Whilst the reasons why children come into the care of their local authority do vary, they are never happy ones. They are also rarely spontaneous, except where evidence comes to light that a child or young person is in imminent danger. In these cases, fostering agencies can be called upon to find a foster home within a situation of emergency – with no time for a care planning meeting, and with a minimum of information.
What types of fostering are there?
The length of time a child, or children, may stay with you could be a few days, several months, or longer. Sometimes it may be a year, or more. If the situation is complicated or it is clear that a return home will not be possible, it can be until they eventually become old enough to leave home.
Because of this, there are a number of ways to foster children. You will find more information about each of the options below on fostering agencies’ pages right here on this website, or you can search for their own websites and Facebook pages, or on the Government’s website, and some may better suit your household circumstances than others:
- Short Term Foster Care
- Long Term Foster Care
- Respite Care
- Short Breaks for Disabled Children
- Private Fostering
- Remand Fostering
- Parent and Child Fostering
- Family & Friends Care (or, Kinship Care)
What might children have experienced before fostering?
The most common reasons why children need to live with foster carers are:
- Children who have experienced neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- A parent who is physically or mentally unwell
- Parents who cannot care for children due to abandonment, seeking asylum, death, or imprisonment
- Parents who are abusing drugs or alcohol
- Domestic violence
- Families needing a break
Beyond this, we do not need, or wish to list in painful detail all of the ways in which some adults can harm children. Newspaper headlines and our own imaginations can adequately furnish us with this. However, many years ago, a social work colleague said to me something that I found quite chilling to hear:
“If people can, they will.”
So few words. So much truth. And I went on to discover this later in my career. Working with a local authority in Essex some 10 years ago, I produced a foster carer recruitment campaign that included an image of an adult man with his arm around the shoulder of a young teenage girl. It was meant to represent a foster carer offering support to a girl placed in his care.
It was not objectionable, but my client’s reaction taught me that it was naïve. With resigned humour, I recall commenting, ‘you’d think there was a sex abuser on every street in the country, wouldn’t you?’. Their response was sobering:
“Well, there is. And they are just the ones we know about.”
This came from two of the most senior social work managers within that local authority. I was shocked. The recruitment idea was binned, and we used an alternative (and successful) campaign.
Child abuse and neglect is mostly hidden from view, but it is far more prevalent that most of us imagine. And in spite of their eventual rescue from such harmful situations, and whatever their history, all children who are in care will be processing a great deal of emotional trauma.
The length of time that a child is fostered depends on the circumstances, but the starting point for social services departments is usually to work towards reuniting children with their birth families. However, when this cannot happen, a professional team, including you, if appropriate, will discuss and put in place a plan for the child’s future.
Whatever decisions are taken later, we must understand that whether a child has been ‘given up’ or involuntarily taken into care, and whether or not this is against the wishes of the parents, or the child themselves (whether authentic or feigned through fear of retribution), the sense of abandonment for children is real and profound.
How do children cope with abuse?
Children react and cope with these frightening and bewildering situations in different ways. This is why more new foster homes are urgently needed in order to help meet the needs of children as closely as possible with foster homes that offer the skills, experience, and cultural make-up that make for a good match.
Children who have lived in a situation of neglect, and abuse, or both, may have learned that ‘invisibility’ is the most reliable way to avoid harm, and thus present, very convincingly, as ‘fine’. All children are born with an innate instinct for survival. For most, this is emotionally assured by the constant care, feeding, and loving attention of birth parents.
However, this is not the case for all children. Sometimes, a birth parent, or parents, are unable, or unwilling, to meet the needs of their child. A child will quickly sense, or come to believe, that their safety, or even survival, depends upon acquiescence to what appears to be an inescapable situation of torment, cruelty, and usually the absence of love.
Complicity and secrecy enable the abuser.
Physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect that is inflicted upon children by the adults in their lives, who should be setting and protecting healthy boundaries for them, but who actually do the precise opposite, will stimulate a child’s instinctive need to survive to the most acute level. It is often referred to as ‘being in a state of hyper-vigilance’.
