The number of children in foster care is on the rise, according to the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), with over 50,000 young people in foster care in England alone. And although there are still nowhere near enough of them, the number of foster carers is increasing too, with more and more adults recognising the rewards of looking after young people who, for a wide variety of reasons, have to be removed from their homes.
As a parent, this means you're more likely than ever to come across children in care. The problem is that with so many myths and outdated perceptions around fostering, there's every chance that you could say the wrong thing, inadvertently upsetting a group of young people who are already more vulnerable than their peers.
We talked to children in foster care, foster carers, care leavers and social workers to compile the ultimate guide on what not to say.
Being in care must be terrible
Not necessarily. "For some kids, foster care is their first experience of predictable, safe care," explains Alan Wood, spokesperson on foster care for BAAF and a long-term foster carer to two young people himself. "Remember that most children who go into foster care have been harmed by adults and often, over a long period of time. So whilst it's hard for children to be separated from their family, foster care is often a very welcome form of security."
Why are you in foster care?
Do you really need to know? No. Clearly, the answer isn't going to be nice, simple or easy and it is likely to do the young person more harm than good to even attempt an answer. That's assuming they even know the full story themselves. "All too often, children in care don't get access to their files until they are over 16," points out Matt Langsford, 22, who was in care for 10 years and who is now a consultant to New Belongings, a role that assists with creating the gold standard of leaving care services.
I understand how you feel
No, you don't. "My friends' parents used to say this and sometimes they would even give examples of times they'd been sad or lonely themselves as a child. But nobody really knew what my life was like, having been regularly beaten up by my dad and seeing my mum hurt too," says Josh Anderson, 26, who was in foster care from age 14 onwards.
"In fact, rather than making me feel better, comparing my mess of a life to their seemingly tame examples had the result of making me feel like they didn't think what had happened to me was even a big deal."
Children in care need empathy, not sympathy, he believes, and more often than not, that just means a listening ear if ever they want to talk.
School must be really hard
Studies show that looked-after children don't do as well as their peers educationally and that they are more risk of being excluded from school. "But that doesn't mean education is all negative for children in care. For me, school was the one safe haven throughout my time of being looked after. In fact, the four or five times that attempts were made to make me move schools, I refused to go," says Matt Langsford.
In any case, says Alan Wood, there is a much greater emphasis now on supporting fostered children in school and we should never generalise. "That's as good as giving up on kids and setting them up to fail."
Your mum and dad can't care about you very much
"I heard this from teachers when I was in care," says Matt Langford. "Not only was it hugely hurtful, but my mum had bipolar, which meant she couldn't cope. That's not the same as not caring."
Even when children have been hurt physically or emotionally by their parents, it doesn't mean their parents don't care, he adds. "Some people just don't know how to parent."
Then there are those who are in a foster family for reasons entirely unrelated to their parents. Perhaps another member of the family put them at risk – an aunt or sibling, for example. Bottom line – don't make assumptions.
You're the first foster child we've met
No child wants to be singled out for being different, particularly children in foster care who usually already feel different enough. Watch your terminology too – 'foster child' is a term that makes some children cringe. They've usually had a bellyful of labels already.
"Best not to bring up the fact that the child is in care at all, if you ask me," says Matt Langsford. "It shouldn't even be public knowledge and for the young person, the fact that you know could feel a real breach of confidentiality, throwing their trust in the whole system, which is fragile as it is."
What's it like having a new mum and dad?
"Many kids in foster care aren't looking for new parents. In fact, many – me included – felt pretty raw about not being able to live with our existing ones," says Sophie Armstrong, 31, who lived in foster care for a year as a child.
"Even the people I knew who did call their foster family Mum and Dad would have been horrified at the idea of anyone thinking the old ones no longer mattered. Also, the reality is that most kids in foster care have multiple placements, never really being able to settle in any one family."
