Foster carer support is an area debated frequently; it is regarded as a measurement of an agency’s success. The levels that foster carers feel supported, determines an agency’s success. When foster carers feel happy with the service and support they receive they will tell others and we would prefer to increase our number of foster carers as result of our own carers recommendations.
Fostering is rewarding
But at times can be a challenging role. Foster carers should never feel that they are alone – they work as part of the team around a child and its important they feel supported by others in that team to ensure that children receive the best possible care. It is in everyone’s interest that our foster carers feel successful.
The level and type of support required by foster carers may vary with each child in placement and at different times. It’s important that foster carers have access to good assistance and advice outside of office hours from someone who understands their issues. Having access to short breaks can help placements continue when they otherwise might not. This type of support is best when children feel they have a good relationship with their respite carers.
Respite should feel like a stay with a family member, should be introduced and not stressful for the young people, so that it adds no further pressure for the foster carers and support them. It’s important that the respite adds value for everyone so that foster carers get positive rest and children continue to feel cared for. It’s important that foster carers get the time they need for their own wellbeing without any concern that children may struggle to return to them. We work hard to ensure that respite is in everyone’s best interest.
A fabulous speaker shared his thoughts with me 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 explained 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, we 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 refer to 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 low caseloads for our supervising social workers, enabling them to invest their time in the building of proactive and successful relationships with carers and be able to spend 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 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.
There is research that indicates that models of care that embrace equality in the relationship between a foster carer and a child and the foster carer and the supervising social worker, achieve greater outcomes for young people and have better satisfaction levels from staff. We generally have lots of information about a child living 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 by staff 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. We suggest that people ask themselves what feels better, being in a relation-“ship” or a relation ”rowing boat”.