by Paul Adams
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services is opposed to the professionalisation of foster carers, while the Fostering Network is said to be ‘in favour of moving towards a professional foster carer workforce’.
So what should we make of this apparent disagreement?
CoramBAAF understands that many foster carers want a professional fostering career, and this is entirely compatible with liking or loving the children in their care and doing the very best to look after and help them. These carers will understandably emphasise the issue of foster carer status, access to training, and the need for better remuneration for foster carers.
So long as they stop short of demands for employment rights such as annual leave – which conflict with children’s best interests – these are important and valid assertions.
Some of these carers will have given up professional roles to foster, maybe in the context of specialist schemes caring for challenging teenagers who might otherwise be in residential care.
Other foster carers might be looking after a number of disabled children needing short breaks from their birth families, and will be demonstrating a range of skills more normally associated with nursing or other recognised professionals. These foster carers provide an important service and need to be recognised as skilled and committed individuals who have chosen this ‘career’.
However, this does not reflect the position of all foster carers.
In contrast to the ‘professional’ foster carer there are also what is sometimes called the ‘traditional’ foster carer; motivated not by a sense of career, but rather by the desire to offer children the opportunity to be full members of their family.
Most obviously this is the case for family and friends’ foster carers such as grandparents, but applies equally to those unrelated foster carers offering a child a permanent place in their family now and into the future.
In recent years the sector may have given less thought to the needs of these ‘substitute parents’ – and notwithstanding the unhelpful justification in terms of cost – the Association of Directors of Children’s Services are right to highlight the importance of recruiting and retaining this type of foster carer.
CoramBAAF have long been concerned that the fostering system as it is currently configured, while working generally well for task-centred ‘professional’ foster care (where placements are often time limited, legal proceedings may be ongoing, and there may be plans for children return to their birth families after a period in care) works less well to support long term fostering.
In a context where social workers and Independent Reviewing Officers overtly exercise decision-making powers and responsibility on behalf of the state, where life changing decisions are made in professional meetings, and professional foster carers are expected to ‘implement care plans’, children in long term fostering are denied that which many others take for granted – a normal family life.
In developing our submission to the stocktake CoramBAAF surveyed members (social workers and managers in local authority and independent fostering services) and asked them to select which of the following two statements best represented their views:
- Arrangements for long term fostering are working fine and the system does not need to be changed
- We need to look at doing long term fostering differently so that foster carers can ‘parent’ children in a way that is closer to ‘normal family life’
An overwhelming 88% percent of respondents selected the second statement, confirming our view that we should be exploring whether long-term fostering might be delivered in a way that is different to other types of predominantly task-centred fostering.
Central to that alternative system must be the idea that foster carers play a full ‘parenting’ role, and children experience this as somewhat similar to life for children in adoption or special guardianship.
For some years there has been a reluctance to talk about foster carers as ‘parents’, underpinned by a belief that children in care still have birth parents and so this would be confusing or disrespectful. This ignores the fact that children in adoption and special guardianship also often have birth parents, and simply need help to manage and make sense of the feelings that come with that.
Many children in foster care, particularly younger children in permanent arrangements need the consistency, security, and normality that come with having a parental figure with decision-making authority, providing their day to day care. They do not need a professional foster carer, they need a day-to-day parent.
CoramBAAF has developed a model to pilot this approach in which the supervising social worker also takes on the child’s social worker role, where foster carers are empowered to make decisions, support is provided flexibly and in line with what foster carers identify as helpful, and monitoring is achieved primarily through fostering processes rather than directly with the child.
Foster carers must be central
This would require a cultural change in terms of how services are delivered to children in long-term foster care with foster carers being encouraged to ‘parent’, and children and young people would be encouraged to see these people as ‘parent’ figures.
Where disagreements emerge, as they do in most families, children and foster carers would be encouraged to resolve these together, in most cases without resort to advocates, social workers, or complaint systems. In other words, resolving problems in the same way that children and those looking after them do when the state is not involved in their upbringing.
A number of local authorities have expressed considerable enthusiasm for piloting this long-term fostering model, and we are hopeful that the Fostering Stocktake will reach conclusions that are supportive of this approach.
That does not however mean that we should not also recognise and champion the excellent work that is done by thousands of ‘professional’ foster carers, and strive to improve their status as the ‘expert’ in the children and young people they are looking after.
For both types of carers we must never forget that they will probably know that child better than anyone else outside of the birth family, and without foster carers being central to all important discussions, decision-making will inevitably be flawed. There is space for ‘professional’ foster carers and ‘substitute parents’; the system just needs to recognise how they differ, and understand how best to support them both.
Paul Adams is a foster care development consultant at CoramBAAF.
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