A special breed

    Thousands of children enter the care system every year in the
    UK. While generic fostering services aim to meet most individual
    needs, specialist foster services fill in the gaps. A child or
    young person may have to be fostered through a specialist agency
    because of their religious or cultural background, their health
    requirements or even their sexual identity. Ensuring carers have
    the necessary skills can prevent placement breakdowns. Barbara
    Hutchins, deputy chief executive of Baaf Adoption and Fostering,
    says specialist services developed because of the difficulty
    mainstream services had in recruiting foster carers from
    non-conventional backgrounds. “There is an absolute shortfall of
    foster carers for particular categories of children and young
    people.”

    Although the shortage of foster carers for children without
    additional needs is legendary, what can services do to recruit
    foster carers from specialist backgrounds? Hutchins says they must
    move away from being a service “that is largely based on the
    goodwill of the volunteers” by providing enough support – including
    financial help – 24 hours a day. The beauty of specialist foster
    care schemes, according to Ena Fry, young people project
    development worker at the Fostering Network, is that practitioners
    and foster carers working in them become experts with extra skills
    from which others can learn. Fry urges social care professionals to
    educate different communities about the workings of the UK care
    system and the role they can play.

    She adds: “We need to look at what mainstream resources we have
    and how they can be improved to help children in specialist
    services.”

    Over the following pages we look at several specialist areas of
    foster care.   

    Trafficked children  

    The UK’s only safe house for trafficked children has opened in
    southern England (news, page 10, 6 May). Operated by Integrated
    Care, the house has nine places for 16 to 18 year olds while
    under-16s go to specially trained foster carers.  

    So far, the agency has one young person in its safe house.
    Integrated Care conducts a four-week assessment of each child’s
    mental and sexual health and physical needs. 

    The agency’s UK trafficked children’s resources manager, Lynne
    Chitty, says three potential foster carers in southern England and
    two in London have been identified.  

     A dedicated foster service is necessary for children trafficked
    into the UK, usually to work in the sex industry or as domestic
    slaves, because of their unique circumstances.  

    Chitty says: “If we don’t understand the dangers for trafficked
    children they are not going to be safe with an ordinary foster
    carer. The greatest risk for trafficked children is that they will
    go missing from their placement. Trafficked children are likely to
    contact their trafficker as soon as they can reach a phone because
    they fear for their and their families’ lives if they don’t.” 

    Chitty advocates closely supervising trafficked children,
    barring their phone use and not allowing them out on their own. She
    admits this degree of intensive work could discourage some foster
    carers but seasoned carers may be up to the task.

    Treatment Foster Care   

    Southampton Council is one of 10 English local authorities
    taking part in a pilot to move young people with challenging
    behaviour from residential care into intensive foster care.  

    The scheme, funded by the Department for Education and Skills,
    is being operated by south London’s Maudsley hospital over three
    years. Councils have to bid for funding. The first grants were
    awarded at the end of 2003 and Southampton Council was awarded
    £400,000 in the second round.  

    Southampton’s foster care team manager, Leigh Clark, says the
    local authority became involved because it is always looking for
    new ways to tackle problems. Due to be launched in October, the
    Treatment Foster Care Project aims to accommodate six children aged
    12 to 15 in foster placements for 18 months. To be eligible the
    children must have had multiple placements or be in care outside
    Hampshire. The council is now recruiting and training foster carers
    willing to take on these challenging children and is offering a
    salary of up to £29,000 a year as an incentive.  

    Southampton’s fostering recruitment officer, Jeanie Lynch, says
    placing children in out-of-county residential care costs the
    council up to £5,000 a week. She believes the scheme will
    reduce these costs and return young people to their
    communities.  

    Clark is confident the pilot will improve the authority’s
    overall fostering services: “Any development work we do will have a
    knock-on effect on our mainstream fostering service. We can learn
    from it and so can other professionals and foster carers.”

