Fostering News: I'm a foster carer, and this is what it's like trying to make Christmas magical for frightened children in the care system
But, inevitably, the question is asked: how long will they be staying with you this time? And we are reminded of the transient nature of the lives we have created for these children. They are so precious to us, yet they are somebody else’s daughters, and somebody else’s granddaughter
We may be Santa’s worst nightmare. As we enter his grotto we see panic set in as he struggles to reset his script for our burgeoning family, because we are evidently not mummy and daddy, nor nanny and grandad. Then he must master three beautiful but unfamiliar girls’ names, including three different surnames, and quickly get his head around their apparently chaotic plans for Christmas, before wishing he never asked. Never has that glass of sherry tasted so fine.
We are foster carers, and this Christmas is all about creating something special for three children who were unknown to us just a few months ago. We specialise in sibling groups, so our foster children tend to come in twos and threes. They arrive at our doorstep, with belongings crammed into carrier bags, usually frightened and tired, with little sense of where they are and how long it will be before they are moved on again. They may have been removed from their home for their own safety, but at this point the alternative feels anything but welcoming and secure.
Days become weeks, and weeks become months, and our foster children, so shy and withdrawn in those early days, have found their voices and their confidence. They have grown, both physically and emotionally, and we have a better sense of the smart young women they will become. New schools, new friends, new hobbies. At school, they are up there with their peers, no quarter given for the burden they undoubtedly still carry as children in care.
And before we know it, we are getting ready for Christmas. Christmas fayres, carol singing and nativity plays. We take our place among the mums and dads in school halls and cheer with pride. Our angel and our mouse stole the show, didn’t you see? The children come home each day clutching their Christmas bounty, and they spend many hours crafting their own cards to give to teachers and classmates. Their smiles light up the room.
Our own extended family has embraced our role as foster carers, and as we gather for Christmas they sweep up our foster children without skipping a beat. There are always extra presents under the tree, and plenty of chairs at the dinner table.
But, inevitably, the question is asked: how long will they be staying with you this time? And we are reminded of the transient nature of the lives we have created for these children. They are so precious to us, yet they are somebody else’s daughters, and somebody else’s granddaughters. They are celebrating Christmas with people who are little more than strangers, adapting to family traditions that are alien to them. Their festivities must make time for supervised contact with the families from whom they must live apart, a painful reminder for all of the human tragedy that has brought us into their lives.
Their futures will be decided by others, who know little about them other than what they have read in case notes. One day, perhaps in a few weeks, a car will come to take them to their next, and hopefully, permanent home, and this Christmas will become but a distant memory, for us as well as for them. And although we shall feel their absence deeply, it is likely that their place will be taken by children who are spending this Christmas in fear. There will be new names under our Christmas tree, and new names for poor Santa to learn.
Her Majesty The Queen will be handing over the role of Barnardo’s Patron to HRH The Duchess of Cornwall.
It was announced today that Her Majesty is stepping down as Patron from a number of national organisations. This decision follows the example set by The Duke of Edinburgh who resigned from a number of Patronages on the occasion of his 90th birthday in 2011.
Javed Khan, the Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, said:
"We are extremely grateful for Her Majesty The Queen’s generous time and Patronage, together with her dedication to the work of Barnardo’s since 1983. The Royal Family has given us tremendous support throughout our history, and there has been a royal Patron since 1902 and Royal Presidents from 1923. I am delighted that HRH The Duchess of Cornwall - our current President, has graciously accepted the role of our new Patron."
The Duchess of Cornwall was appointed Barnardo’s president in 2007. She wasted no time, embarking on a series of visits to see the vital work of Barnardo’s first hand. Her first visit was in November 2007 to High Close School in Wokingham where she met with staff and young people, as she visited the school’s many facilities and dropped in on science, maths and drama lessons.
In 2014, in a speech at Clarence House during an event for Barnardo’s, she praised the achievements of what she described as a “unique charity”.
"Over the past few years I have visited several inspirational projects which are not only very impressive but very humbling too, and I believe that it is thanks to the dedication of Barnardo's highly skilled staff and volunteers that these places exist at all without their care and counselling these young people would still be floundering alone in a frightening world."
