Talking back to 'family', 'family troubles', and 'the looked-after child'

Welch, Vicki (2018) Talking back to 'family', 'family troubles', and 'the looked-after child'. Sociological Research Online, 23 (1). 197–218. ISSN 1360-7804 (

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'Looked after' is a term used in the UK to describe children who are the subject of 'alternative care' arrangements (i.e. in the care of a statutory authority), most often away from their birth parents. Within this potentially stigmatising context, this paper presents a reanalysis of data from semi-structured interviews with seventeen participants during three recent small-scale studies in Scotland. Juhila's (2004) concept of 'talking back' to potentially stigmatising categories informs this analysis that explores participants' understanding of, and responses to, three categorisations: the 'family', 'family troubles', and 'the looked-after child'. Participants were either: young people with experience of home supervision, birth mothers of adopted children, or kinship carers. The analysis finds clear examples of 'talking back' to all three categories, including through a process that linked categories, such that accepting aspects of one potentially stigmatised identity, helped to explain membership of another. This suggests a potential refinement of Juhila's model. 'Looked after' was widely understood, but the term was seldom used by participants. There was evidence that participants 'talked back' to the idea of the looked after child by problematising its appropriateness in their circumstances, including home supervision and kinship care. In their discussions with researchers, these participants privileged biological understandings of 'family', affirming enduring links despite troubles and separations. The paper is concluded by identifying briefly some implications for policy and practice.