It takes a village to raise a child

It takes a village to raise a child is an old African proverb which suggests that the raising, teaching and supporting of a child is the responsibility of the whole community

I believe it to be wholeheartedly true and in particular true for children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in foster care.

There are a significant number of key relationships in our lives that impact on us, inspire and enable us to be the best we can be and alternatively in some cases influence us in a negative way which results in low self-esteem, anger, sadness or worthlessness. I have been lucky to have met people who have encouraged me and given me opportunities in life, all of whom have contributed to who I am today.

I grew up in a village surrounded by our grandparents, aunts and uncles and family friends who we called aunts and uncles too. These people looked out for me and my siblings.

We had love, friendship, knowledge and wisdom and were closely supervised from a distance, unbeknown by us, by people in the community. So although we acted independently and took personal risks which helped us grow, we were ultimately safe. We felt part of the community, and felt a sense of belonging.  We experienced citizenship as we contributed, running errands for older neighbours, helping clear gardens and earning pocket money by helping in local shops and businesses.  We were not saints… we got in to scrapes, we were chastised when needed and given boundaries, but solutions were worked out as we learned how to deal with conflict and reach compromises when needed. We were not a very well-off family, but we felt rich.

I now reflect that the community around me helped me and my family be resilient, we could weather any storms around us knowing that there were people who had our backs. Social workers would call this a protective factor.

Supporting and parenting a child of our own is a challenge, this is magnified when supporting a foster child. The support of family friends and the local community of professionals is an asset for a foster family. As a society it is in all of our interests to support our young people, providing them with inspiration and access to new experiences and opportunities. The children in care do not always have access to the same life chances that their peers have and as a result they can fall behind them. In a stable foster care placement with lots of community support, resource and encouragement, children are more likely to achieve and succeed alongside their peers.

The Mockingbird model was developed in conjunction with Fostering Network to offer stability to children by enveloping them in a supportive community that in offering support to foster carers improved the feelings of safety and permanency for children. We embraced some of the principles of Mockingbird when we developed our own constellation model. We firmly believe that enabling children and young people to develop relationships with a community of foster families provides the child and young person with an extended family who can assist in times of crises and be a safety net when needed. It involves foster carers working closely together and feeling supported by each other.

According to the Fostering Network “Mockingbird increases the protective factors around children through the simple provision of an extended network of family support. The building of good relationships between foster carers and children are central to Mockingbird, alongside other professionals such as school teachers and social workers. The community of foster carers “the hub” empowers families to support each other and overcome challenges before they escalate, offering children a more positive and consistent experience of care. It also builds links with other families important to the children’s care plans and to resources in the wider community which can provide them with enhanced opportunities to learn, develop and succeed.“ To us at To The Moon and back, this is not rocket science but a common sense approach to supporting our foster families and therefore the children in our care.

The organisation, ThemPra uses the Relational Universe model to illustrate the significance of relationship-centred practice when working with children who are in care. Children in care have unique individual experiences which will influence their making of relationships. When creating a relational universe for an individual the individual is placed in the middle, the key people in their lives are stars or other planets in their universe. Their distance from the individual on the universe map, determining the closeness and influence on the individual.

Our universe according to ThemPra starts at birth, “where as a baby it consists of our parent(s) and expands as grandparents, relatives and family friends enter it. That universe continues to grow throughout our life as we develop relationships with more people, evolving in ways that are highly individual and unique.

For children in care, their universe includes many professionals who have involvement at different times, often entering the close universe and later moving to a more distant position as their role changes. This doesn’t mean that this relationship which has been established disappears; it may be that the gravitational pull of this professional decreases, but they will still remain within the universe and perhaps move closer again as the needs of the child change. For example, a foster carer may move into the further reaches of the universe, but when the young person experiences a crisis after leaving care they may re-establish this relationship by having their former carer in their near universe for a period of time for support they can offer. Even if not in close proximity, the knowledge that this support is there, may in itself be sufficient. It is therefore crucial that we professionally support such ‘planetary movement’ in children’s relational universe.”

It is well documented that family life has changed over the last 50 years. Geographical distances between family members, family breakdown, multiple caring responsibilities, and the culture of working longer hours have resulted in people feeling less connected. The increased feelings of isolation and loneliness amongst many people, regardless of age, in our communities is again well documented.  We are poorer for the fact that many people are parenting without family or even friends nearby. This means we have to work harder to build key reciprocal relationships which will give us the richness of support we need for our own well-being as well as the raising of our children.

Whether we surround our children with a village or a universe, what is clear is that the combination of our positive experiences and relationships with other people in our lives, enable us to feel safe, grow and reach our potential. Children in care experience significant loss and hurt as a result of being removed from their family. Their ability to make relationships is often a challenge for them as a result of their reduced trust in grown-ups. The making of effective relationships by foster carers with children is a skill and requires significant and sustained focus. Having the support of others around them, enables foster carers more opportunity to succeed in building effective long lasting relationships with children and maintain their resilience leading to greater stability for the children in their care. Today we build a village…. tomorrow the universe.

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