In the past year HRH The Duchess of Cornwall has been very supportive of the charity, visiting a range of services and hosting a Buckingham Palace Garden Party to mark our 150th anniversary.
I had always thought of fostering having raised my 3 sons but my husband wasn’t keen on the idea feeling that we had already done our bit. I became a widow in 2012 and remarried in 2014 but it only lasted a year. My sons were all grown up in their 30s with children of their own and then in 2015, I lost my dad and felt at a loose end with my life. It was now my time to do something in life that I had always dreamed of.
I had previously worked with vulnerable teenagers and had always wanted to do more to help them so I thought fostering would be perfect for me. TACT was recommended to me and I contacted them in May 2015. The process to become a foster carer is lengthy but I can honestly say I really enjoyed it. I learnt a great deal about myself and developed a good relationship with my social worker. I went to panel in the October and actually cried during the process as it meant so much to me to be approved.
In January I had my first referral, 14 year old Ellie, she was a planned move so we could get to know each other before she came to live with me in February with her two rabbits. Sadly, Ellie’s mum had died in 2012, she had no contact with her dad and I was Ellie’s 5th foster carer placement.
I had my second referral in May who was a girl aged 12 on a respite placement for 3 weeks and then in November, I had a referral for a 17 year old girl who, happily, continues to live with us.
During the summer Ellie and I went on holiday to Mexico and then to visit my eldest son in Canada. It was such a proud moment to see Ellie fulfilling her dream of swimming with dolphins whilst we were in Mexico. We felt like a real family unit and the rest of my family could not have been more welcoming, which is important as it does involve all of us.
It’s so lovely to have teenagers in the house again. I have lost my nice tidy quiet home, but I wouldn’t swap it, I love the atmosphere.
I am really looking forward to Christmas this year as last year I woke up on Christmas morning by myself and this year it’s going to be with two very excited young ladies. We have the Christmas Eve boxes ready and the Christmas bedding. We are very family orientated and the girls have been saving the pocket money to buy presents.
They are both excited to be with me for Christmas, but obviously it can be sadness also as they are not with their families. We seem to blend really well together. Ellie is doing really well at school and the older girl is at college, both girls help me around the house and we cook together.
Our Christmas day will start with the presents and a lovely breakfast before visiting family to give our presents out, then home for lunch and to watch a Christmas movie. The highlight for the girls will be the new phones they both have asked for; and for me it will be watching their faces as they open their presents, and knowing I’m doing my little bit to make things better for them. I love them.
Pam – TACT Foster Carer
Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire, Dame Janet Trotter, offered tons of praise and loads of thanks to carers in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire.
Presenting the annual awards to all of our CFC carers, she chatted to many of the 55 guests and gave a heartfelt speech. “You may say you’re ordinary people doing an ordinary job, but to me you are absolute heroes,” she said.
“In my teaching career, I realised how important it is for children to have a stable, caring, loving background. But for so many, that is missing.
“If people ask me what I dream for, it’s that each child in this county can develop their full potential. At the moment that is not true. But you are helping cared-for children to become responsible, able and well-adjusted adults. There is nothing more that you can give.”
Chair of Trustees at Community Foster Care, John McLaughlin, thanked Dame Janet and added: “I’m so proud of our carers. The quality of care you provide makes a big difference to improving children’s chances in life. Thankyou for doing so much for us.”
The final hurrah came from Chief Executive Hugh Pelham who thanked the staff of Community Foster Care and Community Family Care. A particular mention went to Office Manager Helen O’Niell for organising such a good lunch party at the Corinium Hotel in Cirencester.
Photo: The annual awards for CFC carers in Gloucestershire and Wiltshire were presented by Lord Lieutenant of Gloucestershire Dame Janet Trotter at the Corinium Hotel in Cirencester.
Theresa May and Justine Greening must reject controversial policies that open the door to commercialisation and for-profit provision of social services
The long-awaited LaingBuisson report on creating a marketplace for children’s social services in England has at last been published by the Department for Education. Why the delay? What is now clear is that ministers may have thought it too hot to handle. At the same time as it was quietly published, the government issued a statement distancing itself from some of the key options presented.
The report’s title – The potential for developing the capacity and diversity of children’s social care in England – is a little misleading. In essence, it is a report on how to promote the marketisation and potential commercialisation of statutory children’s social services.