Alan Wood adds that foster care is supposed to be temporary – the idea is that many kids are expected to either go home or be adopted, although that doesn't always actually happen, and there are a large number of young people in foster care who will remain being looked after until their 18th birthday. The new Government scheme called 'staying put' also supports carers and young people who decide that the young person staying put beyond 18 is the right thing.
What did you do wrong to wind up in foster care?
"There's this perception that children are often in foster care because of their own behaviour, but 99 per cent of the time, they are there due to their family's behaviour and for their own safety," says Matt Langsford.
"I can remember one teacher telling me it was all my fault that I was in care and it was only when the deputy head caught her saying it that he stopped it happening and apologised to me. If teachers, who are trained to say the right things to teachers, get it this wrong, it worries me that parents might also say something like this."
I'm sure you'll be able to return home soon
Whilst foster care is meant to be temporary, young people rarely know when they will return home, if at all. Others may feel terrified at the thought of returning home at all. It's also worth remembering that many children are in what's known as 'long-term' or 'permanent' foster care, which is similar to adoption. These children often come to stay with foster carers between the ages of seven and 12 years old, and will stay with their foster family until they are ready to fly the nest.
You must hate your mum and dad for letting this happen
"When I look back now, I wonder why on earth I didn't hate my mum and dad for making life so bad at home that I had to be taken away from them," says Sophie Armstrong. "But at the time, I felt completely loyal to them and would have rather died than said anything against them. Even those kids I knew that did say they loathed their parents would never have tolerated someone else saying it."
TV chef Lorraine Pascale is to become the government's first fostering ambassador.
Pascale, who was fostered herself as a young child, has spoken about her background on a number of occasions.
She has also campaigned for more support for foster children and their families.
The Department for Education said she would "champion fostering" in England and encourage more people to think about becoming carers.
Pascale said: "It's a cause that's extremely close to my heart and I know from personal experience how critical and important this work is."
Children's Minister Edward Timpson said: "As someone who grew up as part of a large foster family, I know only too well that fostering can be one of the most rewarding experiences life can bring, as well as having a life-changing impact on a child's life.
"Lorraine is an inspiration to many foster children and their parents."
The government recently unveiled reforms to the adoption and fostering systems - including changing the rules to allow children to stay with their foster families until they are 21, giving carers powers to make day-to-day decisions about children in their care, and making the assessment process clearer and quicker.
The Fostering Network today welcomes the news that the Scottish Government has laid down in the Scottish Parliament an amendment to The Looked after Children (Scotland) Regulations to introduce placement limits to foster care.
This amendment, which comes into force on 29 December 2014, means that it will become unlawful for children to be accommodated in a foster care placement with more than two other unrelated, looked after children. The law will not be applicable to placements that are already set up and functioning successfully, but it will apply if a child is moved into a new placement.
Sara Lurie, director of The Fostering Network Scotland, said: “Placement limits have long been a priority for The Fostering Network. We know that a limit on the number of children in fostering households can mean that foster carers have more time to devote to meeting the needs of each child.
“A stable fostering placement, with highly trained and skilled foster carers who have the time to meet a child’s needs, can make a lifetime of difference. This is a move by the Scottish Government that will make a long lasting and real positive difference and we are proud to have led this campaign with support from foster carers and fostering services throughout the country.”
You can find more details on the progress of the Foster Care Review on the Scottish Government website.
In a recent interview with LexisNexis UK, TACT’s Executive Director of Policy, Communications and Fundraising Gareth Crossman explores the question of whether the care system is meeting the needs of young people.
A recent report by the National Audit Office has reinforced the concern that financially stretched local authorities are making decisions about children in care based on cost and the impact of this can be damaging to the long-term welfare of children in care.
Read the full interview with Gareth Crossman
Children and young people are at the core of TACT’s work and we believe that listening to and valuing their views and ideas helps them to reach their potential, and helps us to deliver better services for our foster families.
