Redistributing care: why respite support should exist for struggling birth families, not just foster carers and adopters

Brigid Featherstone and Amanda Boorman talk about their experiences of respite support and how it might be used to support families before a child is removed

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Photo: zimmytws/Fotolia

by Brigid Featherstone and Amanda Boorman

We are all now wearily familiar with hearing about ever-increasing numbers of children becoming looked after. We hear how austerity has hollowed out preventative services and the increasingly scarce resources is focused on funding care applications, care placements and the problematic consequences of these.

It is a matter of regret for many that funding and priorities are focused on the ‘heavy end’ of provision. Meanwhile, care experienced and adopted people increasingly remind us of their life-long attempts to make sense, repair and restore within the contexts of trauma, rupture and loss.

We are two women who have spent the last two decades of our lives living in and with adoption and fostering. One of us adopted and fostered siblings working alongside their original family to support the children. The other was approved as a respite foster parent in 2003 and has supported children and young people who are in long-term fostering, adoption and kinship care.

In our conversations together we increasingly discuss the fact that our love, care and commitment has been concentrated on children once they have come into care. It would be too simplistic to say this in itself is a matter of regret but it is increasingly a matter for reflection and, indeed, the occasional thought experiment.

Families of origin

What if that love, care and commitment could have been used to support the children and young people we love to stay safely within their families of origin? For example, what if birth parents had been offered the kinds of respite care one of us has offered for years to foster parents and adopters, so that they could have a weekend off once a month and/or go on holiday once a year.

All parents know how much having safe time out can help.

Surely respite fostering resources like ours could have been re-imagined to offer exhausted new mothers a warm and kind respite care package with, or without, their infants, thus perhaps preventing some of the baby removals we have heard about in recent years.

The costs of caring for other people’s children as a corporate parent are enormous and, despite government presenting adoption as a golden opportunity for permanence, it also acknowledges that adoption saves councils money.

What is much less often acknowledged by government ministers is the often-devastating consequences of permanent severance from loved ones, wider family relationships, culture, family history and identity that adopted people may face, often with no support.

Even more rarely acknowledged is the life-changing grief many parents living apart from their children must contend with. We know that women lose their children because of domestic abuse, mental illness, substance addiction and/or homelessness. Removing their children through adoption can be extremely harsh.

Roots and history

A large proportion of parents who lose children to adoption will have been in care themselves and often it will be the same corporate parent that removes a woman’s children into the care systems it once held her within. Surely, the ethical issues here oblige the offering of support for as long as is needed and using imaginative means to recruit people like us who would wish to provide that kind of support.

When criticisms of adoption practice are made it can be difficult to find solutions that recognise the importance of permanence and healthy attachments for children while not advocating the practice of total severance from a child’s roots and history. But it is vital that such solutions are sought as adopted people increasingly tell of the importance of their identity needs throughout their lives and as we confront the realities of removing children from very deprived and marginalized parents.

Recent adoption practice and, certainly, the funding of adoption has focused on the recruiting and support of adopters. For example, this year’s National Adoption Week is focused yet again on the adopter.

It remains rare to find adult adopted people or parents whose children have been removed speaking at high profile events.

However, where opportunities have been provided for adopted people, adopters and birth families to talk to each other – as happened in the Adoption Enquiry commissioned by BASW – barriers have been broken down, empathy been encouraged, and myths dispelled.

Redistribute care

Through our work we have both seen people from all sides of the adoption system come together to discuss solutions that respect women’s human rights and promote practices that are more humane for everybody involved in dealing with issues of child and family protection.

As the care figures continue to rise and as resources like ours are increasingly focused on those in care, we not only need to look at re-distributing financial resources away from the ‘heavy end’ but there may be merit in thinking about how love and care might be re-distributed also.

Instead of encouraging, for example, people to adopt children, or foster once the children are removed from their parents, perhaps we could ask them to ‘adopt’ or ‘foster’ alongside families thus preventing permanent removal. Now that seems like a good idea to discuss this National Adoption Week.

