Few things trouble a foster care more than having to refuse a child placement. It is one of the most difficult decisions we face and is never taken lightly. We are committed to providing a safe haven to vulnerable children. Each time a social worker calls to check our availability we know there is a human tragedy at the heart of that conversation: a child harmed, a family broken, lives on the brink. The shortage of foster carers makes that conversation even more difficult; you probably are not the first carer they called and you won't be the last. You may never have met the social worker at the other end of the line, and yours may just be another name on a list. But you recognise the anxiety in each other's voice as the clock ticks down in the search to find a home for somebody else's son or daughter.
Yes, turning away a placement is one of the most challenging decisions, for we understand the consequences. Yet sometimes saying No is the right response, for both child and foster carer. In fact, it is often the only possible response. Children in care have needs, both physical and emotional, that not all foster families are able to cater for. The shortage of carers obliges social workers to look for a placement further away from the child's family home, which makes for impossibly long school runs and journeys to family contact sessions, as well as disrupting a child's social network. Fostering is demanding and intense at the best of times, and carers develop a sixth sense about the risk of failure, which can be damaging for all those involved.
Much agonising and soul-searching goes into every decision. In recent weeks we have turned away two placements, but only after many hours of consideration, of 'what ifs ...' and 'maybes.' And in the end, with a heavy heart, you admit defeat, accepting that the courageous decision, which serves everyone's interests best, is 'No'. Days later, weeks even, you find yourself still asking whether you did the right thing, and what became of the child or children. Are they safe? Are they happy? Of course they are. But you can't help wondering, and worrying.
Equally unsettling are those placements to which you commit but which don't come to pass. Circumstances change, an alternative and more appropriate carer emerges, or a legal obstacle to the placement is put in place. We all know, and live with, the fact that many children are leading difficult and uncompromising lives, and wish we could do more. But once you open the email with the case notes attached, one of those children becomes so much more real, with a name, age, likes and dislikes, a school, hobbies, dreams and aspirations. Emotionally, you make room in your life for this young person, even before they have stepped inside your home. You work through the logistics, assess what adjustments need to be made, prepare the spare bedroom and buy extra food and drink for the week. Everyone is going to be on their best behaviour for the new arrival.
Then, late in the day, the telephone rings. You don't even need to answer to know that something has gone awry. The child is not coming. There is not much more anyone can say. So sorry.
The saddest thing of all is the knowledge that it won't be long before another email, with case notes attached, lands in our inbox and a child, or children, is brought to our front door, with his entire world packed into carrier bags or a small suitcase, in distress at being separated from loved ones, fearful for what the future holds. That spare room must remain at the ready.