Over the past couple of years, I have been asked many times, and listened to a great deal of understandable frustration and criticism expressed on our Facebook page for Do Fostering, about the mandatory requirement to provide a spare bedroom at the time of applying for an assessment to become a foster carer.
Before I became self-employed in 2014, I worked for some years recruiting foster carers into an urban London local authority, and the same question arose there, too, during my handling of incoming fostering enquiries. My direct experience, along with this oft-raised issue on Facebook shows just how many people there are who would dearly love to foster. Of these, many possess the skills and the aptitude to foster, but are disappointed to find that they cannot go forward to assessment because they do not have a spare bedroom to offer for fostering.
In this article, I am going to provide a thorough and persuasive explanation of why this particular requirement exists, how it came to be, and why, in spite of the known shortage of foster carers, it has not, and in my view, should not be revoked. On our Facebook page, it only takes one individual to raise the issue within the comments section of a page update for it to be quickly joined by the voices of many others.
The collective opinion often concludes that this requirement is ‘part of the problem’ that is causing the shortfall of fostering households, and that if only it was removed, the entire fostering shortage issue would be solved. Well, perhaps it would, but as we shall see, by solving this problem, it would be replaced by another – both bigger, and more damaging.
Sometimes, approved foster carers, who are also followers of Do Fostering on Facebook jump in with knowledgeable and reasoned answers to soothe the collective exasperation, but find they are often drowned out. Yet fostering is a profession that requires a great deal of empathy, that is, the ability to stand in another’s shoes; to see the world from another’s perspective. For this reason, I have been genuinely surprised at the number of times this question has arisen from individuals that would like to become foster carers.
But now and again, the compulsory spare bedroom is sometimes commented upon more positively by a few individuals who, whilst themselves unable to foster for the same reason, do express an ability to extend their thinking beyond their own personal disappointment, by understanding why a spare bedroom is needed.
They more readily understand that given the urgent need for more fostering families to come forward, neither the Government, nor local authorities or independent fostering agencies would either impose or uphold this rule if it were unnecessary. To do so would be pointlessly self-defeating! These are the people who I most hope to see come forward to foster if their domestic circumstances change and allow them to do so.
So let’s look at some of the main reasons that a spare bedroom is required, and in the comments section below, I’d invite you to add more if you can, so that this article can be refined if possible.
1. Hurt children need their own space to think, and ‘be’.
Most children entrusted into the care of approved foster carers have suffered* years of neglect, an absence of healthy, nurturing love, and often wilful abuse and cruelty at the hands of their parents or other family members.
In response to the frighteningly creative range of ways that some adults can inflict grievous pain and suffering upon children, children develop adaptive behaviours to help them cope, even survive, situations from which there is no apparent escape. More about this below.
Coming into care then adds the trauma of further abandonment by their biological family on top of a years-long endurance of psychologically destructive exposures and situations. There cannot be a single reader of this article who has not needed to ‘get away from it all’ or to have ‘some me time’, or perhaps gone out for a walk to clear their minds, or otherwise needed time alone to process their feelings and make sense of a situation.
As adults, we would of course prefer to offer a child with an awful lot of early life pain and suffering, their own room in which to reflect, perhaps have a cry, or even destroy something (I used to tear a shirt to pieces), as a healthy expression of sadness or anger, rather than having to ‘go out’ every time she or he felt those feelings come up.
Being in public naturally causes us to squash down our feelings, (thanks to British social conditioning) and for traumatised, vulnerable kids, that’s not in the least helpful.
Feelings are to be honoured, not ignored.
From the privacy of a room of their own, they may later emerge, either feeling better, the same, or worse, but once in a while they might even come to you to talk about something, or just for a hug! What a wonderful sense of fulfilment you would feel to have been trusted enough to approach for emotional reassurance, and to be able to offer it, which also builds trust between you, making the placement more resilient and nurturing.
A kid or teen who has no personal space and has to retreat to somewhere outside of the home effectively takes the loving support that you could offer as their foster carer right out of the picture. The consequence of this is not difficult to imagine, but for a child who feels they must take painful feelings outside of their home, a place that is meant to provide safety and security, this will create emotional distance between them and you, and make it more difficult, and longer, for you to you to help your foster child heal, and grow.