    Islamic Fostering Service   

    After nearly two years in development, the Islamic Fostering
    Service, part of the Foster Care Link agency, was launched at the
    end of April. The scheme was started because there are an estimated
    2,000 Muslim children in the care system and not enough appropriate
    foster carers.  

    Co-director Ismail Amaan says the Muslim community is in denial
    about their children going into care, which accounts for the low
    number of foster carers, even though the prophet Muhammad was an
    orphan who was fostered as a child. 

    He says religion plays an important part in a Muslim’s life but
    this can be forgotten when Muslim children are fostered by people
    who do not share the same faith. “Preserving the child’s identity
    and ensuring they have continuity in their lives can be done by a
    specialist agency,” Amaan says. “Sometimes it is just impossible
    for social services departments to develop these needs because they
    do not have the necessary insight.” 

    So far, the London-based agency has 14 Muslim carers from
    different ethnic backgrounds on it books and is currently placing
    three children. It advertised for carers by e-mailing its details
    to Muslim professionals. It is also advising local authorities on
    how to best help the Muslim children in their care. All the
    service’s policies and procedures, including culturally sensitive
    training for foster carers, include an element of Islam.

    HIV/Aids   

    Fosterplus provides general foster placements in England, Wales
    and Scotland. It also represents Debbie Lewis*, a foster carer who
    specialises in caring for HIV-positive children (see case study).
    It is trying to place more HIV-positive children with her as she
    has two empty places. 

    The private foster agency pays an allowance for each child as
    well as fees to the carers. It pays more than £300 a week for
    foster children without any additional needs while those caring for
    children with complex needs receive more than £400 a week.
    Each foster carer also has an hour’s supervision every fortnight
    with a social worker in their own home.  

    Peter Ratcliffe, an area manager for Fosterplus, says the agency
    pays more money and provides more supervision than some local
    authorities.  

    The agency is often asked for foster carers to look after
    autistic children but it does not have enough carers with the right
    skills. Ratcliffe says: “People do lack the skills and the
    inclination to learn them. Looking after an autistic child is
    challenging and some families may feel they may not be very good at
    it when in fact they could be.”  

    The company tries to address this by advising some of its foster
    carers that they may become suitable for more specialist placements
    as they are trained. Ratcliffe says: “Ordinary fostering is
    challenging but when people are prepared to foster a child with
    different needs it is brilliant because these children desperately
    need it.”

    Case study   

    Debbie Lewis* knew her family’s secret was out when eight of her
    neighbours gathered, screaming abuse, outside her house one morning
    four years ago. They had discovered her foster son, Michael*, then
    six, was HIV-positive and they were very angry. “They were shouting
    ‘He’s got Aids and we don’t want him in our village’. It was like a
    modern day lynching.”  Fearing for their lives Lewis grabbed
    Michael, his medication, her 12-year-old son, Jack*, and their dogs
    and fled in the car. She only returned to the village a few weeks
    later to organise the sale of her home. Now the family live in a
    town elsewhere in south west England and no one, bar two friends
    and some professionals, know about Michael’s status. He and Jack
    only discovered it that day. “Michael told me: ‘I just want to be
    human like the rest of the children. I feel like something out of
    the rubbish’.”  Lewis became Michael’s foster carer when he was
    five after his natural parents died from an Aids-related illness
    and he was placed with her by her local authority. Two years ago
    she took out a residence order on him. “He is my beautiful child
    and I love him to bits,” she says. 

    She had always wanted to be a foster carer and decided to build
    on her career as an HIV specialist nurse and combine the two. Lewis
    ensures Michael takes his drugs at the correct time and her home is
    equipped with a special water filtration system required by
    immuno-suppressed children. She also provides regular respite care
    to other children with HIV and hepatitis. 

    Specialist foster carers dealing with HIV-positive children need
    to be aware of the social stigma the disease attracts. “It is an
    isolating illness and you have to remember that people pass
    information on,” Lewis says. She believes foster care providers
    should create a network of support for specialist carers, something
    in which she would gladly be involved. “At the beginning it would
    have helped to say to someone else ‘How did you cope with
    this?’.”  

    * Names have been changed

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