Foster carer support is an area debated frequently; it can also be a measurement of an agency’s success. The levels that foster carers feel supported determine an agency’s success. When foster carers feel happy with the service they are receiving they will tell others and we would prefer to increase our number of foster carers as result of our own carers recommendations.
Fostering is a rewarding but equally challenging role. But foster carers are not alone – they work as part of the team around a child and must be supported by others in that team to ensure that children are receiving the best possible care. The level and type of support that they need may change with each child in placement and at different times. They may need assistance and advice outside of office hours from someone who understands the issues, but this is not always available. For some, having access to short breaks can help placements continue when they otherwise might not, but these are not provided as a matter of course.
Moreover, foster carers frequently have children placed with them outside of their agreed approval range, putting fostering families under high levels of stress. Accessing tailor-made support in such situations is not always easy.
I heard a fabulous speaker recently talking about relationship-based teams and how they are built to go the distance as opposed to task-based teams. Philip Cox-Hynd refers to “true relation-“ships” as big sturdy vessels that can weather most storms and wouldn’t capsize through a heavy downpour of disagreement or a strong wind of misunderstanding.” This resonated with how we have built our organisational culture as we purposefully talk about the desire and mechanism of building powerful relationships within our team.
Cox-Hynd explains that relationship teams succeed best where there is happiness and that happiness comes out of the feeling that people are working together for a joint aim. He says that “the key probably lies with an individual’s ability to have an impact on those around them that is congruent, i.e. what you see is what you get, individuals that walk the talk and express their emotions”. He goes on to say that “the individual needs to be a relationship and, therefore a team builder: someone who reaches out and builds bridges,” makes connections with others for the benefit of the greater good.
Fostering services are responsible for providing foster carers with a range of formal and informal support, including proper supervision, short breaks, peer support, out-of-hours support and access to independent support, as well as support for their sons and daughters. Support received by foster carers is often scrutinised and it is something that our regulator will check is in place. It is a subjective area and determined individually.
Relationship based support, I feel, is a relationship where the sense of feeling supported is a successful by-product of the great relationship that exists between two people. It doesn’t just happen; it takes work as with any other relationship.
Successful relationships have a sense of respect and value, they often have a joint purpose which links them closely together and they thrive on trust between them. That said, there may still be debates, even disagreements as part of the relationship but it continues to work because the effort is made to make it work. In a relationship of this nature, it is important to invest emotionally and be prepared to take a lead on making the relationship work.
Support of the supporters
Where foster carers rely on the support, for example, from a supervising social worker, it is important that the social worker feels in a good position to be able to invest in the relationship and provide the support that is going to be valued by the foster carer. We often talk about foster carers being a secure base for the children in their care. In the same way that the foster carers provide a secure base for the children in their care, we provide a secure base for our team members and we include foster carers in that.
We work to support manageable caseloads for our supervising social workers, enabling them to work proactively with carers and spend good quality time with them. We emphasise the need to maintain a proactive focus on a foster carer’s wellbeing too. We do this by really getting to know our foster carers and being present during our monthly supervisions and visits. By being present we can hear what is being said, as well as what is not being said. We know that foster carers can, for example, feel like they are in a goldfish bowl that everyone is looking in to. It can cause carers to feel under pressure to be perfect all of the time and that prevents them saying things that they feel may be interpreted as being unable to fulfil their role.
It takes skill and requires true empathy to support foster carers well. The supervising social workers who lead on the provision of support, have to be team builders. It’s important that they support the building of other connections within the bigger team around the child, and maintain a focus on the team purpose, which should always be the child.
Successful team relationships rely on honest discussions between supervising social workers and foster carers and supervising social workers and their line managers. The team shares their true feelings and emotions. This happens best, where there is no judgement and where trust is placed highly in the relationship.
We work therapeutically with our carers and our staff team in order to identify tensions that might exist so that we have a chance to support the individual to reflect and make adjustments. It is a very positive process which leads to good relationships being formed. We measure how well our team members use their leadership skills and how well they impact on others.
I was involved in piloting a “MOOC” an online development course for an organisation called ThemPra, which focused on raising awareness of working with a social pedagogy ethos. One big factor was the need to have equality in the relationship between a foster carer and a child and the foster carer and the supervising social worker. We generally have lots of information about a child in the care system, we equally have a lot of information about the foster carers (following the rigorous assessment process). The relationship can therefore be unequal unless we address the balance and share information about ourselves with foster carers. Naturally we urge caution, the sharing of personal information should only be in the best interest of the foster carers. In the same way we encourage foster carers to share some of their information with the child, but once again urging caution, as children have to have successful role models to support them and we have to maintain boundaries and oversharing of personal stories may have an adverse effect on the relationship.
We were thrilled that Ofsted highlighted the outstanding support we provided for foster carers in our last inspection. It is formed out of the relationships we build and continue to nurture during the whole time we are working together. Are you in a relation-“ship” or a relation ”rowing boat”.