Fostering doubts

I would like to think that the government’s “new” idea of secure
fostering will work. Trouble is it’s not new, and it probably
won’t. First, perhaps a short history lesson would be in order.

There were certainly experiments along these lines – using willing
foster parents to take on difficult or troubled youngsters – in the
1990s. As long ago as the late 1970s, when I was presenting a
series of programmes on fostering, Kent social services was among a
number of councils exploring this kind of approach. Its scheme was
an extension of the usual fostering arrangement, but people
prepared to take on youngsters who’d been in trouble with the
police or who had recurrent social problems were offered a little
more than the usual pittance of a fostering allowance.

I say this with some feeling, as I had just begun my own fostering
career at this stage. The problem was that the parents in Kent I
talked to – and you can bet your life I was offered carefully
vetted ones who were most in tune with the scheme – were often
clearly only just coping. They had the best of intentions; they
were good people, with a highly developed sense of making a
contribution; but they were often ill-prepared for what they were
about to take on. I doubt whether today’s volunteers would fare any

I would love this scheme to work. I’m in sympathy with the idea
that when it comes to dealing with young people, kind common sense
should be able to do as good a job, if not better, than more
impersonal professionalism.

The trouble is that in this instance, I have an inkling of what I’m
talking about. My overwhelming impression, after five years of
fostering, was of how ill-prepared I had been. This was not
entirely because of any failure on the part of those whose job it
was to prepare us, but because I suspect that most people, buoyed
up by good intentions, are impervious to prophecies of doom. We
wanted to foster, we wanted to believe it would work.

The warnings we received that children who had had a disturbed
childhood might exhibit anti-social behaviour passed me by. I
vaguely remember a reference to plates being thrown, thinking that
if that was the worst we had to endure, I could put up with it. Had
they told me to prepare myself for fights in the streets, irate
parents leading my foster daughter home by the ear, and, later,
police at the door, court appearances and an eventual gut-wrenching
break-up, would I really have listened? I suspect not! Fired with
the thought of doing my bit, of rescuing a child from an
institutionalised childhood, I was not listening.

Experience tells me that the success rate will be disappointing.
Cynicism also tells me that there is more to this than a bold,
humane, family-centred solution. Saving money almost certainly lies
at the heart of it. Not that saving money is a crime; if this had a
chance of success, and was cheaper, then fine! But for the
disruption they are going to suffer, and the dedication they are
going to need, parents are not going to receive suitable

If it’s to stand a chance, these youngsters are going to need a
consistency, a consideration and the kind of care they have not had
before. There will be the odd saint around who is prepared to offer
this for its sake alone, but not many. For most, it will be the
hardest work they will ever have to do, and they are going to have
to be prepared to keep it up for a substantial period of time.

Recruitment and retention will only work if backed up with cash.
And here’s one more thought. Home secretary David Blunkett is
well-known for his family-centred views; “an economic radical, a
social conservative” in his own estimate. But families are not the
answer for everyone. My foster daughter was clearest on one point:
trying to shoehorn her into a family, with its tensions, its
rivalries, and its very sharp focus on her, was something she found
very difficult to cope with. She believes, and I agree, that the
answer is something between the “institutional” solution and the
nuclear family; the community, perhaps a small house, small enough
to preserve a sense of belonging, but large enough to protect from
the emotional intensity of a “pretend” family. That solution might
prove to be the most expensive of all.

Peter White is the BBC’s disability affairs

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