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Fostering. What’s it really like?

***I cannot stress enough that these views are entirely and only my own and are based on my own personal experiences and reflections. Therefore, you do not need to agree with me.***


Wouldn’t we all like to do good in the world? Wouldn’t we all like to make a difference for a vulnerable child?


But what is it really like?


Well, first and quite rightly, you have the world’s longest job interview. The assessment process can take 6 - 9 months. A Form F assessment is carried out by an assessing social worker. They practically move into your house and ask you to reflect on your every fart and sneeze. Since birth. And how these have impacted on you. Not really. But you are asked to reflect on pretty much every aspect of your childhood experiences, school, family life, relationships, teenage years, adult relationships. Literally, no stone is left unturned. And rightly so. If you are going to invite a young person who has PTSD to live in your house it’s going to be useful to understand your own triggers.


When your little, or big, bundle of joy joins you your legal status in relation to your charge is frankly baffling and more than a little dysfunctional.


Let me explain. So, when a young person enters the ‘care’ system their Local Authority becomes their ‘Corporate Parent’ a description utterly devoid of warmth. The Local Authority has legal PR - Parental Responsibility. The Local Authority then outsources their parenting responsibility to you, the foster carer. Possibly via an IFA - Independent Fostering Agency.


I used to work as a teacher with responsibility for SEN and Child Protection. I used to sit in Looked After Child Reviews and other such meetings. My contributions would usually be met with respect by other professionals around the table. The first time I attended one such meeting in my new role of foster carer I was perplexed to realise I had relinquished my previous powers and had become the village idiot. Legally, foster carers are invisible and absolutely should not go around having views or opinions about the needs of a child who lives in their home.


So, just to clarify:

Young person is at school 30 hours per week - School status, Expert.

Local Authority Social Worker sees young person for approximately 1 hour every 6 weeks - LASW status, Expert

Independent Reviewing Officer sees the young person for approximately 1 hour every 12 weeks - IRO status, Expert

Foster carer spends the remaining 138 hours per week with the young person - FC status, Village Idiot

Know your place foster carers!


Now, I do not believe that professionals enter into public sector roles in order to not do their jobs properly. I genuinely believe that professionals who work with society’s most vulnerable enter into their careers with the very best of intentions.


Here is my enthralling observation on vulnerability: society's most vulnerable young people are cared for by foster carers who work under very vulnerable conditions - less than minimum wage, you cannot be sick, go on holiday, pay into a work pension scheme or join a union. Foster carers' work is supervised by social workers who often work on temporary contracts with enormous case loads, high levels of stress, high levels of sickness absence, burn out and high turn over of staff. And on it goes. So, in short, the vulnerable support the vulnerable to care for the vulnerable.


However. The reality is that the vulnerable tend not to vote. And children definitely do not vote. Savage cuts can be made to services without political parties losing a single vote.

So, literally the expectation for children in our care is the absolute minimum. Situations and scenarios that would be unthinkable for my birth daughter were apparently acceptable for my, then, foster son.


Is fostering a job?


Well, you do get paid. Given that the role is 24/7 your pay is likely to work out at around £1.50 per hour. I think it’s fair to say it’s a low status job commanding less than the minimum wage. Fortunately, it is unlikely that financial reward is your primary motivation.


Can you join a union?


No.


Are there opportunities for career progression?


No. Not really. But there should be interesting training opportunities.


I appreciate I’m painting a cynical picture, so why on earth did I become a foster carer?

Well, when I was teaching I was SENDCo and DCPO (designated child protection officer) and several of my students were removed from their birth families. They were removed from their families for reasons that made complete sense to me and they were loved. Yes, it was in a way that you and I might not recognise but still love. Dysfunctional but still love.

Too many of these young people were then placed in foster placements where they were not loved. Where they were barely tolerated.I do not want to assume that these foster carers are bad people. Rather, that due to lack of training they would take behaviours personally.


For example, when a young person steals from you it will likely trigger a highly emotive response. Behaviour (that causes pain to ourselves or others) is a communication of emotional distress. Your young person will have spent a number of years not knowing for certain that they will be fed. When they steal from you it is unlikely there is an intention to upset you. The young person must survive at all costs. If you get upset, so be it. It’s a small price to pay for survival.