*As a former abused child, I do not go in for some of today’s ‘sanitised’ phrases, such as the now common use of the word ‘experienced’ instead of ‘suffered’. As an eight-year-old boy, I was once tied to a kitchen chair and tortured by my stepmother and father. I would not call that a ‘torture experience’. I tend to feel we use such words because we’re afraid to call things what they are.
2. Children copy what they see.
Within the section of this site, What is fostering?, we explained a little about what children and young people may have been subjected to before coming into care, and some of the ways that they may have learned to cope with those experiences, even though, now they are in care and living a place of safety and security, those coping behaviours are no longer rationally necessary.
Some of these behaviours may include hoarding, stealing, snooping, aggression, bullying, bedwetting, animal cruelty, soiling, swearing, threats, coercion and manipulation, and sexually inappropriate behaviour. We know that children copy what they see, after all, it’s how all children learn.
For example, if a child has witnessed adults having sex, or been sexually abused themselves, the possibility that she or he may act out those same behaviours in care, and in a foster home, are not assured, but not minimally unlikely either.
As we explored earlier in What is fostering?, we often we do not know the whole story when a child comes into care. Some things are revealed only through the passage of time. Over the course of your fostering career, you may look after many children and young people, and some of those may come with unknown experiences and histories. Children are often too afraid and ashamed to talk about what has happened to them, and their abusers are most unlikely to offer an authentic version of events. My own personal case files read like a complete work of fiction.
So asking your own children if they would be happy to share their bedroom with new brothers or sisters is very likely to be met with all the enthusiasm of a pyjama party; a predictable response! Children see this as exciting and fun, but they also lack the ability to foresee some of the negatives, so we adults must take care to think ahead on their behalf. We must also practice some personal restraint so that we don’t allow our children’s enthusiasm to over-validate our own wish to become a foster carer.
However, by allowing your children to share a bedroom with neglected, abused, traumatised children, there comes risk. Some of it is known and could be managed, but much of it is unknown and cannot. So, imagine how you might feel to learn that your younger son has been sexually touched by a slightly older boy you are fostering? Or, how would you deal with bruises appearing on your daughter’s arms, caused by bullying by her foster-sister?
How would you manage the situation if social services have no placement available to remedy the situation with the immediacy you would like? Would you allow the situation you have just learned about to possibly happen again? Knowing that your son or daughter is afraid to go to bed for the reasons they have shared with you would be emotionally unbearable.
But there’s something even more difficult to reconcile, because all of the above assumes that your child has not been manipulated into silence, so that their abuse continues, entirely unknown to you—so the fact that you even come to know what is going on, whilst terribly painful, is surely favourable compared to the alternative.
Social work practice has developed professionally over 30-40 years and we know so much more about psychological responses to trauma and abandonment today than in years past when fostered children were able to share bedrooms with your own children (if you have them).
However, bedroom-sharing has been shown, time and again, to result in many more placement breakdowns when compared to those where a fostered child has space of their own, with much less sibling rivalry and conflict.
Placement breakdowns are indescribably painful for everyone. I know, because it happened to me, aged 13. The utter, abject sense of despair I felt, sitting alone, back again in a children’s home can’t even be put into words, but I remember sobbing uncontrollably and feeling a sense of worthlessness that felt like I had died. It strikes me as odd that no staff comforted me at all that night.
Repeating abandonment trauma for a fostered child, as well as needing therapeutic intervention to support you through what could well be an emotional crisis is taken extremely seriously by all professionals concerned because we now know how incredibly damaging it is for everyone concerned and especially for the child in care.
Providing a spare bedroom not only offers much needed privacy for fostered children to process the events of their lives, but can protect your own children from harm or from copying what they see by adopting harmful or disruptive behaviours, too.
3. Would you share your own bedroom with strangers?
Lastly, in order to bring the answer to this persistent question a little closer to home, imagine how you would feel about sharing your own bedroom with a series of strangers?
All you know about them is that they have troubled, abusive life histories. And whenever you want some ‘me time’ the stranger is in your bedroom playing music, or watching TV, or has friends round.
