The NSPCC believe 1 in 5 children live with domestic violence.  At To The Moon and Back Foster Care we are often asked to find a foster family who can support a child who has repeatedly witnessed domestic violence. This is recognised as a significant adverse experience for a child and seen often in addition to other signs of neglect and abuse.

We see the day to day effect of domestic violence on children and young people.  We work with our foster carers to enable them to think about how to best provide a safe and nurturing home where the child feels supported to recover from their experiences or at least manage the trauma associated with being exposed often to high levels of violence within their own home.

Our experience comes out of working with children who have experienced the highest level of severity of domestic violence, often from more than one perpetrator. Significant numbers of looked after children may have lived with adults who have moved through several relationships that have included high levels of violence and control. Our aim is to share some of our knowledge and insights to help those supporting families or their own children living with or moving on from living with domestic violence.

We are clear to say that not all children who have lived in a home where there has been domestic violence, will experience long term traumatic effects, however some children do.  Many people will know a friend, colleague or partner who grew up in a home where domestic violence was the norm and they may go on to show little outward impact. This is not to say it has not had an impact on a child, it maybe they have learnt to live with, hide or move on from this without repeating the same pattern. This demonstrates that light can be found at the end of the tunnel.

As a parent, who may have separated from a violent partner, a grandparent, supporting their grandchild or as a friend who simply wants to help someone they know, here are some ideas of the possible impacts and how you can help.

What we know is that children are resilient and can thrive despite having lived in the most challenging environments. For those living with violence who want to move on from it, we advocate the need to reach out for support and leave in a safe and planned way.  (We have added useful contacts at the end of this article)

“Children have the resilience to outlive their suffering given the chance” … Ismael Beah. This is one of my favourite quotes and when training foster carers, I like to share it.

We truly believe this statement and work with our families to enable this for the children we care for. We achieve it with individual nurturing of the child on a day to day basis alongside creative and therapeutic parenting skills, acquired as part of our ongoing training and development programme and as a result of working closely with our practitioners and therapists.

So what is domestic violence? Many assume it is violence against women by their male partners. The NSPCC state

Domestic abuse is any type of controlling, bullying, threatening or violent behaviour between people in a relationship. But it isn’t just physical violence – domestic abuse includes emotional, physical, sexual, financial or psychological abuse. Abusive behaviour can occur in any relationship. It can continue even after the relationship has ended. Both men and women can be abused or abusers”

We may hold negative feelings about a perpetrator and therefore be surprised why a child might still want to see their father, mother or step parent, who is known to have been violent in the home. I am reminded by one of my favourite quotes, from a survivor, “An abuser isn’t abusive 24/7. They usually demonstrate positive character traits most of the time. That’s what makes the abuse so confusing”

We may think that because the abuse happens when children are not in the room that this means it has not impacted on the child.  This is not the case; children can experience domestic abuse or violence in lots of different ways. They might see the abuse, hear the abuse from another room, see a parent’s injuries or distress afterwards, they may also try to stop it.

The NSPCC believe that about 62% of children in households where domestic violence is happening are also directly harmed, this may be because they are a baby in their mothers’ arms when she is hit, they may be teenagers who have tried to intervene to protect a parent or just been in the area and got hurt through the violence.

What might we see in children in the short term

The research has shown that babies may evidence their stress through poor sleep and eating patterns, they may present more clingy or fractious and therefore harder to soothe. In older children, the way children change in how they present is often an indicator that something is going on for them. This is likely to change further only when they are no longer living in an aggressive environment. We might see that for these children they remain more anxious children and that our role is to help them manage the impact of constantly being in a fight or flight state.  Nurturing, open and supportive home environments where children can ask questions and talk about their experiences are sometimes all a child needs, in order to develop their own coping mechanisms.

Children may show signs of stress at school, by a change in their studies or they may become more withdrawn or quiet. Often domestic violence happens in secret and so children are expected to keep this secret too. It is hard for children not to tell trusted adults about what is happening and even harder sometimes having to lie about parents’ injuries or the reasons why people cannot come over to their home.  Children may re-enact what they see and hear at home and so may be aggressive to other children, and consequently present as a bully or may be bullied themselves.  Children may present with changes to their sleep pattern and eating habits and may appear distracted when they are away from the non-abusing parent because of them being worried about how they are. Children may not invite friends’ home for fear of what they might witness, they may also become passive and compliant with adults around them. 

