By Jack Brookes
A young lad I used to look after in a therapeutic community came to us, aged 11, he’d already had 26 placements. All of these placements, except one, had been foster care; number 16 had been another therapeutic community (TC).
He had stayed there for a couple of years and did quite well – so well, in fact, his local authority thought they would give foster care another whirl.
After 10 further attempts to make foster care work he came to the TC I was working in – where he remained for the next five and a half years. Earlier this year, three days before he was due to leave (and return to foster care), he took his own life.
Now, it would be wrong to blame his death entirely on the number of placements he’d had and certainly it is not the fault of any of the many people who had, presumably, tried their best to look after him before realising they could not. The lad in question was deeply troubled, very unsettling and difficult to be around, and potentially the most dangerous I have worked with.
But it is for these reasons that foster care was never going to work – a conclusion that could surely have been reached after, say, placement five? Maybe 10? Or 15?
This is a stark case but, in my experience, children having placements numbering in double figures is common place. This is not a criticism of foster care – which obviously works well for thousands of children. Nor is it an advert for residential care – plenty of kids get passed from generic kids home to generic kids home. And, although I am passionate about them, it is not intended to suggest therapeutic communities are best either.
I think it is a mistake to see one type of placement as necessarily better than another type. At the moment the prevailing idea seems to be: adoption is best, if that is not possible then foster care, and if that really doesn’t work after several tries then a children’s home. But if you have this bias then you cannot possibly be considering the needs or wishes of the individual young person. You cannot be thinking – “What is best for this child?”
It causes other issues too – it is quite common, as with the case above, that when a child starts to settle in a children’s home (which is basically code for his or her behaviour has improved) then they will be moved to a foster placement – because foster care is “better”. Or a child might be thriving in a foster placement but moved because an adoptive family has been found.
At the TC I worked in, we would regularly be fighting this battle. Often children’s placements with us would be on a year-by-year basis. Meaning kids who had been with us for three or four years and, therefore, the kids who were the most stable, were at the greatest risk of being moved. In other words, just at the point they were doing OK they might be ripped away from everything they know, all their attachment figures and known relationships, and placed with strange people in a strange town.
A girl I look after in my current job, who is just starting to develop meaningful relationships with staff, may be moved in September when a bed at the local authority owned home becomes available. No one is even bothering to pretend this is about anything other than cost.
The local authority I work in, like others, has a network of “preferred providers”. Essentially, if you are not on this list you will not get referrals. They send out all the referrals to all the providers on the list. We have the same young people referred to us again and again, including children who used to live with us but whose placements we closed. This hardly seems like a thought-out, needs-based approach.
The other problem with this model is it means providers become tailored to meet the needs of local authorities rather than the needs of children, which are not always the same thing, and as a result they become more generic.
This is a shame, because if there is a benefit to having children’s homes and fostering agencies in the private sector then surely it is diversity of provision.
There is not space here to discuss why some children thrive in one placement but not another. However, in my own case, I lived in several foster placements and a children’s home but, in the end, I was always going to break these placements down. I was loyal to my father and determined to live with him.
In the end, by accident or design, I spent four years at an Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties boarding school with weekends and holidays at Dad’s. This was the right balance. I got to spend lots of time with my dad while the school gave me structure and met the needs my dad, unfortunately, didn’t have the capacity to.
Different set-ups will work for different children. But the focus should be on finding a place to live that is right for that individual child and, if at all possible, leaving them there.