This year we interviewed 84 young people across TACT about a range of issues, including their views on being in care, what they think of their TACT foster carer, and the issues that are important to them. The full report of our children’s survey will be published in 2015, but Children in Scotland magazine has featured the views of young people from TACT Scotland in their most recent issue.
Read the full article: What we learn from listening
We are incredibly proud that every child in Scotland rated their TACT foster carer as ‘very good’, and said they feel like part of their carer’s family and that their carers make them feel good about themselves. The responses show that, with the right support, ordinary people can make an extraordinary difference to young people’s lives.
We are pleased to announce that Team Fostering has been accredited as a Living Wage employer.
The Living Wage commitment will see everyone working at Team Fostering, regardless of whether they are permanent employees or third-party contractors and suppliers; receive a minimum hourly wage of £7.65 -significantly higher than the national minimum wage of £6.50.
The Living Wage is an hourly rate set independently and updated annually. The Living Wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living using the ‘Minimum Income Standard’ for the UK. Decisions about what to include in this standard are set by the public; it is a social consensus about what people need to make ends meet.
Employers choose to pay the Living Wage on a voluntary basis.
“The best employers are voluntarily signing up to pay the Living Wage now. The Living Wage is a robust calculation that reflects the real cost of living, rewarding a hard day’s work with a fair day’s pay.
“We have accredited over 1,000 leading employers, including Team Fostering, ranging from independent printers, hairdressers and breweries, to well-known companies such as Nationwide, Aviva and SSE. These businesses recognise that clinging to the national minimum wage is not good for business. Customers expect better than that. "
About the Living Wage Foundation
The Living Wage is an hourly rate set independently and updated annually. The Living Wage is calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK. Employers choose to pay the Living Wage on a voluntary basis. The Living Wage enjoys cross party support, with public backing from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
The London Living Wage is currently £8.80 per hour. This figure is set annually by the Greater London Authority and covers all boroughs in Greater London. The UK Living Wage for outside of London is currently £7.65 per hour. This figure is set annually by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University.
The Living Wage Foundation recognises and celebrates the leadership shown by Living Wage employers across the UK. There are currently over 700 accredited employers. We are an initiative of Citizens UK. We believe that work should be the surest way out of poverty.
Haringey looks to be on course to miss two key targets to improve its fostering service, papers reveal.
The council is still placing too many of its looked-after children more than 20 miles away from the borough, and has fallen behind in its attempts to recruit more foster carers directly.
In October, 20 per cent of the 509 children in care were living more than 20 miles away. Haringey aims to have just 16 per cent of looked-after children outside the 20-mile limit.
The council is taking steps to improve the figures, and launched a huge drive to attract more foster carers, who would be directly employed by Haringey.
The authority set itself the target of recruiting 40 new, approved foster carers by the end of this financial year.
By October, it should have recruited 23 new foster carers, but so far, just 10 have been approved.
Cllr Liz Morris, children’s spokeswoman for Haringey’s Lib Dems, said the numbers were disappointing – and urged the council to act quickly.
“The Lib Dems have been calling for more local foster carers for many years,” she said. “It is very worrying that the council is so far behind its target for recruiting foster carers.
“Giving a local child a foster carer who lives in the borough can make a massive difference to a child’s life.
“It can mean avoiding big changes in children’s lives like moving out of the borough, changing schools and losing contact with friends and family.
“It also saves local taxpayers money as local foster carers are less expensive than agency fosterers and out of borough placements. The council must do more to recruit local foster carers.”
However, council officers still believe the target for recruiting foster carers is achievable.
“Fostering is a life-changing experience which can be extremely rewarding and make a real positive difference to a child’s life and that of the foster carer,” a spokesman said. “The council and Haringey Foster Care Association have been working hard of late to support more local people to become foster carers and we are confident we will achieve our target of approving 40 new fostering households by the end of March 2015.
“Over time this approach will enable us to place more children in homes within Haringey, providing more foster children with stable homes in the local community and saving money.”
