I have met many foster carers over the years, who have demonstrated to me their huge desire to be the best they can be, in order to advocate and support the individual child in their care. Some of these carers wanted to simply parent the children in a caring and loving way and others saw their role as professional carers. All, I feel, understood their levels of responsibility and accountability and were prepared to go as far as they could to make a difference to the lives of the children they supported. In return they expected very little, other than, respect for their knowledge and skill and to feel valued for their dedication and commitment.
Fostering is not simply providing a loving home, although necessary, it is about making a connection and seeking to really understand the impact that abuse or neglect has had on the child and then helping them to start to feel able to trust people again. Successful fostering requires a combination of parenting and therapeutically caring for a child. We rely on foster carers to make these connections with children.
At To The Moon And Back, we are honest about what fostering really entails, the lows as well as the highs, so that people have a true picture of what they are committing to, in becoming a foster carer. The honesty of the challenges they may face, rarely puts them off. We in turn, commit to support them to understand about the impact of trauma and support them in their continuous individual development.
What is inspiring, is how so many of our foster carers instinctively work therapeutically with the children, or are able to use playfulness, acceptance, curiosity and empathy as a positive therapy for children who, because of their experiences, find it difficult to establish and maintain relationships.
Connectivity is easier in a well-matched relationship and we spend a long time getting to know our foster carers and their families, so that we can work on matching them well with a child.
Foster carers are co-professionals
Foster carers often become childcare experts, but with any experts, expertise develops over time. None of us are born experts. They are expected to operate as co-professionals in the team surrounding the children and young people. Being a part of the team around a child, unless the carer has working knowledge of the childcare field, can be daunting initially. Simply understanding the jargon that is used can be challenging and leave foster carers feeling isolated in conversations where they struggle to understand the language, we professionals speak. We owe it to the foster carers to speak clearly and refrain from using acronyms, ensuring that they fully understand what is being said without patronising them. It is rarely the children that cause the biggest issues for them, the frustration felt by foster carers, is usually a result of the system and a perceived lack of effective communication.
In a sector where professionals can change frequently, we find that foster carers are the continuity for a child and their advocacy for a child becomes vital in order to enable a child to reach their full potential in life.
Sadly, national surveys highlight that foster carers are so often not treated as the knowledgeable professionals they are, leading to many people feeling fostering isn’t for them, and leaving fostering altogether. I recall one foster carers story who whilst very new to fostering, was encouraged to foster children highly unsuitable for someone so new to fostering and with very little knowledge. Unsurprisingly, a placement failed after a very short time and the foster carer was so upset, she decided fostering was not for her. Luckily for the children she now fosters, the draw of fostering was very strong, and she decided to foster for a different agency who recognised her skills and abilities and supported her to develop her expertise.
Feeling supported is a subjective area. What feels good for some may not be enough for others. What is vital, is the feeling that foster carers are in a good relationship with the agency team, feel safe and feel able to say when it’s not working for them. Good support is proactive, non-blaming and reflective. It can be individualised very easily when it is led by a skilled team. Our role as an agency, is to help foster carers succeed, in turn helping children succeed too. As we say so often, “it’s not rocket science”.
Support for foster carers should be tailored to the individual needs of the child they are caring for and should be matched to the developmental stages of the child and the developmental stages of the foster carer. All fostering services should provide a dedicated full-time support service for foster carers and ensure access to respite provision when it is felt it is required. Peer support opportunities should be enabled and promoted at a local level.
A development framework for foster carers must be in place. Mandatory training must be undertaken and knowledge should be tested periodically as it so easy to slip into habits that fail to uphold the best practice. In all profession’s, updates are required, and fostering is no different. However, post approval, foster carers who recognise themselves as the expert in the room, will want to update their knowledge and skill. This is not necessarily about doing lots of training courses, it’s more a case of being receptive to reflection and listening to the experience of others, for example when being a part of a group supervision session. Reading recommended material, listening to podcasts and attending good conferences are a big part of our development plans for our foster carers. Everyone develops differently but being open to being developed is an essential criterion for anyone in fostering.
At To The Moon and Back we are dedicated to raising awareness of the impact of trauma on young people. We see it as being vital to improving futures for children who have experienced traumatic events as a result of abuse or neglect. There has been some fantastic research into the benefits of working therapeutically with children and it feels right that we equip our foster carers with this knowledge from day one.
Likewise, it is important that our own team are educated and skilled to support the ongoing development programme for foster carers. We work to attract the right people, who can work within our culture and support foster carers to play a key part in the expertise around the child, recognising their input as highly as any other professional and advocating on their behalf when external professionals fall short, educating them about what they can expect from the foster carer.
Foster carers must be given the authority to make everyday decisions on behalf of children in their care without unnecessary delays and restrictions. Whilst there are already lots of this happening, it isn’t always happening with the levels of regularity we would like to see. The foster carer must accept as with any professional, the autonomy of making decisions runs alongside their accountability too. As professionals we are all accountable for our actions as well as our omissions. So, whilst we push delegations of authority, we must educate foster carers about their decision making to protect them from allegations made against them.
Keeping accurate and meaningful records
“If you have not written it down, it didn’t happen” is a sentence I have been reminded of from my nursing days. It is vital that foster carers are educated and supported to maintain accurate and meaningful notes, that can enable us to review and improve the plans of care for a child with accuracy and provide professional and supportive information for the child in later adult life, when they may choose to read about their life in care. It is important that we support foster carers with mastering record keeping, revisiting it periodically in order to support them in the evidencing of the great work they do. To a certain extent we must prepare the team around the child to enable foster carers to use their skills and knowledge and enable them to develop their mastery. It takes a village to raise a child, but a village willing to try new things and give recognition for success where it is due. Foster carers spend their waking days with the children in their care, they give children so much unconditionally, and in return want only the best for them. We rush around as professionals sometimes and we sometimes might forget to thank the foster carers for their input and monitoring, which they do constantly and upon whose expertise, we rely.