Sussex foster carers on what their job entails
PUBLISHED: 10:43 03 October 2017 | UPDATED: 10:43 03 October 2017
With more than 50,000 children in foster care at the end of 2016 and a national shortfall of foster carers, local councils are desperate for new recruits. But what does the job actually entail? Jenny Mark-Bell spoke to local foster carers to find out
Every year thousands of children need foster care because they are not able to live with their families, for reasons ranging from parental substance abuse or mental health problems to physical incapacity.
Foster placements can last from a single night to several years and foster carers come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. They don’t need to own a house, but they do need a spare room. At the end of 2016 there were 51,805 children in foster care and there is a national shortfall in carers.
Clare Smith, Fostering Service team manager at Brighton and Hove City Council, says: “Our carers are extremely passionate about the work they do with our children in care, they do an incredible job for us. Although it’s a full-time job, many of our carers don’t regard it as a ‘profession’; they do it because they love the children and want to help to make a difference. Other carers who feel the same about the children see fostering as a profession as they play a pivotal role in the child’s life. To do this successfully demands lots of ongoing training and constant personal development and upskilling.”
Southwick’s Julie Scarratt has been fostering with Brighton and Hove City Council for 28 years. She and her husband Steve have cared for babies and children all the way up to 18 in a variety of categories: adoption, long-term fostering, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and short-term fostering.
Julie’s aunt and uncle had fostered, eventually adopting three of the children they cared for, so she had some experience before she went into it herself – but she’d never worked with children although the couple had their own daughters who were five and three when they brought their first placement home.
Nowadays social workers stipulate that foster placements are not too close in age to the family’s own children but, Julie says: “So many things have changed since we first started and it always seemed as if we had children who were similar ages to ours. It was really exciting for the girls, especially with the younger ones. We had quite a few babies and they always liked the little ones. We got really attached to a lot of them.”
Sadly not all of those babies went home: in some cases parents opt to have their children taken into care because they know they’re not able to look after their children, while in others it is ruled by the courts. In such cases the children go on to adoption. “We often have contact with children’s birth families,” says Julie. “In the old days we used to supervise some of the contact sessions but that doesn’t happen now, it’s always in a contact centre with a supervisor. We’ve worked with a lot of parents and most of the time those relationships have been positive.”
Sometimes foster carers work with parents to ensure a new routine continues at home.
Julie is very clear that their role is as a corporate parent and that foster carers must be willing to set boundaries and discipline a child from the outset. “I personally insist on good manners in my house and if I had a child who didn’t have them I wouldn’t hesitate to say I expected them to learn. For example, often we’ve had children who don’t know how to hold a knife and fork. We’ve had children who’ve been very, very deprived and do you know what? They love learning. They love learning how to clean their teeth, they love learning how to wash themselves. To them it’s a lot of attention and sometimes that’s the thing they’ve never had. They love learning routines and that’s really rewarding – when children really look forward to having their bath because it’s six o’clock. Of course that helps them to grow, it just makes them feel so secure.”
Certain personal characteristics are important – Julie names patience and compassion as paramount – but there is also plenty of training and support available. “Brighton and Hove does a fantastic training programme and it’s really developed over the past ten years,” says Julie. “It’s really comprehensive. Alongside the training courses we’ve also got a lot of support groups which are made up of foster carers and they’ll have somebody from the department who will facilitate it. We’ve got a new carers’ support group, a teenage carers’ group, an unaccompanied asylum-seeking children’s group; a parent and baby support group; single parents, male carers. We’re fortunate here because we’ve got a really good support network.”
It’s not an easy life: “You’re on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, no days off,” says Julie. “You do have to look after yourself: you have to factor in your own down time and you need hobbies. If I can’t do my exercise classes I won’t be able to do the job as well as I expect. That would have an impact on the children I’m looking after, so I have to look after myself.” Diary management is one of the great challenges of the job – juggling school runs, medical appointments and so on for several unrelated placements can be demanding. Placements can begin with as little as an hour’s notice – “the phone could ring right now with an emergency,” says Julie.
Despite the hard work there are many advantages: Julie and Steve are still in touch with many of the children who have lived with them. Knowing that a child has left them in a better position than they came is one of the greatest rewards.
“We had a little eight-year-old boy who came to us having been neglected. He hadn’t attended school and he had a physical problem which was related to his poor care. When he came to us and started attending school regularly, all of a sudden he was able to soak up all this information: he learnt his times tables, his reading came on well, he formed relationships which he hadn’t been able to form before. Those things make such an impact on you and it changed his life.”
It’s fair to say that fostering has changed the lives of Julie and her family too – she says she can barely remember doing anything else – and they have just taken out a special guardianship on a child so that his position in the family is more permanent. “We haven’t planned to retire any time soon. It’s just part of life now – sometimes you forget it’s actually a job because you do it every day and we’ve done it for so long.
“It’s enriched our lives and opened up our lives to things we probably wouldn’t ever have seen or been part of. That’s a positive thing. I would always encourage people to do it.”
Parent and child fostering involves supporting a parent and child in a fostering placement (often but not always a young mother).
This specialist type of fostering would suit someone who has worked with parents or vulnerable young adults, are patient and caring and have good advocacy skills.
Sandra and Anthony Daniels have been fostering with West Sussex County Council for about two years. They chose to specialise in parent and child fostering after reading an interview with a West Sussex foster carer.
Sandra was a childminder for five years prior to fostering. She explains: “I had worked with parents from a range of backgrounds, some of whom had quite a difficult time and needed more support. I thought: maybe I could do this, maybe there is something I can contribute.”
Sandra and Anthony thought carefully about the impact fostering would have on their own children before they started their assessment. “They were on board with the idea from the start – my son in particular loves babies. They were used to all the chaos and comings and goings from the childminding I had done.
“It has been great. Like anything you do, it has its ups and downs.
“You have to separate yourself from the child in a way and mentor the parent. In that respect it is very different from mainstream fostering.
“You must respect their background – which could be very different from your own – and guide them in the right way, giving support where they need it the most.
“It’s important to let them know that you don’t have to be Mary Poppins. You can learn from things that go wrong. Being part of a functioning family gives them that insight.”
Sandra says that support from the council and from her friends and family is vital in her role. “It’s important not to isolate yourself. Meet other people – get out and find some buddies. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions.
“I have regular visits from my social worker who is always on the end of the phone and there are local foster carer support groups that we can go along to.
“The children and family centres in West Sussex are amazing – a massive support. For example they run courses regularly – we have attended courses on healthy eating, weaning talks and early parenting classes. By attending these we can ensure that the person I am supporting can pick up new skills and knowledge and feel empowered to make changes and take these with them when they move on from my care.
“The long and short of it is ascertaining that once the support is removed, that they can support themselves and their children.
“Sometimes a parent comes to you with nothing but the bag they left hospital with – then you have to help them find out about their entitlements, get them set up and help them to find out how they can support themselves.”
Sandra recognises that parent and child fostering can feel like a rollercoaster: “Stay positive – even when something seems sad. Always bear in mind the best outcome for the child is what we’re aiming for – as long as it is the right thing and the child is moving onto better things.” Sandra and Anthony recognise the impact they have on young people in their care, especially when the parent moves on to live independently with their child.
“It feels good to know you have put that support in and have done what you can. You’re a moment in time, and if your moment in time can impact in a positive way… even if it’s looked back on ten years later, 20 years later, that’s all you can ask.”