Children and Young People's Socio-Spatial Experiences and Identities

Research output: Types of ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Children and young people in foster care can experience transitions between family environments, schools, and neighbourhoods that require them to ‘figure’ selves across diverse socio-spatial contexts. This qualitative study aimed to identify key factors influencing emerging identities across children’s social worlds in foster care. It is concerned with how everyday ordinary experiences are affected by multi-dimensional aspects of space, specifically relational (key relationships), physical (everyday settings) and temporal (over time). Furthermore, it set out to explore children and young people’s views of their foster care status and the role this plays in internalisations and presentations of self. The use of a unique interdisciplinary theoretical framework that joins concepts from social psychology, human geography and socio-cultural studies addresses the shortfall of research exploring spatialised identities in foster care. Conducted from the view that children and young people are experts in their own lives, this study contributes methodologically by employing a mosaic research design. A variety of participatory methods were used that positioned young people as co-producers of data. The lived experiences of sixteen participants between the ages of 8 and 29 were analysed using thematic analysis, photographic inquiry, and narrative case analysis. Results foregrounded eight overarching factors influencing emerging identities including personal information, pre-care experiences, agency, relationships, foster care status, physical space, virtual space, and time.
Young people's everyday presentations of self were situated and influenced by the interconnectedness of various dimensions of space. Most demonstrated the capacity to construct and adapt identities according to their shifting contexts and to enact agentic selves that had potential to shape the identities and spaces of others, leading to the development of what I call a 'teleidoscopic self'. Positive relationships were influenced by placement type and stability (not necessarily length) and were central to feelings of authenticity, belonging, family identity, and the formation of resilient and agentic identities. However, relationships were often complicated by dynamics of power and feelings of otherness. Participants also described how they and their foster families use time and space to adapt and create new figured worlds together. These factors contributed to a sense of 'place' or 'placelessness', feelings of belonging and shared family display. Foster care specific spaces such as location of care review meetings were reported as being intimidating, disempowering and not conducive to meaningful participation. Activities and interactions engaged with because of foster care led to the development of an internalised ‘fostered self’ to which participants had mixed feelings. Positive feelings were related to a sense of uniqueness, resilience, belonging, and awareness of a less salubrious alternative to foster care. Negative associations were influenced by enacted and felt stigma, dislike of interaction with professionals, reduced sense of agency and lack of stability. Notwithstanding these challenges, children and young people’s agency and resilience was reflected in the coping strategies they employed to counteract the effects of stigma including concealing their care status, selective disclosure, affiliation to similar others and seeking support.
In light of these findings, the thesis makes further contributions to the field in the form of recommendations for policy, practice and future research. Relationships that support the construction of resilient identities should be identified, promoted, and prioritised at all stages of the care-planning process. In addition, physical space can and should be used as a resource to support the development of positive and agentic identities for children and young people as they figure their worlds in foster care. Finally, the National Standards for Foster Care (2003) need to be updated, published, and implemented and should reflect a multi-dimensional approach to children and young people's spatialised experiences of care.
Original languageEnglish (Ireland)
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • University College Dublin
  • Devine, Prof Dympna, Supervisor, External person
  • O' Brien, Dr Valerie, Advisor, External person
  • Symonds, Dr Jennifer, Advisor, External person
Award date06 Dec 2021
Publication statusUnpublished - 06 Dec 2021


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