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Fostering social worker: ‘We don’t just drink tea all day’

There is a misconception among children's social workers that fostering social workers don't work that hard and just drink tea all day, says fostering social worker Ann Wilson*. Here she explains her role and takes us through a typical day.

Fostering social work isn't just tea and biscuits, says Ann Wilson* (Pic: Rex)
Fostering social work isn't just tea and biscuits, says Ann Wilson* (Pic: Rex)

There seems to be a notion among children’s social workers that fostering social workers don’t do much; I find that very annoying.

A colleague who joined us from the safeguarding team six months ago told me, “they think we do nothing here, just take it easy and have endless cups of tea”. She said she used to think that too, but not anymore. “I’ve done more late nights on this team and taken more work home with me than I had on safeguarding,” she said.

As a supervising social worker, I build relationships with foster families; I get to know their household and their own children. I am there to support them all, although I may deal with one parent most of the time, and I am in a position to comment on how a child described in a referral may, or may not, fit into their household. 

I know who the child may, or may not, get on with, whether the carer can manage transport to school, contact for that child and, crucially, meet their needs, in relation to the needs of other children placed there. Sometimes colleagues will be stuck for a placement on duty, but they won’t be aware of the layout of a carer’s home. This can make the difference as to whether a child is placed with in-house carers or an independent agency.

Foster carers’ frustrations

You also get to understand foster carers’ frustrations and the things that niggle them, like when their views about a child aren’t taken on board. One of my carers was concerned that, when she spoke to a social worker about her foster child’s wishes not to attend contact with his birth family, she was told to encourage him to go.

She explained she had done this, but the boy was adamant he didn’t want to. The relationship with the child’s social worker became extremely strained as the foster carers felt the social worker was implying they had influenced the boy’s decision. This was a difficult period for them, and for me supporting them through it.

Foster carers often tell me they feel angry that, despite being told they are professionals and part of a wider team, they are not treated as such. One of my carers feels social workers view foster carers as ‘glorified babysitters’ and don’t share appropriate information with them. After unsuccessful attempts to reach social workers, foster carers will often speak to the social worker’s manager or, if they feel they are being dismissed, will ask me to put their perspective forward.

Many carers I’ve supervised become disillusioned with social workers who state, during meetings and visits, that they will do things or make referrals but then do not. One child had to miss a holiday due to a passport application not being completed on time, despite assurances from the social worker that it had been ‘sent off’.

Under pressure

Due to the high numbers of children coming into care, we feel pressure to complete assessments of foster carers as quickly as possible. This is difficult to manage, because of the in-depth nature of assessments and the other demands of our role: running ‘skills to foster’ training sessions, completing CWDC workbooks with carers, running support groups, duty tasks, completing initial visits and managing our own training and development.

There aren’t enough hours in the day, especially if you’re part time. I wonder if there really is such a thing as a part time social worker!

Children’s social workers seem to lack awareness about our role; there have been many occasions where they’ve been confused by my presence at meetings. As a student on a fostering team, I got the impression that fostering and adoption were perceived as areas social workers entered when they were winding down their careers. Indeed, there weren’t many younger members of staff on that team. Thankfully, things are different in my current workplace and there’s a range of workers – different ages, experiences and backgrounds.

Despite this, it is still common to encounter incredulity from children’s social workers when you say you are very busy. I feel children’s social workers should receive more training about fostering and our role. Many will have children placed with foster carers and if they received helpful advice about what they should avoid doing and what information they should share, and with whom, there would be better relationships all around.

*Name has been changed

A day in the life of a fostering social worker

8.30am – I arrive at the office and print off relevant paperwork for today’s visits and a placement planning meeting. I also check and respond to any urgent emails and messages.

9:30am – I visit the home of someone who is acting as a referee for one of the foster carers I’m currently assessing.

11am – Placement planning meeting for a newborn baby at the home of the foster carers. Both foster carers and a social worker from the child safeguarding team are present. No paperwork has yet been provided to the carers. As a priority, I informed the social worker that she needs to provide the foster carers with medical consent for any routine health checks or appointments the child may need.

12pm – I have time for lunch – this is a good day! I make a point of trying to take a full hour as this isn’t always possible.

1pm – I’m back in the office and typing up details of the placement planning meeting. I create a placement information record on the local social care system, then return calls to foster carers and social workers. I also chat to my manager about our upcoming disruption meeting.

2pm – Disruption meeting. This is a difficult process for foster carers and occurs when placements end abruptly without prior planning. In this instance, the carers asked for their foster child to be moved on. The placement had worked for several years but the carers were struggling to manage the child’s increasingly difficult behaviour.

4pm – I speak to the carers following the meeting to give them reassurance and support. I collect the child’s belongings they have brought to pass on to the new carers.

4.15pm – I set off to a supervisory visit with another of my foster carers. I’d have liked to catch up with my manager after the disruption meeting but we were running late.

4.30pm – Supervisory visit. The carer is worried about a foster child with complex needs who has been with the family for the past seven years. The girl is now a teenager and issues around online safety and vulnerability are causing concern.

I suggest strategies to help keep the young person safe and assure the carer that a social worker has made a referral to a family support worker who can undertake direct work with her. The young person also has ADHD and the carer is concerned about her level of concentration. I suggest speaking to a CAMHS nurse about the dosage of medication and arrange an appointment to discuss emotional health.

5:45pm – I set off home

Related articles

Guide to the April 2011 changes to fostering regulation and activity

Social work guide to foster care placements

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