Why Foster Carers Need More Than Just Kind Words

When we became foster carers some years ago we decided that we would focus on short-term care, helping to keep sibling groups together while their futures were decided by others. But, as we have learned, 'short term' means anything from a few days to many months, and even years.

We are at that difficult point which all foster carers dread: a placement is about to come to an end. Children who have been the focal point of our lives for almost one year are preparing to leave us.

When we became foster carers some years ago we decided that we would focus on short-term care, helping to keep sibling groups together while their futures were decided by others. But, as we have learned, 'short term' means anything from a few days to many months, and even years. In our case children have typically stayed with us for about 12 months, and we have always formed a strong attachment. It is impossible not to, and their departures are always keenly felt. Obviously we miss the children, who quickly make themselves at home and crash around the house. But there is something more profound than that, which is difficult to define.

Despite the multitude of people and agencies involved with a child's placement in care, fostering can be a lonely and isolating vocation. I believe that a failure to understand the emotional burden of foster care is a significant disincentive to the recruitment and retention of carers. It deserves consideration during this Foster Care Fortnight.

When a placement begins foster carers find themselves at the centre of an extraordinarily large group of people with a stake in the child's future: social workers, birth parents and grandparents, GPs, legal guardians, health visitors, police, and contact teams.

There's more: once the placement is underway, foster carers make it a priority to build bridges with the child's extended social network. Earning the trust of parents at the school gate, for example, is critical to the wellbeing of a looked-after child. This can require considerable skill and tact. Some parents will have an allegiance to the birth family, and treat the foster carer with suspicion, hostility even. Even teachers will be on their guard. After all, although few will understand why a child is in care, it will be clear that bad things have happened, and nobody wants to be blamed.

Foster carers quickly develop a thick skin and learn to ignore any criticism, for the prize is too great. A child who has suffered neglect or abuse is often marginalised at school: it is a vicious circle of rejection. We have cared for children who have never been asked back for tea, or to a birthday party, let alone a sleepover. But friendships will blossom in the classroom if parents trust each other. As these relationships grow, a foster carer forms a new circle of friends through parties, swimming lessons, day trips, PTA meetings and so on.

And yet, many of these friendships are doomed, for the glue that holds them together is a temporary placement that must end, and the sooner the better. When this happens the bridge will be drawn on this cohort who may have shared extraordinarily intimate, sometimes life-changing experiences. One day they are there, the next day they are gone, the social workers, birth parents, school mums, contact supervisors, one and all. It all adds to the profound sense of loss that many foster families feel when a child finally moves on to begin a new life.

This sense of loneliness and isolation is often compounded by the difficulty in maintaining friendships outside fostering. The emotional and physical toll of a placement makes it difficult to find time for others. When you are caring for a vulnerable child there is no simple answer to the well-intended "So what have you been up to recently?" We are in our 50s, and while most of our friends are feeling liberated as their owns sons and daughters fly the nest, we grapple with school runs, playgroups, sleepovers and nappies. Coffee mornings with fellow foster carers are enjoyable in their own way but they are no substitute for those friendships honed through shared experiences over many years.

To one degree or another, all carers feel a sense of isolation, because caring is by its very nature, all-consuming and introspective. But there are unique aspects of a foster carer's role that add to the emotional burden of care. We were prepared for most of what fostering has thrown at us, but the sense of isolation that has crept up on us over the years has come as a surprise.

We rely heavily on our extended family for support. Over the years brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews have been extraordinarily supportive and we would have struggled without them. At Christmas, Easter and family gatherings in between they sweep up our children as if they were their own. But not every foster carer is as fortunate.

Foster carers earn the admiration of the community for the work they do. But if the current model of child protection is to survive, foster carers need more than kind words. Better access to respite care and the speedier resolution of complex placements are essential. My wish would be for schools to have an effective protocol for when a pupil is taken into care, which reaches out to foster carers. But what is needed, above all, is a recognition that child welfare is everyone's responsibility, and not just for the small number who step up to the plate.

As for us, we shall take a short rest, reflect on the good times we had during this placement, reconnect with each other. But it won't be long before the phone rings again and new children enter our lives. We hope to be ready for the next challenge.


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