There is nothing on how local authorities might increase their own in-house capacity to deliver children’s social care services. It is all about how arrangements outside local authority direct provision can be stimulated, and indeed may be required, by the government.
This is another step on the journey initiated by David Cameron to move statutory children’s social services outside local government (and, by extension, local accountability and transparency), albeit the first moves were made in 2006 by Tony Blair.
Professor Julian Le Grand is the architect of this initiative. He, along with Isabelle Trowler, the government’s chief social worker for children, and Alan Wood, a frequent government adviser, were the DfE’s advisory panel overseeing the report’s preparation. Each has previously expressed support for opening up children’s social services to a wider range of profit and non-profit providers.
Does the government’s apparent disavowal of the report’s findings signal that the tide is turning, or is Theresa May just preparing the flood defences against a wave of opposition?
The coalition government got into deep water with public opposition in 2014, when it proposed changes in statutory regulations so that any organisation or company could be contracted to take decisions about the welfare and safety of children. G4S, Serco, Amey, Mouchel and Virgin Care attended meetings arranged by the DfE to explore how they might become more involved in shaping and providing children’s social services.
Rather disingenuously, the government stated then, and continues to assert now in its response to the LaingBuisson report, that “we reject those options which would allow … profit-making organisations to deliver [statutory children’s social services]”. If this is the current government’s position it should amend the 2014 regulatory change that allows profit-making businesses, such as the big outsourcing companies, to provide these services on contract. They have to set up a not-for-profit subsidiary, but the parent company can then make its profit by providing facilities and services to its subsidiary at whatever price is set by the parent company.
What LaingBuisson was tasked to do was “explore the potential for developing capacity and diversity of children’s social care services in England”. Its report is based on the un-tested and un-evidenced assumption that “transformation [of children’s social services] itself brings longer-term benefits for the service user” and an “expectation of improved outcomes in the medium to long term”.
This is a staggering assertion. Rather than continuity, coherence and cooperation across local agencies that are reasonably well-resourced and stable, the claim is that churn, change and fragmentation across a more dispersed marketplace of providers will inevitably generate service improvement. This fits, however, with the government’s mantra that “innovation” is the answer to a 90% increase in child protection workloads over the past eight years as funding to local authorities has reduced by 40%.
The LaingBuisson report is well worth a read. Its international comparisons reveal that nowhere else apart from England does the state look to contract out crucial assessments and decision-making about the safety and protection of children. The report also shows how much of children’s social services, such as children’s homes (66%), foster care (47%) and social workers (14%), are already provided through independent, largely profit-making, companies.
The distance sought by the current government from this report, commissioned while David Cameron was prime minister and Michael Gove education secretary, might provide some relief. Theresa May and Justine Greening have the opportunity to set their own course. They inherited policies that are controversial with the public and seen as high risk by those who work to assist families and protect children. As with the children and social work bill, which is generating widespread public, professional and parliamentary opposition, now is a good time to pause, reflect and engage with those working within children’s social services.
I have been a foster carer with TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust) for approximately eight years, and have fostered many children from different backgrounds and circumstances. Like most people I had seen the news about the plight of migrant children in Calais, so when I got a call from TACT asking me if could give a home to a young unaccompanied asylum seeking girl approximately 13 years of age, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. However, I had no idea about the challenges and new experiences I was about to encounter fostering a young refugee.
The day she arrived at my home I opened the door to find a pretty little girl that looked very thin and scared. The social worker was holding her hand and she looked terrified. I was told she couldn’t speak English so I was mindful of my body language and facial expressions. If she couldn’t understand English, she would understand love and affection.
After the social worker left I showed her to her bedroom and left her to unpack and settle in. The next day we went straight to the shops as the only clothes she had were the ones she stood up in. When I took her to have her feet measured they were a five and a half, but she was wearing size three trainers.
Communication was a struggle at first, I found myself miming all the time, and we laughed as I tried to do impressions of a chicken to tell her what was for tea. But it wasn’t long before she started to speak a little English. She’s an exceptionally bright girl and very keen to learn.
For the first two and a half months she wasn’t able to go to school until she had an age assessment and Home Office interview. She became bored and frustrated and the lack of stimulation gave her too much time to think about her family and the traumatic experiences she had endured. She would often cry and not want to leave her room.