What we might see in children in the long term

Children in the longer term may be traumatised by their experience and show signs of post-traumatic stress. With our foster carers we see children being triggered by the behaviours of others that remind them of their experiences, for example, a slightly raised voice or a look of displeasure can trigger a flash back or raise anxiety in children.  We see children at times struggle to maintain positive relationships with others and subsequently go on to find themselves in unhealthy relationships.

Children are individuals and will respond to the witnessing of abuse or domestic violence in different ways. According to The Royal College of Psychiatrists (Women’s Aid website) children may present as follows:

  • They may become anxious or depressed
  • They may have difficulty sleeping
  • They have nightmares or flashbacks
  • They can be easily startled
  • They may complain of physical symptoms such as tummy aches and may start to wet their bed
  • They may have temper tantrums and problems with school
  • They may behave as though they are much younger than they are
  • They may become aggressive or they may internalise their distress and withdraw from other people
  • They may have a lowered sense of self-worth
  • Older children may begin to play truant, start to use alcohol or drugs, begin to self-harm by taking overdoses or cutting themselves or have an eating disorder
  • Children may also feel angry, guilty, insecure, alone, frightened, powerless or confused.
  • They may have ambivalent feelings towards both the abuser and the non-abusing parent.

What can we do to help children who have lived through domestic violence.

Our first and foremost priority is to ensure that they continue to live in a safe environment free of violence and control. When children feel safe, they can start to receive the help they need. There are great support services who can provide one to one support to enable the leaving of abusive environments or provide support to a family once they have left. (A list of services can be found at the end of this article.

Children need to be reassured that the situation is not their fault. Violence between adults is never a child’s fault and they must hear that. They must know that what happened is not OK, It was not their fault and that is was ok for them to feel scared or angry.

Children need to have access to safe adults to talk to about their experiences, when they are ready and if they want to but they must not feel pushed in to talking about it.  They need to hear that they did not deserve to have those experiences and that there was nothing they could have done to prevent it/change it. This they may need to hear way into the future and repeatedly if they need the reassurance. I know adults who still wonder if they could have stopped it.

Domestic violence is about control and children need to feel like they have some control in their lives. Providing structure and routine, predictability and choice are all important steps to recovery. For children who have lived waiting for the next incident, they need to have a sense of predictability. They need to know that this is not going to be repeated.

It is important that children whatever age can talk about what they have seen and heard, younger children might do this through play or drawing, this is a time to talk gently about how it is fine to have difficult feelings and support them through these. Older children may want to talk more openly about what they have seen and heard. It is important that you show you can manage hearing the difficult things and reassure children and young people that they are safe now. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to children about triggers that may make them feel uncomfortable, for example a raised voice and how they can plan for them. If bedtimes are tough, ask them to help you plan how to respond and make it easier for them.

Our final thought is about the adults around the child.

When we support our foster families with caring for children who have experienced trauma, we always talk to them about the need for them to look after themselves. We model ourselves on what we want them as foster carers to provide for children.  We provide a safe openly trusting relationship with our team where they can talk about their feelings, especially those raised as a result of hearing the stories of what children have lived through.  We encourage them to have outlets to relieve stress such as mindfulness, good nutrition, sleep and exercise. It is amazing what you can do with the right support. If we have inspired you to think about fostering please contact us we would love to talk more about what we do and how we do it.

Useful resources

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/getting-help-for-domestic-violence/

https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/forms-of-violence-and-abuse/domestic-violence/https://www.womensaid.org.uk/information-support/what-is-domestic-abuse/

If I was asked to describe my day as a Supervising Social Worker, the answer would be in short “No two days are the same!”. I believe that my role is to provide the best guidance and support to new and existing foster families so that they can navigate through their unique fostering journey and to ensure that they operate within the established rules and regulations governing their fostering practice.

I carry out home visits – I might be visiting families in their homes for regular monthly supervision which can take a minimum of 1.5 hours to 2 hours depending on how many children the foster family is looking after and how things are going. This will not be my only contact with the foster family. We will often communicate on regular basis via email, telephone and text messages. Good communication between the foster carers and I is crucial and cannot be stressed enough.

During the home visit, we might be talking about many things and no supervision visit is the same. The focus is on the children’s progress, looking at the different areas of their development, such as health, education, emotional wellbeing, learning new skills including independence skills and so on… I will often also focus on the foster family itself, the foster carers, their children and their wider support network. How are they finding things, are they coping well, how is the working relationship with the Local Authority, what is it they need support and help with? Together we try to identify their strengths and work on areas that need developing. The monthly supervision visit is documented in a Supervision record, signed off and the foster family keep a copy for their files.