How will you cope with a loss of privacy, now having to change and dress in the bathroom, where you usually did so in your bedroom? Perhaps you now have to wear pyjamas all the time for modesty’s sake? What if you noticed things had ‘moved’ in your drawers?
Would you feel a need to modify your own behaviour in some way? Might you start hiding your treasured possessions? How secure would you feel about sharing your bedroom with someone who you knew had been physically or sexually by their family members?
And then before you know it, they disappear, and are replaced by a new stranger a few days later, who perhaps never bathes because she was badly neglected and wasn’t taught about self-care? The answers to all of the questions above are obvious, and I need offer no more examples to emphasise the point any further.
Since, as adults, we wouldn’t welcome this for ourselves, why should we expect children to do so? Their initial enthusiasm is naive, and we adults need to recognise and take this into account. By knowingly exposing our own children to risk, could that not, in and of itself, be considered abusive? It certainly isn’t healthy parenting.
What you have read here will not be found on fostering agency websites, and as a specialist consultant working with fostering agencies to redevelop and strengthen their own carer recruitment strategies, I would not recommend that they took such an approach.
However, because Do Fostering is not a fostering agency (and never will be), here we have a unique opportunity to share with more candour. Sometimes we draw upon the personal experiences of others to provide real-life case study examples. We hope that you find our approach gets to the nub of a topic quickly and clearly, and helpfully.
Fostering is a deeply rewarding profession, or vocation, as others prefer to call it. It brings moments of emotional or spiritual connection and fulfilment that are exceptionally rare within the normal routine of life.
If you know foster carers already ask them why they do it. If you don’t, plenty of foster carers follow our page on Facebook and would happily answer any questions you may have. There are also videos of foster carers, and their own children, talking about life as a fostering family.
Above all, we urge you not to feel anxious by what you may read on Do Fostering. After all, if everything we published here was ‘light and fluffy’, accompanied by pictures of beaming children with perfect dentistry, would you really feel that was providing you with an authentic idea of all the fostering involves?
As a foster carer, you will never be alone. Fostering is a team effort—all the way. Ask any fostering agency, be they a local authority, or independent fostering agency, and all will share with you the wide-ranging support and comprehensive training that they offer. If, and when, you are approved to foster, it will be because a panel of experts can see that you have the skills to foster!
If you are considering fostering, and you go forward into an assessment, at some point you will come to learn more about what is explained here through training. Having read well over a hundred expressions of exasperation about the need for a spare bedroom preventing individuals from fostering, it is clear to me that there needed to be an open, honest, and authentic explanation available somewhere—so here it is.
I particularly encourage readers of this article to contribute thoughts and further reasons for the mandatory spare bedroom. We do need to bring home the valid reasons for this because it is clear from Do Fostering on Facebook and elsewhere that this requirement is often viewed as either wilful or thoughtless obstruction, and as is evident above, it most certainly is not.
Thanks for reading and I look forward to your feedback.
Sean Parry is a time-served, multi-award winning recruitment marketer. He has worked among all sectors, private and commercial, public, health, police, fire and rescue, third sector, and local authorities. Over 20 years, Sean’s affinity with the cause of looked-after children and young people drew him to work ever more closely with children’s services.
Initially this included large scale social work recruitment exercises, later leading towards fostering and adoption attraction and recruitment marketing strategies. Full details of his career, and the core carer recruitment support service that Sean now provides on a retained consultancy basis to fostering agencies can be found on his LinkedIn page.
If your fostering agency is looking for specialist support to recruit new foster carers, please get in touch on 07977 712 712 or by email for an exploratory, no-obligation discussion. This will be followed up with a summary of your support needs, along with full details of how he can help, anticipated outcomes, and hourly rates. Testimonials of Sean’s work from former fostering agency clients are also published on this website.
Don’t forget to join us at Do Fostering on Facebook, now the country’s most popular fostering page, achieved in just two and a half years by Sean alone with an exceptionally limited budget – testament that effective, results-producing marketing had less to do with budget and more to do with developing a plan that works… and sticking to it!