Foster carers have been unsung heroes during the Calais migrant crisis. Hundreds of migrant children have been taken into care and placed with foster families. Many of these families live in Kent but children's services are already having to look beyond the county for support because it is increasingly difficult to find suitable placements. With no end in sight to the crisis, by the Prime Minister's own admission, the situation will only get worse and the demands on foster carers will increase.
The number of unaccompanied children cared for in Kent, which includes the Folkestone Channel Tunnel terminal, has risen from 368 to 629 in just four months. There are no more foster beds available in Kent and the situation has become unsustainable. So vulnerable children who have already endured untold hardship as their familes scattered across Europe after fleeing North Africa or the Middle East must suffer further uncertainty, often moved from home to home until a long-term solution can be found.
Many are taken into care the moment that their families are detained by immigration authorities. But others have been found abandoned at the roadside in Kent as they become separated from groups of migrants seeking to avoid arrest and detention. As parents disappear into the distance, these children have no way of knowing if they will ever see them again or whether they will be safe in the hands of whoever happens to find them.
Many foster carers have received specialist training to look after children who are refugees, or who arrive in the UK unaccompanied by an adult. However, during times of crisis like this the demand for accommodation is so high that families who do not have experience of caring for migrant children will be asked to provide accommodation. The scale of the challenge is huge.
Children arrive in the UK severely traumatised by their experiences. Many families have fled violent conflict and suffered persecution: their homes have been destroyed, family members have been killed or tortured. They will have suffered hunger and deprivation during their long journeys from country to country. They may have witnessed death and brutality. Some have survived perilous Mediterranean crossings on overcrowded boats, others have travelled thousands of miles overland in goods trains, or hiding in lorries, or by foot. They reach the UK severely malnourished and confused, with no clear sense of where in the world they actually are. Surrounded by strangers, no matter how well-meaning they are, these children are alone.
These are the most difficult circumstances for foster carers. It means accepting into your home a child with no known history and often with no means of communication. There are no passports, and no medical records. It can be difficult to determine the country of origin or even a child's language. Some live in fear of betraying their parents or guardians, or have been coached into withholding information for as long as possible. Others are so bewildered and fearful that it may take weeks or even months to coax out even the most basic information.
Even providing the most basic needs will test the skills of foster carers and their families. Despite their urgent need, migrant children may reject offers of food, through a lack of trust or for religious and cultural reasons, and then secretly hoard it away as a reaction to the many, many days when they went hungry. Hygiene is a difficult area: persuading a child who has suffered abuse to take off clothes to bathe can be traumatic. Some children can take time to be persuaded to ditch their own threadbare clothes to wear new clothes provided by their host families. Night times are traumatic for everyone, for sleep does not come easy to a child thousands of miles from home, separated from his family, and unable to understand even how the next day will begin. Medical care will be necessary, but it is so difficult to treat a child who lives in fear.
A migrant child in care will be confronted by myriad strangers -- his foster family, social workers, health visitors, border police, interpreters, a family liason officer, to name only a few. All mean well, and have jobs to do. But to a bewildered child in a foreign land they may be indistinguishable from the criminals who exploited and brutalised their parents as they travelled across a continent. His very survival has depended on trusting no one.
The days and weeks that follow a placement will present new challenges for foster carers and their families. Language will be a difficult obstacle to overcome, making it difficult for children to build relationships or to make friends. Engagement within the child's new community will be complex. Here is a child who is unlikely to be able to attend school, or join a club, or take part in organised activities, at least in the short-term. And unfortunately, given the haphazard nature of the placement, there is a high probablity that the child will be moved, more than once, fracturing any bond that existed with his original carers.
It troubles me to read in the media that unaccompanied children have been placed in foster care as a footnote to longer articles, as if that were the end of the story. For children, it is just another staging post in a hazardous, never-ending journey. For foster carers and their families, whose compassion for these vulnerable children should be an example to society, the challenge has just begun.