 

The foster carers attend regular meetings with the Local Authority social workers, such as the Placement Agreement meeting, when a child is initially placed into their care, or the Looked After Children’s Meeting and Personal Educational Plan Meetings. The latter two are equally important as the Looked After Children’s meeting reviews the children’s care plan in place and the Personal Educational Plan meetings provide an opportunity for the foster carers to ensure that children receive the necessary support to meet their educational potential.

Depending on the care planning for the children in their care, there might also be Long term linking meetings taking place or, if the plan for the children is to be moved on to their adoptive family, meetings with the Adoption Social Workers. I will regularly accompany foster carers to these meetings and support them in advocating on behalf of the children in their care. Foster carers are professionals in their own right. It is therefore important that they feel empowered and confident to share their knowledge of the children they look after and hence contribute to the care planning for the children’s future and actively shape the children’s educational achievement.

 

Paperwork is a necessary and an important part of the fostering role. I might be supporting foster carers with completing their daily logs until they feel confident and comfortable with their style and detail of their recording.  We will also regularly review risk assessments and the foster family’s Safer Caring Plans to ensure that their practice is safe and everybody in the family is appropriately safeguarded.

Often, it is required that foster carers provide input into assessments such as sibling assessments and psychological assessments which inform court decisions and some foster carers like to have assistance with their input to ensure that the most comprehensive information is provided for the involved professionals.

Depending on how long the foster carers have fostered, an annual fostering household review has to be completed, which requires a significant amount of data collection to provide evidence and feedback from other professionals and support networks to reflect on the carers’ fostering year. The preparation for their annual review provides an opportunity to check compliance, renew required DBS checks and medicals and review personal development.  The review is a joint piece of work and if this is the first annual review for the foster family, it is presented to an independent fostering panel, which I attend with the foster carers.

Whilst the above outlines the day to day practical activities that I would usually be involved in with foster families, another equally important role of the supervising social worker is to develop and grow the foster families’ understanding of relational and developmental trauma and attachment and the ongoing impact of this on the children they are looking after.

When foster families become trauma and attachment informed and translate their knowledge into their day to day life, this can have the most transformative effect on children who have been through adverse experiences in their lives.

Supporting foster families with expanding their “tool box”, watching them build their resilience and develop self-care strategies, whilst maintaining commitment, stability and continuity of care for the children is, for me, the most rewarding part of the work.

 

 

The provision of appropriate support to foster carers is an unquestionable function of a supervising social worker (SSW) but an area of significant debate, given that a foster carers deemed lack of support often results in them leaving the fostering sector. Given then the high level of significance of this role on foster carers, it is important to understand the role and what can be expected from the person in this role.

As a foster carer you will hear lots about this role. The supervising social worker, in whatever fostering service you choose, is the named social worker within a fostering service who works alongside a foster carer family. In some organisations this role may be referred to as a link worker.

Because of the very nature of the day to day responsibilities of the supervising social worker, there are key elements of role that are requirements of the Fostering Regulations. If the SSW does not undertake these functions, then someone else with the organisation is required to do so.

The supervising social worker undertakes a different role to the local authority social worker. The LA social worker role acts in the best interests of the child, making the big plans for the child living in care. These plans for the child may include, education, health, decisions about returning home to their birth parents, having contact or moving on long term to perhaps adoption. The child’s social worker will always work for the local authority that the child comes from.

Once approved, every fostering family must be allocated a named supervising social worker from the fostering agency. Their purpose is to guide, signpost, develop and act as a positive role model for foster carers, protecting the carers interests and supporting their wellbeing, all whilst monitoring closely the outcomes for the child(ren).

Fundamentally as a team, each one of us, regardless of our role is working towards achieving the best outcomes for the children in our care. The supervising social worker however gets closest to the foster carers and with the support of the team, has the most influence on the success of the foster carers in their role. Their ability to lead, coach, teach, empathise and empower the foster carers can seriously affect the success of the foster carers. Consistency in this role is very important and sadly with so many social workers feeling stressed and unsupported themselves, the consistency is often not as good as it should be with social workers taking sick leave or leaving altogether. This is a sad indictment of the industry and the provision of support for social workers is equally vital.

