For more than 25 years, social worker Julie Shipton has been working with the same foster carer couple. Anabel Unity Sale looks at what has made the relationship last so long
Julie Shipton, senior social worker
Julie Shipton is a rarity among social workers. In a profession famous for its recruitment and retention difficulties, she has forged a successful working relationship with fosters carers Nora and Dean Morris for more than 25 years.
Having begun her social work career in 1969 at the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea she moved to Hounslow Council in 1976 where she specialised in fostering. One morning in May 1983, she answered the phone to Nora enquiring about adopting a Vietnamese refugee baby. After explaining Hounslow did not have any, she suggested the couple consider fostering.
Her idea led to a meeting at the couple’s home and the three embarked on a professional relationship that has seen 81 separate placements involving 37 children. “The first thing that struck me when I met Nora and Dean was how warm and welcoming they were,” she says.
Now a senior practitioner in Hounslow’s fostering team, Shipton strives to ensure she maintains a good working relationship with the Morrises. But is there a danger that knowing the couple so well has led to a blurring of professional boundaries? “No, it is a professional relationship, we don’t see each other socially,” Shipton says. “I know Nora and Dean so well that I can anticipate when an issue may come up and address it in terms of what the statutory requirements are. I can ring them up and say ‘you need to do x’ and know that they will.”
One of her main responsibilities is to support the training and education and placement management of the Morrises. She sees the couple every four to six weeks (depending on the number of children that are placed with them) for up to two and a half hours. “I look at what is happening in placement with each child, attend any reviews, child case conferences and strategic planning meetings,” she says.
For Shipton the key to working well with the Morrises is that they treat each other with respect, honesty and patience and she appreciates the skills they offer as experienced foster carers. “They have great listening and communication skills and have an easy ability to engage with children and young people and other professionals.”
The longevity of their working relationship has created better outcomes for the children and young people the couple foster, says Shipton. This is something other practitioners recognise and appreciate when working with the couple, she notes.
Dean and Nora Morris, foster carers
It was a television programme about Vietnamese boat people, as they were known at the time, that led Nora Morris and her husband Dean into fostering. Nora was so touched by what she had seen that she rang Hounslow Council hoping she could add a baby to their family. At the time the pair had been married for five years, were in their early twenties and had two daughters aged six months and two years.
On hearing it wasn’t possible to adopt a Vietnamese baby, Nora agreed to meet Julie Shipton to discuss becoming foster carers. Nora says although the couple had never considered being foster parents, she wanted to see if they could do it after Shipton planted the seed in their minds. Dean says he was more hesitant about their ability to be foster parents until meeting Shipton. “I had reservations because I’d not known any foster carers and didn’t know if we were taking on too much,” he says. “Our families thought we were mad.”
Going ahead with the decision has proved a positive experience for the couple, who last year received an award from Hounslow for their loyal service in fostering 37 children. “I love being a foster carer,” says Nora. “It fulfils me and makes me happy.”
For Dean the benefit comes in seeing the transformation in the young person they are fostering. “It’s rewarding to see a change for the better in the child and knowing that we have helped them.”
The longest placement with the couple was Susan (see below), who they fostered for six years, and who is one of several former foster children they remain in contact with. The experience has been so positive that after having their own son (now aged 15), they adopted two young boys. Nora smiles when she says: “We have come full circle because we always wanted to adopt.”
The Morrises praise Shipton’s approach in helping them become successful foster carers and say they are always able to talk comfortably with her about problems. “If Julie wasn’t our supervising social worker I’d want her as a friend,” says Nora.
The foster child: SUSAN McINTYRE
Susan McIntyre was 15 and had just voluntarily gone into care when she first met Nora and Dean Morris in 1986. After unsuccessful placements in a secure unit and different children’s homes, she was assessed as being better suited to living with foster carers.
She clearly recalls her first meeting with the Morrises, Julie Shipton and her own social worker: “When I walked into Nora and Dean’s house I was like ‘oh my god, it’s beautiful and smells clean and fresh’. I was very nervous and had a long fringe I hid behind. I was sitting on their sofa thinking ‘if I can’t see you, you can’t see me’. I remember thinking how young they were because I expected two old people with grey hair and wrinkles.”
Despite her nerves, the first meeting went well and a few weeks later she spent a weekend with the family before being placed with them. “I liked them and Nora was warm, I got a good feeling from them and it was different to what I expected.”
McIntyre says she initially felt very uncomfortable about having to be in care but says the love and support the Morrises consistently showed her helped her relax and become more secure. “Nora and Dean just oozed love and kindness and wanted to do everything they could to help me. I stayed out late sometimes, but they never shouted at me. Even if I was naughty Nora just gave me hugs and kisses.”
McIntyre had her own social worker but she always found Shipton approachable: “At meetings she always listened to me and I could say if I had any problems and we could talk about them.”
When McIntyre moved out of the Morrises home to her own flat nearby at 21 she remained in close contact with them. Now aged 38 and living in Spain with a husband and three children, she remains very close to the couple who describe her as their “daughter”. Nora attended the birth of two of her “grandchildren” and the couple went to her wedding alongside her birth parents.
McIntyre wells up when she describes the positive impact the Morrises have had on her life. “I love them and to me they are my family and their children are my sisters and brothers. Without Nora and Dean I don’t know where I’d be today.”
This article is published in the 12 March 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Fostering care”