Specialist autistic fostering agency in Kent wins accreditation

From a Kentish kitchen in a country cottage, Credo Care has developed into a pioneering agency that works with autistic children. Anabel Unity Sale reports

The Romney Marsh town of Lydd in east Kent provides a picturesque backdrop for specialist disability foster care agency Credo Care.

Local resident Roy Hipkiss set up the agency in 2000, initially operating out of his own kitchen. Although things have moved on since Credo’s humble beginnings – it now operates out of an office two minutes away – it is Hipkiss’ cottage where Community Care met him and his colleague Jane Sedgwick and foster carers Lesley and Stewart O’Donnell. Hipkiss, Credo’s development director, is more than happy to allow the cameras into his home and is immensely proud of Credo Care, which last year become the only fostering agency to be accredited by the National Autistic Society.

Credo received its autism accreditation from NAS for its way of working with autistic children and their foster carers. Hipkiss, who has a Certificate of Qualification in Social Work (CQSW) and worked as a senior practitioner at two fostering agencies before launching Credo Care in 2000 with fellow director Father Damien Mead, ­wanted to offer referring bodies an alternative to residential or hospital care for autistic children.

Looked-after children

Although the not-for-profit company receives referrals for children with varying disabilities and health issues, it noted that often children had dual diagnosis with autism. He was inspired to investigate how Credo could better meet the needs of autistic looked-after children and their foster carers.

“A friend of mine, a psychologist, was involved in a project with a university working with autistic children under five and was having success with it,” Hipkiss says. “It made me think we could do the same with the fostering service.”

With this in mind Hipkiss hired Sedgwick in 2003 as autism specialist to oversee the development of the initiative and ensure all staff and foster carers were autism-aware in their practice. Sedgwick has first-hand experience of dealing with autism because her son has the condition and she worked as an assistant physiotherapist specialising in rehabilitation before becoming a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children.

Bitter battle

Sedgwick says her “long haul and bitter battle” to have her son diagnosed as autistic helped her understand the challenges other families and carers go through. She says getting to grips with fostering practice and regulation was a “steep learning curve” when she joined Credo but feels “very passionate that foster carers should get the support they need”.

In order to be autism-accredited by NAS, Credo had to meet 17 core standards set by NAS. As a trailblazer for accreditation, Credo devised a further 12 specialist standards in partnership with NAS.

“We looked at how we could evidence, for example, how our foster carers and their homes were autism-aware, such as what training we offered them and what sort of home layouts they had,” Sedgwick says.

Credo spends 30 hours of extended matching work before it places any child or young person with one of its foster carers. This includes talking to the child’s carers or parents, their school, social worker and other professionals. Such an approach, Hipkiss says, allows Credo to transfer this knowledge to its foster carers and be specific about what a child needs in order for its placement to succeed. So successful has its approach been with the autistic children it places that it has not had a placement breakdown in five years.

No longer anxious

One placement that is going well is that of 17-year-old Wally (not his real name), who has autism. Having grown up with his family and briefly living in a residential home, he was placed with the O’Donnells in June 2008.

The O’Donnells became foster carers for Credo last January after deciding to build on their careers as social care support workers. Lesley says: “I have worked with people with learning difficulties and wanted to help give youngsters the skills to bring them on in life.”

Since Wally joined the couple Stewart says he is no longer the anxious, quiet and confused young man he once was. The training and support they received from Credo, particularly at the start of the placement, has helped Wally to flourish and become more social, says Stewart. He is also impressed that NAS has recognised Credo’s work.

Hipkiss agrees that receiving the accreditation has boosted everyone at the agency. “It has given us an ability to verify what we do and challenge ourselves. The accreditation means it is not just us saying we are good, it is NAS as well.”

Top tips for working with foster carers and autistic children:

● Work with the best information you can find about how autism presents in a child, so foster carers are better prepared.

● Know the communication style of the child and replicate it consistently when you, and foster carers, communicate with her or him.

● Encourage foster carers to join local autistic support groups and help them find out what events are happening in their community.

● Suggest foster carers and young people with autism carry an autism alert card that states who should be called in an emergency.

Credo Care

●  NAS autism accreditation service. Tel: 01454 423780; or e-mail 

This article is published in the 22 January edition of Community Care under the headline “We believe in Credo”

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