Following the publication of the Government consultation there has been much talk about empowering foster carers. The premise is that we will have more responsibility for everyday decision making in respect of the children we foster, for example, by deciding when to take the child to have his or her hair cut, or giving permission for the child to go on a school outing, attend a birthday party or sleepover. At present, depending on the type of care order the child is on, permission for what are everyday activities and experiences for most children can become an obtuse process, so much so that children in care do miss out.
While it would seem that any step to normalise the lives of children in care must be a good one, I have concerns. To begin with I think we need to distinguish between long term and short term placements. While it may be appropriate for a carer to make everyday decisions for a child who is with them permanently it is very different if the child is short term; where the parents retain parental responsibility and the carer needs to be working with the parents. To not seek their permission or views would be to undermine their role as parent.
Another concern I have is that, particularly with short term placements, we are unlikely to have the information we need to make a judgement on whether to give permission, especially in respect of social events such as a friend’s sleepover. We get to know our children’s friends and their families over months and years, from living in the same neighbourhood, taking our children to – and collecting them from school, attending coffee mornings and fund raising events etc. This is not true of most short term placements where the child often comes from a different area and attends a school which is not local. These children arrive with a ready-made network of friends, aunts, uncles and associates etc.
I had firsthand experience of this pitfall earlier this year when an 11-year-old girl I was fostering wanted to go to a friend's house for a sleepover. I didn’t know the family – her school was over 10 miles away and I asked her social worker what I should do. The social worker told me it was my decision; that I should treat her like my own child. It was a decision I didn’t feel I could make. I didn’t want the girl to miss out but on the other hand I had no knowledge of her friend’s family. Would I have sent my own child there? No, because I didn’t know the family.
I had a sleepless night trying to decide what to do for the best and then I raised my concerns with the local authority, pointing out that I simply didn’t have the information on which to make an informed decision. The social services have access to databases we do not and they ran a check and found that the eldest brother in the family was known to the social services and the police. I wasn’t told the details but the decision was made the child wasn’t to go to their house. Thank goodness I had stood my ground and resisted the pressure to give permission for her to go, as the social worker was pushing me to do, for had I done so and something had happened I’d never have forgiven myself, and neither I suspect would the LA.
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