The role of the manager, of the supervising social workers, is to ensure that the SSW has the right support, tools, time and flexibility to support the foster family and provide the leaders of the organisation with timely feedback about the service and outcomes for the children in order that we can all work to improve the service continuously. At To the Moon and Back we empower our SSW’s to make decisions quickly and ensure our managers to provide more than just a monitoring/supervisory role.  We believe our work is about making and sustaining valued relationships with everyone around us and this includes our supervising social workers. In order for them to be successful they need to feel valued themselves.  They are the main point of contact for our foster families to know what is going on in the agency and to deal quickly with any concerns, queries or feedback.

Regulations require the supervision of foster carers to take place on a monthly basis. This is undertaken by the appointed SSW in the foster carer’s home. During this formal meeting, the SSW will lead discussion about the foster child/young person and monitor that they are getting the care they need in conjunction with their care plan. Monthly meetings are the bare minimum, the high level of support of foster carers doesn’t just happen. It involves effective two way communication that works well for everyone, an individualised approach, openness and sharing of self, approachability, the ability to stretch the foster carers’ professional development, being challenging when required and being ready to catch foster carers if they fall. All of which, when in place, builds trust and creates an equal relationship.  At to the Moon and Back we use texts, phone calls, skype and face time on top of mandatory monthly visits. We want families to know they are not alone in the fostering task.

The monthly meetings provide allocated space and time to reflect on the month, on what has happened, how foster carers are feeling, review the impact of the work undertaken and overall determine what might be changed to continue the placements success. In between monthly meetings, it may be necessary to meet up again and the role of the SSW is to continually review priorities and provide more time and support where needed.  The monthly visit should be written up and signed every month by the supervising social worker and the foster carer. The notes help us remember what we have all agreed to do. Supervising social workers must visit at least monthly and complete at least one unannounced visit to a foster carer’s home per year.

Once you are approved to foster with us, your SSW will introduce you to keeping records, including our CHARMS system, where all the children’s records are kept and where our carers complete their dally logs.  Your supervising social worker will talk you through key policies and procedures and show you how to access the foster carer’s handbook, answering any questions you may have. The first few visits whilst waiting for a suitably matched child will be focusing on preparation for your first placement, and increasing your knowledge. Most of our foster carers have children placed relatively quickly after their approval. Some within a week have had their first child move in. Your supervising social worker will be active in helping match you with a suitable child. They should be the people who know you well and as such be able to assist the team on what is likely to work and what may not, given your individual circumstances and ambitions. You and your supervising social worker should have input to and agree with decisions on potential placements.

The SSW’s key role, within our service, is to get to know you, your family and your foster child/ren. We support them to be your coach, inspiring you, in your work, helping you think and understand about what has happened to the child in your care, enabling you to plan their care. The supervising social worker provides a safe space to talk about the young person that you have got to know and how they are developing and also how they impact on you and your family. We see our foster carers as equal professionals who bring to the partnership a unique insight in to a foster child. Your supervising social worker should monitor your wellbeing and that of your family and work creatively to help you develop the best ways forward to support the child. This might be, by thinking about extending your support network, building your skills through access to webinars, training or other fostering networks. They should be considering the needs of your own children and family and support you to manage their transition to fostering.

Supervising social workers play a liaison role with the child’s social care team. We support you to focus on the child and their needs, to keep social workers up to date with changes and to respond to requests from the child’s social worker for information. Our supervising social workers take the lead in chasing up care plans, and ensuring we have the best information to understand and support a child. Supervising social workers will lead where we need to challenge a team, for example when there is a need to increase access to services or request increased funding for a young person. Your supervising social worker will walk alongside and support you in your role.

Lots of fostering services will make promises about the support offered to foster carers and we are no different. Support is an individualised thing. We are clear on how we provide support but it is a broad term so it is important that foster carers understand what will be available for them, ensuring their expectations will be met.

At To The Moon and Back we are proud of the level of professional support we give our families. We expect our team to care about those they work with. Ofsted in our recent inspection stated that our foster carers describe strong support from the agency. We do not believe in propping our families up at any cost but working proactively and in partnership to get the best outcomes for our children, this means helping families build their skills whether that it is by developing recording skills on our system CHARMS, or by developing knowledge on the impact of trauma on children and in particular the child in your care. We believe in providing knowledge that is practical, for example helping families develop techniques to support a child to manage trauma by enabling the child to learn new ways of expressing the hurt they have felt.

Accessing feedback from foster carers is a key role of our supervising social workers. We focus on the meeting of individualised needs within a foster family. We work to a foster carer’s charter setting out our expectations of foster families as well as what families can expect in return from us. We encourage open and honest communication and aim to have happy supported carers, knowledgeable and confident in their role as we believe that leads to longer lasting placements and more young people achieving their true potential in life.