“It feels like you’re just being passed from pillar to post,” says one care leaver of her experience of multiple placements. Consistency, an essential prop to achieving potential, is all too often an alien concept for looked-after children. And this is especially the case for those young people who have social, emotional and behavioural problems, and whose needs cannot be met effectively by existing foster carers.
It was to tackle these problems that Wirral social services, in north west England, adopted therapeutic fostering – a targeted service offered in partnership with the child and adolescent mental health service (Camhs) team.
Initially, six households took part in the scheme. All had single placements but were willing to take another child from the scheme for respite. “The carers that came onto the scheme had a variety of experiences,” says Moira King, who at the time was family placement officer with Wirral social services, but who has since moved on to work abroad. “Two households were already foster carers. Three participants worked with adults with learning difficulties and one was a counsellor.”
Carers are assessed by the family placement worker, with input from mental health clinician Sue Bellamy. Carers receive the core training offered to all new carers with an extra five days’ training in therapeutic crisis intervention. “This focuses on developing reflective practice through greater self-awareness, awareness of the child and the environment, and awareness of their own impact on the child. Other training includes two days on ‘approach training’ which helps carers manage disruptive behaviour, keeping both themselves and the children safe. Carers are also trained in building up life skills of young people,” she says.
Carers are subject to the fostering regulations and standards and are supervised by the family placement worker, with Bellamy supervising and developing the therapeutic work with the children. “Additional supervision by both workers is shared through the chairing of the carers’ support groups, which are held twice a month,” says King.
Children and young people are placed for about 18 months (although some need longer), during which time it is hoped that enough progress will be made to enable them to move into a long-term placement or return home successfully to their family
“One of the important factors is whether the young person is willing to come onto the scheme – each placement is planned – and work with the therapeutic programme. They are not expected to be enthusiastic but they are expected to co-operate with the assessment and plans,” adds King.
The nine children on the scheme are aged seven to 16 years and all have had multiple placements; three have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and four were previously placed out-of-borough.
“We feel the scheme has been very successful and this has been acknowledged by gaining beacon status for the mental health services of which the therapeutic scheme is an important element,” says King.
Early results seem impressive: three young people have moved on; one whose school attendance before joining the scheme had been poor achieved nine GCSEs and has moved to semi-independence. One young person who found the scheme too difficult and left, says King, “has since re-established contact with his carers and looks to them for emotional support in his new residential placement. Two others are making steady progress and maintaining school placements.”
Nonetheless, extra resources, as ever, would be useful. Says King: “All foster carers would welcome more time to themselves for the odd social event or even just a peaceful night in. They do help each other by providing respite but all would welcome more of this to recharge their batteries.”
Scheme: Therapeutic fostering.
Location: Wirral, north-west England.
Staffing: A family placement worker and mental health clinician.
Inspiration: To bring consistency into the lives of looked after people with social, behavioural and emotional problems.