There’s a new campaign to promote fostering. It is called #morethanaparent. Launched by the charity Fostering Network, it aims to raise awareness of the complexity of the role of foster carers in looking after vulnerable children and young people.
So far, so good. Foster carers fulfil a vital role in society, and their work is not widely understood. And we need more foster carers, so anything that encourages more families to step forward is generally to be welcomed.
But this latest campaign has stopped me in my tracks. As a foster carer for nine years, I have dealt with challenging situations in my time and confronted issues that have tested my faith in humanity. But not once have I thought of myself as being ‘more than a parent’. There is no doubt that foster carers have many responsibilities and the role is multifaceted. But what is to be gained by contrasting this to being a parent, rather than highlighting the role in its own right?
Let’s unpick that hashtag. The phrase ‘more than’ is problematic, as to be ‘more’, someone has to be less. The undeniable flipside of this slogan is that parents are less than foster carers. All parents? Or just the parents of those children and young people entrusted into our care? We often work in partnership with birth parents, and we try to understand the circumstances that led to a child being taken into care. What we have learned over the years is that these challenging outcomes are often determined by fine margins. We also meet parents who overcome extraordinary adversity to keep their family together, and to raise admirable sons and daughters. I could not look them in the eye and say, “ah yes, but we are more than parents, you see.”
It is true that as foster carers we have to deal routinely with multiple agencies, and we have to provide daily diary notes. We have to carry out risk assessments, and we care for children and young people with complex emotional problems, often with little support. But this is also the daily reality for many parents. Parenting is a lifetime commitment, which does not end even when grown-up children leave the family home.
Blessed are those parents whose children have grown up uneventfully and without challenges, and enjoy uneventful, unchallenging lives as adults. Possibly it is a reflection of the company I keep, but I know no such family. Parenting is messy and complex, and often involves engagement with multiple agencies. If you are a parent, and you have got through life without the support or intervention of somebody from outside your family, I bow before you. If your family can honestly say you have no experience of physical or mental health problems, never been out work, always been able to pay the bills, never been caught up in a fight or had a policeman knock on the front door, you have led a charmed life indeed. The rest of you, I suggest, will recognise some of the issues we grapple with as foster carers.
What is really behind this campaign? There is a rift opening up in foster care, between those who think that fostering is a job, and should be rewarded as such, and those who think it is a vocation. The Fostering Network is inclined towards the professional camp, campaigning for carers to paid the national minimum wage. #morethanaparent, it seems to me, is about reinforcing that argument.
Being a foster carer is challenging, make no mistake. The Fostering Network has been there for us, for many years, when nobody else could be bothered. We need them to continue to fight our corner. But our case does not need to be made in relation to others. To do so undermines what being a foster carer really is.