'We'll Treasure This Time.' The Reality Of Fostering During A Pandemic

TACT has reported an 11% increase in queries from people hoping to become foster carers since lockdown.

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Barnardo’s recently called a ‘state of emergency’ in the care system, reporting that the numbers of children referred for foster care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had risen by 44% during lockdown. The charity also revealed a 47% decline in the number of people coming forward to become foster carers, compared to last year.

However, Andy Elvin, CEO of fostering and adoption charity TACT Care, told HuffPost UK they have actually seen an 11% increase in queries from people hoping to become foster carers since lockdown began.

Elvin believes some people have been reevaluating what they’re doing with their lives as a result of the pandemic – and says that while they’ve had to be honest with carers that they can’t guarantee a child hasn’t been exposed to Covid-19, most have still gone ahead with their placements.

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“We’ve actually seen stability in the foster care environment,” Elvin tells HuffPost UK. “More stability than instability. We haven’t had many kids leaving foster homes, and a lot of the children have relaxed into it. Placements have, on the whole, gone ahead – the only ones who have not been okay with it are those with underlying health conditions or health risks.”

While referrals of new cases from local authorities have decreased by 5%, perhaps as a result of school closures, Elvin believes the pandemic may have actively prompted interest from some carers. “Unemployment is rising and people are looking at doing other things,” he says. “Fostering is recession-proof. Hopefully in three to six months time we’ll have a new cohort of foster carers.

In many ways, social distancing and homeschooling has helped children relax into their new environments, says Elvin.

“For some children, not having the social and academic pressures of school has made things better and easier,” he explains. “It’s improved their mood and given them less anxiety. Often, in foster homes, the evenings are spent dealing with the fall-out of the school day. So, in many ways, if it’s going to work in a new placement - if children are going to settle – it’s a good thing to do it in lockdown.”

HuffPost UK spoke to one family who recently took in two young brothers about what their experience has been like during lockdown – and how it’s affected the way they feel about fostering for the first time.

To protect the identity of children, some personal details have been changed or omitted.

‘The whole idea we had of what fostering would be like changed overnight’

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Charlotte and Ian, a couple in their 40s, were officially approved to foster for TACT in March this year. Two weeks later – just days after lockdown began – they welcomed two brothers, aged 10 and seven, into their family.

“They came to us at the end of March, once lockdown had started,” Charlotte tells HuffPost UK. “We had never done it before, so we didn’t know what to expect - but things had to be done very differently.” And in addition to the initial shock of being given just a day’s notice that the boys would be placed with them, they also had to acclimatise to not leaving the house due to the government’s self-isolation guidelines.

“We had to get used to each other quickly, because it was a very unique situation,” Charlotte says. “There was an expectation beforehand that they would be in school, and we had an idea of the clubs they might like to join, and the places we would take them. The whole idea we had in our minds of what fostering would be like changed overnight. It’s not more or less stressful, it’s just totally different to the way I imagined it would be.”

She adds: “Schools had closed, so they didn’t do any of the ‘normal’ socialising they would’ve usually been doing, with all the challenges that might have brought. Instead, we were given the opportunity to get to know them really well, and they got to know us - with continuity, and without distraction. It helped in terms of them getting used to routines – our way of living.”

Charlotte admits the first day and night was challenging – the older boy was angry when he first arrived, while the younger boy wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed on his own. But the intensity of lockdown helped the brothers get used to the new ‘house rules’ – fast.

“They had to swiftly acclimatise to things that were acceptable, and things that weren’t,” Charlotte says. “Being siblings, there was some fighting – that was quite difficult. They had to get used to how we deal with conflict. We don’t use any kind of physical reprimand, we tend to talk things through and explain why something is wrong and why it isn’t right, to hurt each other. That’s been different, for them. They’ve not been used to having that kind of respectful relationship.”

Charlotte, a social worker, and Ian, who works in social housing, had to juggle working from home around introducing the boys to the family – including Charlotte’s 16-year-old daughter, Suzie. The couple also have a dog and cat – and the presence of the additional family members seems to have had a positive effect in helping the boys settle in.

“Suzie was fantastic, and a huge part of the assessment,” Charlotte says. “She was really keen to be involved with the boys – she does baking and modelling with them, and they love and idolise her. She’s really helpful and they learn a lot from her, because she’s sensible and level headed, but fun, as well. And she’s learning a lot from them, too.”

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“For the initial four weeks we were both still working full-time from home,” Charlotte adds. “We muddled between taking annual leave and managing Skype meetings so we could make sure the boys have something to do – I’ve never bought so much Lego in my life! In many ways, we’ve been winging it, like the rest of the country.”

The younger boy had significant communication challenges but is now happily chatting away, something he was not able to do when he first arrived. The siblings’relationship with each other has also started to improve. And weekly ‘virtual’ contact has been maintained with the birth mother via Whatsapp video.

“If it wasn’t for lockdown, the boys would’ve been going to a contact centre, to meet face to face,” Charlotte says. “That’s been very unusual in terms of the divide between ‘home’ and ‘contact’, because we’ve had to bring that contact into the house. It’s been quite strange, and there’s been pros and cons. Even as adults, we can find video calls intimidating. It’s been interesting, but again – we’re muddling through.”

And even though lockdown is easing, Charlotte says they’re not going to rush the boys into a hectic social whirlwind, just yet. “We’re not going to rush to do things now we can do them,” she says. “We’re just going to go easy. This whole experience has taught us that doing lots of different things would’ve been more stressful for the boys – and they weren’t used to doing those things anyway.”

She adds, with excitement: “We can plan some nice summer experiences now, maybe a couple of days over the summer in a cabin somewhere. We’re not going to overload them. We’re really just looking forward to having some sort of normality – even simply going shopping.

“The time we’ve spent getting used to fostering during lockdown has been so rewarding. They’ve made so much progress in such a short space of time, in terms of their confidence, their relationship with each other and communication. We’ve even been able to teach them to ride bikes. They’d never done that before. I’ll look back and treasure this time. We all will.”