Brigid Featherstone is a professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield. Amanda Boorman is the founder of The Open Nest

9 Responses to Redistributing care: why respite support should exist for struggling birth families, not just foster carers and adopters

  1. CHUX October 16, 2018 at 7:01 pm #

    Brilliantly insightful. Refreshingly innovative. Let’s hope that some funding can follow to support this being implemented, even on a pilot basis, and a Local Authority take up the challenge.

  2. S.K.Chatha October 16, 2018 at 10:57 pm #

    Excellent idea. Surely providing the birth parents with the support they need inorder to parent their children would be best for children and a win win situation for all and the cost would be miniscule compared to what LA’s end up spending on Care proceedings, foster care, recruiting and approving adopters, the cost of therapy to children and adopters and all the other services that support the care system when children are removed from birth families. In the long term this would help break the cycle that these families are in by providing them with a template of good parenting that they have not experienced. In these times of austerity it would make economic sense. Above all it would prevent the life long trauma children suffer when their birth family ties are severed. Its a model that needs to be given serious consideration!

  3. sw111 October 17, 2018 at 11:25 am #

    That is a brilliant idea.
    However, I suspect how far this idea would be embraced by local authority when risk averse factors underpin our policy and practice.

  4. June Thoburn October 18, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

    Really important account of a service that can make all the difference to some parents and children.
    Respite care for birth families living in stressful circumstances (and not just for disabled children) was a part of the Children Act 1989 Sec 20 ‘series of short term placements’. It was positively evaluated by Jane Aldgate and Marie Bradley and some areas (eg Essex I think) set it up as a specialist service. But like other key aspects of family support for children assessed as in need of additional services, this has become very rare. Foster care placements with the same family should be brought back as part of family support service- and also for some children returning from care to parents or kinship carers. Foster carers should be recruited and trained to work collaboratively with birth families (as used to be the case and including facilitating birth family contact as well as, when appropriate, helping children move on to new (adoptive) families. And there is a need for some longer term ‘shared care’ foster families.

  5. Maria October 18, 2018 at 1:32 pm #

    This is a fantastic & really positive article with some brilliant ideas! Unfortunately & sadly though it will fall on deaf ears with LA’s as they already have their set agendas! More needs to be done to support young vulnerable mother’s who have often been in care themselves, I strongly believe to meet a child’s needs, you need to meet the mother’s needs too!

  6. adarynefoedd October 18, 2018 at 1:45 pm #

    Not new though and some progressive LAs are still doing it as part of comprehensive family support packages but also need Family Centres, family therapy, counselling, financial help etc etc does not stand on its own plus good preventatively oriented SWs who are able to use community resources effectively. There was also a task oriented version in the 80s and 90s to address specific behavioural problems. Some ‘remove and think about later’ practitioners and managers do see respite fostering as reinforcing poor parenting, so it is not just a resource issue.

  7. Suziie October 18, 2018 at 3:30 pm #

    Great idea in theory. However, there is limited appropriate respite provision in place currently for families with disabled children, foster and adoptive families, much would be needed to source this additional provision.

  8. Foster Mum October 19, 2018 at 10:53 pm #

    I do agree that this should be available. However, respite care for foster and adoptive families in my LA has been cut to nothing. It is no longer available, and the LA are no longer recruiting respite foster carers. It did used to be available to birth families too, but I suspect that this service has also been cut. I often hear that if only all the support being given to foster/adoptive families was being given to birth families then removals would reduce, but I don’t see all that support from my LA as either a foster carer or an adoptive parent. In all my years of fostering, I have never had respite available for me to have a “weekend off” or to “go on holiday”.

  9. Daniel October 21, 2018 at 9:14 pm #

    This article and all the comments so far make refreshing reading. The idea that social workers might assist a family and keep them together seems to be increasingly alien to the profession. A move in the suggested direction (along with a similar change in philosophy throughout social work practice) would surely be in the best interest of the child, the parents, siblings and extended family. Additionally, without the need for extended court cases etc. there would be a significant reduction in cost to the LAs; and ultimately everything comes down to cost. However, to change the system would, I think, require much positive action from some very determined reformers.