I had high hopes for this BBC series on foster care in Devon. Fostering, long-term, has the potential to transform kids’ lives.
The first episode of Protecting Our Foster Kids, from the team behind BAFTA-nominated series Protecting Our Children, focused on long-term fostering and started with happy opening shots of looked-after teenager Amy.
But they were quickly ruined by a sad-sounding voice laid over the happy scenes. We are more than that – that ‘sympathetic’ voice irritates like fingernails scraping down a blackboard.
Fantasy and reality
Then the foster mum entered the programme. She said: “At first I wanted young children – teenagers are under estimated – but there was something very special about Amy when we first met her – a bit like falling in love.”
This has to be the quote of the year, a beautiful description. Then we were taken back to Amy, who has the most beautiful glowing eyes, and a life story book. Incongruent I know. Life for a looked-after child often is.
Amy is asked what she thinks a foster carer is. She replies: “Someone who treats you like their own family, like their own children.” Sadly, for many, this is where the fantasy of fostering ends and reality begins.
The golden egg
Fostering was the golden egg when I was in care. We all wanted a new mum and dad. We would discuss our wish lists, mine was a little sister – brothers I already had in abundance – and a mum and dad who were young.
My wishes were described as ‘rose-tinted’ and ‘constructed from a Kellogg’s cornflakes advert’. Why wouldn’t they be? I was 10.
We were then shown a clip of the foster mum explaining how Amy was, “very settled in our placement”. Our placement? Some of the language used in our care system drives me mad. Why do some speak without thinking about the impact on children?
It’s lazy. This brought me crashing back to reality: is Amy living in her home, or in her placement? It was not looking good.
We then learnt Amy’s sister, Natalie, has moved in to the ‘placement’. This is a controversial subject in care: should brothers and sisters, or sibling groups as per the language of the care system, stay together? The cynic in me assumes this will end badly.
Amy and her foster mum are then shown having a discussion about Natalie in the kitchen. Natalie is in the living room and can obviously hear the whole conversation.
Then the programme started to feel horrible. Voyeuristic, even. Weird. My heart hurt. The memories flooded back of many of my failed ‘placements’ while I was in care.
A sad turn
Suddenly, the documentary’s music took a sad turn. Amy had met a boy in secret when she should have been with friends.
The foster carer’s comments were: “Our children wouldn’t do something like that – she has a stable home, everything she needs, there is no rational reason – should we continue with the placement? Is Amy the girl we think she is?”
The lack of understanding, commitment and compassion was shocking. Deeply depressing. This episode was about long-term fostering – what we would have called our forever family when I was in care.
Are you joking? Where was the foster carers’ commitment to stick by this child forever? But before I could even consider my thoughts on this, Amy had been ‘sent’ to another ‘placement’ so the foster parents could consider their options.
‘Placement’ not home
Amy was left to assume, I’m sure, that this ‘placement’ was going to end. We all assumed that. We were all told the foster carers will speak to their social worker. We were all told that our ‘placement’, not our home, is at risk.
We could anticipate what was coming, so what did we do? We would take control and end it for them. So, there you have it, a ‘placement breakdown’ that stands before the child as a placement that broke down due to them.
Amy appeared to have been rejected by her foster parents because of some pretty typical teenage behavior. How will that teach her how to control her behaviour?
The first documentary series by this production team – Protecting Our Children – was both groundbreaking and exhilarating. Children were seen being rescued from neglectful homes, parents were seen being helped and social workers were seen sharing their specialist skills at protecting our most vulnerable children.
Unfortunately this series has, so far, done the opposite for fostering. It’s a negative portrayal of what can be the opportunity for kids to have a chance, often for the first time, of living within a loving kind family, full of fun and nurturing.
Nurturing was not happening in this first episode. It’s left me feeling angry. Amy even says at one point: “I got dumped, ’cause I wasn’t wanted. I had to wait a whole weekend to find out what was happening as social workers don’t work weekends.”
Fostering is a serious commitment. Had these foster parents been courageous enough to admit they had made the wrong choice in becoming long-term foster parents, and not sought to blame the breakdown of the relationship on Amy and her sister, they would have had my respect. Instead, the foster child’s sense of shame and guilt grows with every shift of blame.
I accept that when the programme makers began following Amy and her sister, all looked well with the foster family and they have shown the reality that unfolded before them. However, fostering, with all its qualities, has not come out well from this.
One can only hope the non social work world would have spent the hour screaming at the TV ‘I could do that better” and then spent Monday researching how to apply to foster.
Jenny Molloy is a care leaver, best-selling author of Hackney Child and Tainted Love, a regular contributor to Community Care and a patron of the British Association of Social Workers