Children, without the available threat responses of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’, (since they have no option of personal independence) are therefore compelled to adopt their last available threat response, of ‘freeze’, which, in the context of their immediate situation, most often presents as complicity in their own neglect and abuse.
Take for example the prisoner of war who attempts to develop a friendship with those holding him hostage, believing that such complicity will spare him torture and death. Young children, who have no experience of healthy human behaviour, lack this rational understanding. Nonetheless, they will react in the same psychological way in a situation of threat and defencelessness; it is safer to comply than to resist.
Unfortunately, such fearful complicity then creates the secrecy that protects and enables abusers and hides what is going on from other adults; who might or could be in a position to help. Most sadly, this means that abuse suffered by children, often within our midst, both continues, and usually escalates for years before the outward signs become clear enough for adults to act, or the child themselves gathers the immense courage that it takes for them to speak to another person.
That might usually be a trusted friend, or an adult who they have learned to trust, such as a class teacher. That is why our logo carries the tag-line: ‘Everybody counts.’ We believe that everyone can play a part in protecting our vulnerable children and young people, and that if you suspect child abuse, to report it.
You can do this by contacting the children’s services department of your local authority, or the police, or a GP or nurse, a class teacher or head teacher, or through NSPCC Childline
At Do Fostering, our standpoint is clear:
“If you consider yourself to be a responsible member of society, then we share a moral obligation to report what we suspect, and never to turn a blind eye. What, after all, is more important in life, than protecting our young?”
‘Dysfunctional’, or life-saving?
By the time a child (or children) ‘comes to notice’ of a local authority, their suffering may have gone on for several painful, despair-filled years. As a result, their emotional and psychological scars, as well as physical harm both immediately evident, or historical, will have created behavioural routines and responses that may only become clear upon entering care, or even some time into a foster placement.
Many of us might have described these behaviours as ‘dysfunctional’, but they are, in fact, completely functional adaptive behaviours that helped children to survive within the situations they were undeservingly born into. Foster carers, who look after children and young people from such backgrounds, all day, every day, are often the first to recognise adaptive behaviours.
Recording these in a journal of care, and sharing it with your supervising social worker will enable the fostering agency to support you and the child through what can be quite difficult periods. When assessing people to become foster carers, an agency will want to see how effectively you can work with other professionals, and that you recognise that sometimes ‘fostering’ alone does not provide a ‘whole child’ solution.
I sometimes see fostering advertising campaigns that call foster carers ‘heroes’. The sentiment is well intentioned, but a little superficial. Fostering is not a one-person effort, and you should never feel that you must handle everything on your own—of all professions I have worked within, this is one that strongly discourages such an approach. All fostering agencies know that fostering is a team effort, and by the time of your approval, so will you.
If adults struggle to change, why should kids be different?
Many of us have tried to give up smoking, lose weight, stop overspending on credit cards, and a host of other sometimes self-destructive behaviours only to fail again and again. In the same way, but without any adult understanding of the world around them, it is very difficult for children to ‘unlearn’ survival behaviours.
This is because the part of our brain that deals with threats to our survival, the ‘amygdala’, most commonly referred to as our ‘threat response system’ does not simply realise, ‘I’m OK now’, and then dispense with years of hard-wired hypervigilance that have proven so critical to the child’s survival.
This threat response system is part of our ‘ancient brain’. It is the part of our brain that pulls us back onto the pavement to avoid an oncoming car, before we’ve even had a chance to think about it. If you imagine that avoiding a car collision involved a ‘rational’ thinking process of several seconds before acting to protect ourselves, I doubt many of us would survive beyond 4-5 years of age!
The sole function of the amygdala is to protect us from threat and ensure our survival. It is, by evolutionary necessity, the most powerful part of our brain. However, it has no concept of time. It simply stores threats to our survival, but it cannot let go of these when the threats it has stored no longer exist. As an example, this is why children who experienced extreme hunger may hoard food in foster care, even though, rationally, there is no need to do so.
Fostering is more than hugs and kisses.
This is why coming to fostering believing that ‘hugs and kisses’ are all that is needed will not unravel such deeply learned survival behaviours overnight. But, ‘trust equals action over time’, and that is why fostering assessments will focus in some depth upon your own emotional resilience. Among the valuable personal attributes that foster carers need, patience, and a thick skin, are two that really, are essential.
