One of the most compelling messages from the Scottish Independent Care Review (The Promise)3 is the impact of language on how care experienced children and young people feel. Many children told the review that words like ‘unit’, ‘placement’, ‘contact’, ‘respite’ and the acronym ‘LAC’ (for looked after children) created a sense of being different, exacerbated low self-esteem and made them feel stigmatised. This message was reinforced by fostering charity TACT’s Language that Cares project. Working in collaboration with care experienced children, the project highlighted the ‘LAC’ label and related terms in its dictionary of care system language in need of replacement.4
Research has shown children in care are already particularly vulnerable to exclusion and discrimination from their peers and in the community, simply by virtue of being looked after.5 So how we discuss and speak to children in care is particularly important.
Professionalisation leading to depersonalisation
Looked after children is an official government term and the LAC acronym is itself widely used among professionals. However, although acronyms can be a helpful shorthand in some contexts, using terms like LAC and other ‘system’ language rather than child-centric language shifts the focus away from the child and towards the system or process itself. This can make children feel like they aren’t seen by the people working with them as individuals, “like you’re just like someone’s job.”6
There are many consequences to using the LAC label, but one of the most concerning aspects is by reducing children to a mere abbreviation, we risk devaluing their lived experiences, emotions, and needs. When professionals refer to children in care as 'LAC,' it might create an impression that they are a homogeneous group with uniform experiences. In reality, each child's story is unique, and they deserve to be treated as such.
Choice of language not only affects the children it is used to describe, but also the professionals using it. It can change how professionals perceive, think about, and behave towards the children in their care and can impact their professional practice.
Same sound but different meaning
A commonly reported reaction by children to the ‘LAC’ label is that the use of acronyms obscures understanding. Speaking to researchers from Become and Voices from Care charities, one group of children talked about how professional use of the acronym ‘LAC’, “make us all feel like we're lacking summat but we're not.”7
Othering and stigmatising
Children in care and children leaving care often report experiencing stigma and worrying about being labelled or judged if their care background is known.8
Labels like LAC can play a large part in ‘othering’ children in care, positioning them as different from non-care experienced children9. For example, young people reported to researchers that being called out of class to attend so-called ‘LAC reviews’ exposed their personal lives, whilst making their differences from other students visible. Similar views were reported in schools where there was a designated ‘LAC teacher’ or ‘LAC coordinator’.10
Creating barriers to engagement
If a child feels devalued by the language used, then they may feel excluded from conversations about them and won’t feel safe sharing their opinions and experiences. How will professionals hear the voice of the child if the child or young person feels that no one is listening?
While the maintenance of professional boundaries can be important, using an acronym to describe a child or young person can come across as impersonal and detached. This impersonality can hinder the establishment of trust and rapport between professionals and the children they support.
This lack of connection can have serious implications not only in terms of children feeling they are not taken seriously or are not believed, but also in their feeling they cannot trust those who are there to care and advocate for them. Such barriers to engagement can make the child’s situation more difficult to understand and harder to improve. For example, not being noticed, being asked, or being heard is a consistent key finding in disclosure delays or failures.11
Helping children to find their voice
How we use language changes over time, and we will not always get it right. The key is in self-reflection and understanding that language matters; it shapes perceptions, attitudes, and ultimately, the quality of care and support provided to children.
Avoiding the use of LAC, and other terms identified by children in care as problematic, in favour of positive and child-centric language can help reshape perceptions and attitudes.
An example of this practice can be found in East Sussex Council’s 2022-23 pledge for children in care. The council now uses ‘My Voice Matters’ rather than LAC review alongside other promises to get to know children in care, keep in touch and listen to what they say.12
Not all children and young people want the same things, but they all want to be listened to and to feel that they have choice and control in their lives. Asking children how they want to be referred to is a great way to start the conversation.
Professionals have a responsibility to support the wellbeing and advocate for the children they work with. An important part of this is helping children to find their voice. In the words of The Promise, we must understand that “language creates realities”. Those with care experience must hold and own the narrative of their stories and lives, and professionals should help achieve this by challenging the depersonalising use of acronyms and other systems-focussed language in the care system.13
ReferencesMunro, E. (2011) A child-centred system (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).
Munro, E. (2011) A child-centred system (PDF). [London]: Department for Education (DfE).
Independent Care Review (2020) The Promise. [Accessed 17/10/2023].
TACT (2019) Language that cares. [Accessed 17/10/2023].
Axford N. (2008) Are looked after children socially excluded? (PDF). Adoption & Fostering Journal. 32(4): 5-18.
BBC Northern Ireland (2019) Kids in care: changing the language. [Accessed 17/10/2023].
Become (2017) Perceptions of care. [Accessed 17/10/2023].
Coram (2020) Bright spots: challenging stigma in the care system. [Accessed 17/10/2023].
Jones, L. et al (2020) ‘We are the same as everyone else just with a different and unique backstory’: Identity, belonging and ‘othering’ within education for young people who are ‘looked after'. Children & Society. 34(6): 492-506.
Mannay, D. et al (2017) The consequences of being labelled ‘looked-after’: Exploring the educational experiences of looked-after children and young people in Wales. British Educational Research Journal. 43(4): 683-699.
Allnock, D. and Miller, P. (2013) No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. London: NSPCC.
East Sussex County Council (2022) Our 2022-23 pledge for looked after children. [Accessed 17/10/2023].
Independent Care Review (2020) The Promise. [Accessed 17/10/2023].