When children have been settled for several years in long-term
foster families, there is a tendency for them to take a lower
priority on caseloads, or even for them not to be allocated at all.
Social workers can feel redundant when children are fully
assimilated into the life of the foster family and they sometimes
speak of having “nothing much to do”. Team managers who are
juggling demands in the face of staff shortages and political
pressures may choose to “de-allocate” these cases, keep them “on
hold” for allocation, or attach them “nominally” to a worker who
only responds to crises.
Our study1 of 52 children who have been in long-term
foster care for at least four years found that, at the beginning of
2001, only 25 were allocated to an actively involved social
Yet caring for troubled children can be stressful and exhausting
for foster carers, who should not be expected to work in isolation.
Our research has shown that the input of skilled and consistent
child care social workers substantially enhanced and strengthened
the care-giving systems around the children. But what were the
social workers actually doing when they called? How were the visits
helpful to the carers and to the children, most of whom were
settled and making good progress, despite their complex
During visits that were often described as “routine”, social
workers were, in fact, combining observation, listening and
communication skills. The following extract from the social worker
of a 13-year-old child with learning difficulties illustrates this
subtle blend, used during a regular visit to the foster home.
“Visits happen after school or during school holidays. Samantha is
often drawing and will accept my sitting with her while she draws.
She will invite or accept my interest in her drawings. Recently she
has shown less willingness to talk but this fits with her pubertal
behavioural changes. We talk about her drawings, holidays, school
and any recent family activities, and also of visits by [her] birth
family. We look at recent photographs taken at her carer’s home.
The visits inform me of her development and social skills and
health and inform my support to the carers.”
This social worker is alert to the child’s physical and mental
well-being, her developmental progress and her functioning at
school and within the family. She is offering a physical and
emotional link with the birth family. A warm and consistent
relationship enables her to pick up signals of stress in the child
or the carers and she can be proactive in providing more input or
seeking additional resources if required.
Carers valued the fact that “involved” social workers could provide
the children with opportunities to relate to sensitive adults
outside the foster home. This was an additional source of
containment for anxiety and a channel for the safe expression of
In addition, thoughtful workers could enhance or support reflective
capacity in the carers. They offered a space in which carers could
test out their theories about the child’s behaviour or state of
mind and explore possible links with earlier life experiences.
Through this process, carers were being helped to make sense of the
children, to contextualise their chaotic thoughts and emotions.
They could then reflect a more ordered and manageable version of
the world back to the child, thus containing and reducing
A trusted social worker could also provide carers with a channel
for the feelings of anger or despair that the children engendered.
This was important since it helped the carers to feel more
understood and less guilty, and feel that their responses were
“reasonable in the circumstances”. Proactive strategies could take
the place of impulsive reactions. One foster mother spoke of the
“safety valve” of releasing her strong feelings to the trusted
“team” of social worker and family placement worker who had known
her and her foster child for many years.
There are inherent ambiguities and anomalies for carers who are
performing all of the parenting tasks and have made a lifetime
commitment to a child and yet have no parental responsibility in a
legal sense. They need to feel in a strong and confident position
as day-to-day parents, and social workers hold the key to
facilitating or restricting this. Carers in our study felt
empowered and supported when decisions about haircuts, staying
overnight with trusted friends, and routine school and health
matters had been officially delegated to them. Conversely, they
felt undermined when every small thing had to be referred to a
social worker, or guilty when they circumvented the system and
“just got on with it” without official permission.
For children who cannot live permanently with their birth families,
the certainty of foster family membership can provide a sense of
direction and the reassurance of practical and emotional support
throughout life. At the same time, they need to manage a sense of
also belonging to their birth families and to maximise the
potential for supportive relationships from within this network.
Social workers played an important role in helping foster carers to
achieve and sustain this delicate balance.
Carers held the belief that foster family membership should enable
children to “get on with life”, to be free of stigma and feel as
“normal” as possible. Social workers who supported this view
avoided making appointments that invaded important areas of school
or family life and they ensured that review procedures were
non-stigmatising and comfortable for the children.
When foster family membership was held in due regard, carers could
feel liberated to respond to children’s needs for an appropriate
sense of birth family membership. For example, when an intrusive
Saturday contact was changed to a weekday evening, it gave an
opportunity for the foster mother and the birth mother to talk
together as people with a shared concern for the child. Greater
trust developed, and the foster mother was motivated to ensure that
the child gained maximum enjoyment and benefit from the contact.
She described the way in which they had celebrated the birth
mother’s 30th birthday by buying and wrapping 30 small gifts. This
pleasurable shared activity underlined the child’s sense of
belonging to both families and provided the message that both sets
of relationships are to be valued and enjoyed.
Other important tasks and responsibilities were reported by the
social workers. Many met birth family members regularly and were
involved in contact meetings, providing transport, supervision or
support to the carers. Most had a liaison role with schools,
especially when children had special learning needs. Additionally,
they acted as advocates for the children and carers, referring
issues to other services when appropriate and ensuring that
existing input was helpful. Respite care arrangements were
supported and reviewed.
Like sensitive parents, skilled social workers paid close attention
to the detail of the children’s lives. They were alert to the
complexity of the care-giving system, recognised its strengths and
ensured that gaps were filled where necessary. This placed them in
a strong position from which to fulfil their dual function of both
monitoring and supporting the placements. In doing so they were
playing a complex, valued and valuable role in promoting the
stability and well-being of children who are growing up in foster
Mary Beek is senior research associate and Gillian
Schofield is deputy director at the centre for research on the
child and family at the University of East Anglia. For more
1 Gillian Schofield and Mary Beek, Growing Up in
Foster Care, Baaf Adoption and Fostering, 2000, is a
longitudinal study of 52 children from six local authorities,
placed for long-term fostering in 1997-8 and followed up in 2001
(in publication). The study is funded by the Nuffield