You may hear fostering agencies describe this as ‘stickability’. This personal quality cannot be overstated. If you are approved as a foster carer, you will be given all available information about a child, their behaviours, and their background to help you make the decision to open your life and home to a child that an agency feels is a good match for you and for her or him.
Professional integrity is paramount.
This places upon you a significant responsibility to maintain professional integrity at all times. As part of a professional team around the child, you will be given access to sensitive documentary information that is strictly off-limits to the general public. You must recognise the importance of securely storing such information, and exercise great caution how, and with whom, you share some of the details.
But it also means that we all must accept as fact that in supporting and providing loving care to traumatised children, not everything will reveal itself at the convenience of adults who must make sound decisions about how to ensure the best care for a child.
As a team, of which you will be an integral part, you will make evidence and practice-based predictions to put in place therapeutic intervention where the collective view is that this is likely to be needed. However, the plain fact is that we cannot predict and prepare for everything.
Resilience is vital for foster placement stability.
As we can now see, fostering can never be just about ‘a bedroom and a hot meal every day’. Practice and professional understanding has built significantly upon the foundations of decades past, and we now know that foster carers, by absolute necessity, must possess certain personal qualities that not everyone has. Some of these include empathy, self-awareness, the confidence to set and keep to boundaries, and, as I am often reminded, a good sense of humour!
So, through good times and bad, you must continue to advocate, care for, and love each child as you would one of your own. A large number of very effective foster carers do not have children of their own, and many are also single parent households.
As children grow and develop, so will you.
One thing fostering is not, is easy. It is a lifestyle choice that will call upon emotional resources you may never have known you had. Fostering is often as much about self-exploration, realisation, acceptance, and the willingness to learn and change, as it is about providing care for the many children and young people who are waiting.
If we are not in touch with ourselves, as imperfect human beings, then our ability to provide more than superficial care to vulnerable kids is greatly diminished. Over my career, I have been immensely privileged to meet, and learn a great deal from foster carers themselves.
They all share a generosity of spirit that is almost incomparable within British society. Foster carers share with me time and again the challenges they face, but more than this, the unsurpassable emotional reward of offering a lifeline to child who is in desperate need; despite the brave face they may have learned to put on their situation.
The description we provide here is candid and it is intended to be so. Do Fostering is not a fostering agency and we never will be. Our purpose is contained within our clear mission:
“To Connect Prospective Foster Carers with Local Fostering Agencies
and Achieve Full National Care Placement Sufficiency.”
Achieving this absolutely requires collaboration with fostering agencies, but it is the fostering agencies themselves you will choose from, and that will meet with you, invite you to their own Skills to Foster training courses, and who will assess your overall suitability to foster, culminating in attendance at Fostering Panel.
Our founder, Sean Parry, experienced abuse as a child, and later grew up in care. He is now part of a wider fostering family, as well as bringing experience of 15 years’ work within, and for, children’s services departments, and we have therefore built this brand new online fostering resource from a position of a deep understanding of fostering, both personally and professionally, and all that it involves.
However, we are also clear that the experience of one individual does not speak for thousands of other children who have come from, or who are currently in, similar situations. As such, our introduction to fostering, here and over the next two sections, should not, and is not intended to replace that of any fostering agency you may approach for an assessment.
It has been written to offer you, as someone who is interested in becoming a foster carer, what we hope you will find to be an enlightening opening to fostering and its’ immeasurable value – and that is something that Sean can personally attest to!
Here is feedback from just two of many foster carers Sean has recruited across the UK:
“Sean, I am deeply impressed by your commitment to this important work. Your leading of the information evening at which my husband and I first began to explore becoming foster carers was impeccable. We wouldn’t be doing this work today were it not for that. It could so easily have seemed a mountain too high to climb!” – Foster carer couple
“Sean, your story is an inspiration to others and one of the many success stories. Your past has made you the wonderful person you are today. As a family we continue to have good relationships with many of our former foster children and they are still a big part of our family life today, sharing celebrations – as you continue to do with yours.” – Single foster carer