At the heart of this is a lack of training for foster carers. It is a role that is undervalued. It is not regarded as skilled work. I also suspect that there is sometimes a lack of honesty about just how challenging fostering can be. I believe this is in part because unless social workers have also been foster carers themselves their experiences are theoretical and anecdotal, not lived at first hand. And if social workers were brutally honest about the challenges would any of us do it? The bottom line is these young people need to live somewhere!


Would I recommend fostering?

Absolutely!


BUT you will need your big girl/big boy pants, broad shoulders, thick skin, an excellent network (not big, just excellent) of friends or family who get it and do not offer terrible advice or judgements such as, ‘you’re too soft, that kid just needs a clout, in my day, yadda, yadda’.


Shop around. Where will you be best supported?


Up skill yourself. Attend heaps of training. Read billions of books. Listen to your young person. Really see them. What is their behaviour communicating? What ever it is it’s not about you.


Be brave. Give your young person a voice. If they don’t have a voice yet, if it’s just too hard for them, be their voice. Be their cheerleader.


Protect yourself from burning out. Manage your own expectations. Always aim high for your young person, Always have the highest expectations for them.


Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t manage to change the system. Changing the world one young person at a time is a great place to start.


The system is incredibly risk averse. The irony of this is that it places young people at risk. A different set of risks. A safer set of risks? The greatest risk is that our young people will have a very odd and dysfunctional experience of being parented. Yes. I know. Didn’t they get removed from dysfunction to a place of safety? Well yes. But the dysfunction we offer them is safer. It’s a sliding scale...


The legal position for young people in the UK, as I see it, is that they are property. Yes, you read that right. They are either the property of their parents or they are the property of the state. It wasn’t many generations ago in the UK that we put children up chimneys, down mines and had them working in factories.


So, the focus for Local Authorities in their role as corporate parent - a phrase that fills me with warmth and cosiness, is to keep these parcels safe from obvious harm - another sliding scale.


As mentioned earlier, Local Authorities for practical reasons outsource their corporate parenting responsibilities to foster carers who might be employed directly by the Local Authority or by an Independent Fostering Agency.


I would never wish to minimise the harmful experiences our young people have had nor would I ever wish to minimise the need for robust safeguarding arrangements for young people in our homes under fostering arrangement. However, this places our young people at risk of being parented literally at arms length. In real life how many of us bellow a bedtime story across the living room to our birth children? This is not real life. Be brave. Find a middle ground. These young people will be parents themselves one day.


If you are familiar with some of my other blogs you will know that we achieved permanency for our little man through SGO - special guardianship order. For reasons I will explore in a separate blog he ping ponged around the care system for nearly five years before he came to us. He was removed form his birth mum, who loves him, at four months old. I cannot fathom how he was not placed for adoption. Everyone wants a baby - that’s another blog too. Short version - his Local Authority is in special measures. He was exposed to very unsafe practice. I submitted a complaint and the social worker concerned no longer works in the service.


SGO is time bound. It takes twelve weeks. Our little man’s took fifty six weeks. I wrote to directors of services, MPs, the ombudsman, regulatory organisations.The scale of apathy was truly shocking.


The first thing our little man said when we told him he had his SGO was, ‘I can go in dad’s room now’. He was thrilled. In fostering, bedrooms are very much off limits. I get this. What I do not get is the idea that children are only harmed in bedrooms and never in living rooms, kitchens, etc... With a different hat on, as a volunteer for an organisation that supports survivors of rape and sexual abuse, data tells us that cars are extremely high risk locations for sexual abuse to take place but foster carers are not told to not drive young people places in their cars because this would be entirely impractical.


In conclusion, if you see an advert on the back of a bus asking if you have a spare room remember that if it’s easy money you’re after get a lodger not a young person who has PTSD.


If you are brave, gobby, hate injustice and like young people do it. You will get back infinitely more than you put in. It will change your life.


***I cannot stress enough that these views are entirely and only my own and are based on my own personal experiences and reflections. Therefore, you do not need to agree with me.*** Just in case you missed it earlier.

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