TACT CEO Andy Elvin underlines the importance of good placement decisions for young people in care in an article published in The Guardian Social Care Network today. The full article text is republished below:
“Good placement decisions transform children’s lives, so it’s vital that they have a choice – and meet their carers before moving in.
The Department for Education cannot show it is meeting its objectives for children in foster and residential care. That was the worrying conclusion from the National Audit Office report on children in care. The consequences of this are poorer care for children and a greater cost. There were also concerns about getting foster and adoption placements right first time.
It was this issue which caught my attention, as this is the problem from which many others stem. Multiple placements and placement instability are toxic to children’s wellbeing and their long term welfare.
In Scotland, the Adolescent and Children’s Trust’s (TACT’s) recent children’s survey showed that 100% of its children met their foster carers before moving in with them. In England, the figure is 57%. Whenever possible, children should have a choice of care placement and the opportunity to meet carers before a placement is agreed. This is consistently the message we receive from young people placed with TACT.
Much has been made of the need for parallel planning for adoption, where several care plans are made at once in case the potential adoption falls through. The same should be true of foster care. Very rarely are placements truly emergencies in that the need for the child to come into care was not foreseen or the placement breakdown not apparent.
However, our experience at TACT is that insufficient planning too often limits the choice of placement for the child in these circumstances. It is vital that social workers involve fostering teams early in cases where children are likely to come into care or if a placement is facing significant issues. By doing this, a choice of placements can be identified and the young person can be involved in the choice of placement. Of course, there are genuine emergencies where a child’s need to come into care could not have been foreseen. In these circumstances, a strong emergency foster carers list is crucial.
Identifying a placement that meets the child’s need, that the child has been involved in choosing and where he or she has met the carers is the way to achieve lasting placements. All too often these decisions are hurried, last-minute and not sufficiently thought through. Constraints on social workers such as high caseloads, poor supervision and underfunding are major contributory factors. But good placement decisions not only save time and money; in the long term, they improve outcomes and transform children’s lives.
More detailed analysis of the NAO report shows where the principal concerns lie. One issue that has a huge impact on children in care is quality and suitability of placement. The report says “local authorities often base decisions on children’s placements on short-term affordability rather than on plans to best meet the child’s needs”. Short-term financial thinking is a key weakness of the local government funding model and a direct result of how children’s social care is funded by the education department. Poor placement results in breakdown, and the report shows that 34% of children had more than one placement in the previous year; 11% had three or more moves. Short-term, cost-based decisions greatly affect placement success, stability and, ultimately, the life chances of the child. As the report points out, 34% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training (Neet) at age 19 (compared with 15.5% of all 19-year-olds). The estimated cost of a young person being Neet is £56,000 a year.
More needs to be done to ensure that children in care have the best possible chance of successful and stable placements, helping them towards success after leaving care. There is often a wide gap between policy and practice. TACT social workers frequently express concerns that in areas such as delegated authority, the use of special guardianship orders and placement decisions, local authorities are frequently making decisions that are not in line with central policy, practice or guidance. The DfE could choose to measure some key indicators of good practice and tie Ofsted ratings firmly to placement stability and quality of care.
Good practice models are available and can be found in many local authorities. This is where duty, family support and looked after children teams work closely with fostering and access to resource teams, involving them early when there is a chance a child will be entering care or moving placements . They are involving the child in their placement choice and not prioritising a short-term financial imperative over a choice that will potentially affect a child’s future. These are the key good practice touchstones.
As the report points out, without action the cost not only to the public purse but, vitally, to the long-term welfare of children placed in care is far greater than any short-term saving.
Good foster care can alter the course of a child’s life but placements must be properly planned and supported.
The alternative is more young people, like this young person we surveyed, for whom this is the response to yet another placement move:
‘No, I didn’t meet my new carer before moving. It was an emergency placement. I didn’t mind as I’m used to it.’”
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