When the interview finally came, she had to go through the trauma of re-counting her epic journey from Eritrea, East Africa, travelling by foot with a small group of other villagers. Through an interpreter, she explained that they walked through Ethiopia, then Sudan and through the desert, where she was captured by guerrillas who tied up and tortured her, burnt her with a lighter and abused her.
While translating this awful story the interpreter openly wept.
Eventually they escaped, and she managed to get on a boat with other refugees that attempted to cross the Mediterranean before it capsized. Italian coast guards rescued her and treated her for dehydration. After two months she made a second attempt to cross, and this time arrived in Calais were she spent three months in the camp, sleeping rough and under the constant threat of attack as a vulnerable unaccompanied child. From Calais she managed to jump on a lorry which brought her to England where she was found in a bedsit starving and terrified.
I was so shocked to learn about the horrendous experiences she had been through to get to England, and it made me even more determined to give her a loving, stable home.
She has now started an independent school that is helping her to learn English along with other unaccompanied asylum seeking children, before entering mainstream school. She is receiving the best care possible, including counselling and help from the Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS). She is now feeling excited about her future and making friends. She is loved and feels loved. She laughs a lot, which is amazing considering her experiences. She calls me mummy, and I feel privileged to call her my daughter.
University of Oxford and Family and Childcare Trust's new report, Starting out right: early education and looked after children, warns that looked after children (children in care) are falling well behind children in the general population before they get to primary school. Opportunities to narrow the achievement gap between looked after children and their peers are being missed because too many looked after children do not receive good quality early education places.
The report -funded by the Nuffield Foundation- highlights numerous studies showing that high quality early education vastly improves outcomes for disadvantaged children and makes a number of recommendations towards making sure looked after children have access to high quality early education that boosts their outcomes and life chances.
Read the press release
Download the report
Download the briefing
Read the blog
FtSE Member News: Action for Children welcome progress on mental health support for children in care
Overshadowed by revelations of historic child abuse in professional football and continued controversy over the government’s abuse enquiry, there was positive news for children in care last week.
With support from across the health and social care sectors, Lib Dem peer Baroness Claire Tyler successfully persuaded government ministers to consider amending the Children and Social Work Bill to include mandatory mental health assessments for looked after children and young people in England.
Current health checks for children entering foster and residential care do not routinely cover mental health or emotional wellbeing - a situation campaigners have long deemed unacceptable.
"The most important thing is to feel love and feel accepted – I don’t have that. Every single day is a struggle for me because I know that I am not wanted. I try not to form attachments because people let me down. I have learned to hide my emotions but I am in a bad place at the moment."
Young person in care
Many looked after children entering care have endured trauma and abuse and evidence shows at least 45 per cent of children have a diagnosable mental health issue – this rises to more than 70 per cent for those children entering residential care.
Continuing to struggle with experiences of loss and separation has a long-lasting impact on children’s emotional wellbeing and can lead to mental health difficulties. This often contributes to poor school performance, anti-social behaviour, running away from placements, self-harm and an increased risk of suicide.
As part of its wider mental health strategy, the Government has now agreed to begin testing and piloting mental health assessments for 10,000 young people about to enter care, with around ten local authorities trialing certain age groups from April next year.
“We’ve been calling for better psychological support for these young people for a long time”, explains Emma Smale, co-chair of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers, and head of policy and research at Action for Children.
“We therefore welcome this announcement – it’s a promising and significant first step towards making a real and lasting improvement to the lives of our looked after children and young people.”
It is hoped the pilots will also help foster carers better understand and address the emotional and mental health needs of children in their care and flag up any further training they may need themselves.
Putting greater emphasis on the education of foster parents and all health and social care professionals involved in a child’s care will form the next stage of the campaign.
Smale continues: “The commitment to better identify mental health and emotional needs must be tied with stronger requirements on health professionals to play a more effective and instrumental role in improving the health of looked after children.
“They need to have the capacity to better understand the specific needs of these children - many have been abused or neglected and their needs simply don’t fit traditional clinical diagnoses.
"Piloting mental health assessments is a great first step but unless it’s paired with the necessary expertise of how to care for them, we’ll be back to square one."
Emma Smale, Head of Policy and Research at Action for children
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