Take a break

W hen is fostering not fostering? When it is respite fostering
also known as support care. The essence of support care is that
children go to a trained carer for short, regular periods to give
them and their family a chance to relax and unwind away from each

The great strength of respite fostering is that it keeps together
families who are struggling to cope. It gives parents and children
regular time away from each other and offers non-judgemental
support while they work out strategies for dealing with their
problems. Proponents argue that, in many cases, many of these
children would otherwise end up in local authority care or be
repeatedly accommodated – damaging family relationships and
children’s self-esteem further.

This type of fostering doesn’t involve a child being taken into
care. The family home remains the child’s base and parents retain
responsibility for their children, making the decisions about their
care, discipline and education. They are equal partners in the
support fostering arrangements, which are planned, contractual,
time-limited agreements, usually lasting between six and nine
months. The detail of the arrangements – perhaps for a child to
stay an evening or overnight once a week, or for one weekend a
month – are set up jointly in discussion between the parent, the
child, the support carer and a social worker.

Because children are only with their carers for short periods, and
are there mainly to relax, no one expects them to develop “deep and
meaningful” relationships with their carers – although many do form
lasting bonds. As a result, it is possible to place children with
foster carers who may be very different from their own family, or
come from different racial backgrounds. This can broaden children’s
horizons, and be a positive advantage for children who are
struggling with their identity (see A Sense of Identity,

There are several advantages to the schemes that are already set up
in the UK. First, they reduce the number of children going into
local authority care. In Bradford, of the 100 respite foster
placements a year, just five or six children need to go into care,
and many other schemes report similar results.

Second, it provides local authorities with a way to hang on to
experienced foster carers who want to move away from full-time
fostering, for whom respite fostering can be an appealing
alternative. The short-term, flexible nature of support fostering
also opens up a large number of potential recruits who would never
consider fostering full time but would like to do it on a smaller
scale. However, Sue Smith, co-ordinator of the Birmingham
Neighbourhood Care Scheme warns that there can be pressure from
mainstream fostering services. “They call at 4pm on a Friday asking
to borrow one of your support carers for the weekend – and 18
months later they’re still borrowing them! You have to be very
strong and say no,” she says.

Third, support care gets around the stigma often attached to social
services’ involvement and can help parents get in touch with
non-statutory support services. In Birmingham, support carers are
local childminders, so no one bats an eyelid when they collect
someone else’s child from school. Childminders are in touch with
local parent and toddler groups and other support networks and can
introduce parents to these without arousing curiosity – important
when a common factor of families in difficulty is their social

The supportive and non-judgemental ethos of support care schemes is
what is most valued by parents. However, Smith says it is important
for families to know that a carer’s first responsibility is to the
child, and that any child protection concerns will be passed on to
social services. “As long as that’s explained at the beginning,
it’s usually accepted and understood,” she says.

Given that it is now widely recognised that children fare better
with their own families than in care, proponents of the scheme
argue that support care should be the first port of call for most
families in difficulty. More than 100 local authorities have
expressed an interest in setting up similar schemes, but as yet
there are only 16 support fostering projects up and running across
the whole of the UK. As Smith says: “The entire budget for
Birmingham’s Neighbourhood Care Scheme is less than the cost of a
year’s external placement for one child. Given that, can you afford
not to have one?” 

– For further information on support care, please contact Ena Fry
at the Fostering Network on 020 7620 6400 or e-mail info@fostering.net

A sense of identity

Danika,12, is of dual heritage, brought up by her white
grandparents. She has only ever heard negative comments about her
father, who is black and was rejected by her white mother. When she
was referred for some weekend care due to her grandparents’
infirmity, Danika didn’t think of herself as black, only as not
fitting in. She formed a good relationship with her support carer,
an older black woman, who became an important source in helping her
to recover a sense of her identity as a young black person.

Using support care

Joanne Bell’s son, Craig, was 10 when she first asked social
services in Bradford for help.  “I waited until I was at absolute
rock bottom before I went to social services. In fact, I’d gone way
past rock bottom. I actually threatened to kill him if they didn’t

“The first thing I was offered was an outreach worker, which
didn’t work at all. Then someone told me about support care. I
wanted to know what it was, so we met the carers in their home. It
was like popping round to a friend’s for a cup of tea. We just sat
talking, not about negative things but about normal things.  

“The carer had an older son, so Craig was able to make a friend.
He went every Wednesday night, stayed the night, went to school the
next day, and came back on Thursday evening. He didn’t see it as a
punishment – he looked forward to it, and I looked forward to it.
It meant that, when we were fighting, instead of it snowballing, we
knew we just had to hold on until Wednesday when we would both get
a break. Then by Thursday we had both calmed down, and were looking
forward to seeing each other again. 

“There’s no stigma. It’s like a friend you can ask for advice,
someone who has been through the same sorts of things. When you ask
a social worker for advice it comes across the wrong way, like
they’re telling you what to do, but with the support carer you tell
them that he’s been bunking off school again, and they say ‘well,
we tried this’. 

“The carer’s rules are the same as mine – so if he is suspended
from school he goes to bed early or he can’t use the Playstation.
It means I’m not the bad woman, because someone else has the same
rules as me. 

“You know that the day is coming when it’s going to stop. You
look forward to it, and you dread it too. My son still calls the
carer and chats to her sometimes. And it’s given me strength and a
boost, too. We still have terrible times, but I’m not going to be
frightened by it. I’ve come out of it more confident and more able
to deal with things. As a project, I think it’s out of this

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