As a foster care agency, we put considerable focus on literacy and the importance of encouraging foster children to read. Being a confident reader usually means being reasonably articulate – a very important life skill. We use words to convey thoughts and ideas – but they can be used for far more than that. They can influence and control. The strange thing about words is that they have the power to mean different things to different people. And at different times. They can be ambiguous – depending upon the context in which they are employed. This is known and can be exploited: change a particular context, and our perceptions can be expanded or narrowed – something which can be very useful. Politicians understand this and routinely use it to ‘work an audience’. Perhaps this is why we all of us need to be on our guard.
Past research has pointed toward disturbingly high levels of public discontent with politics and politicians in Britain: “People’s expectations and impressions of politics and politicians are overwhelmingly negative, so overcoming them will not be easy.” This view formed a part of the conclusions of a conference – funded by the Political Studies Association and the School of Politics at the University of Kent. This, admittedly, was held four years ago, but the situation is unlikely to have changed: more likely it will have deteriorated due to the ineptitude and confusion currently surrounding Brexit.
Words really do matter
To begin with, people’s images of politics itself are overwhelmingly negative. There is research available: conducted by Colin Hay and Gerry Stoker which asked participants in a series of focus groups to identify one particular word they associated with politics. Of all the responses given, only seven were found to be positive, measured against one hundred and thirty two that were negative.
The importance of the words that follow ‘foster’
The words we are preoccupied with here, are ‘carer’ and ‘parent’. Kevin Williams, the chief executive of The Fostering Network, has, crucially flagged up the point they are not; within the context of fostering, interchangeable. One is quite definitely not a substitute for the other. In a recent article, he outlined how important it was that foster parents had now come to be known as foster carers. This had taken time, but was significant, as –
“it reflected an increased understanding of the role. The responsibility – and the complexity – of the task has grown exponentially over the four decades the network has been in existence, and the change of title was an important step in recognising this.”
So this is no mere trifle: forty years of hard graft has gone into what might be to many, a quite imperceptible shift. But context is everything: because of the recent foster care stocktake, we have clarity as to the robust attitude of the chairman in defence of a single word. Kevin Williams has noted that what might first appear as a minor change in nomenclature is not without significance. Since the foster care stocktake, he has come across Department for Education civil servants who are substituting the word ‘parent’ for ‘carer’ when referring to all those looking after vulnerable children on our collective behalf. Kevin Williams is concerned – he is right to be. Why? Well, in his own words:
“Foster carer is a job description, it explains what the role is, highlights its complexity and shows its importance. Being called a foster carer doesn’t, of course, preclude strong personal relationships (indeed they are at the very heart of being a good foster carer), fostered children being given the opportunity to be a full member of a family, or fostered children calling their carers mum and dad or aunt and uncle or Janet and Phil. Being called a foster carer and showing love and compassion are not mutually exclusive.”
For the DfE to consistently use the word parent is not purblind. To understand why, it is important to remember one of the most controversial aspects of the foster carer stocktake. And this centred upon the term of ‘professional’. In the run up to the inquiry, there was a great deal of argument swirling around whether foster carers should be regarded as professionals. To accede to the use of the term ‘carer’ would have opened the doors of perception far wider. Could one, then disagree with the view of Kevin Williams that if foster carer is a job description it means:
“foster carers are so much more than parents. Here’s just a short list of things foster carers, who are at the centre of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, do that parents usually don’t have to:
Deliver highly personalised care within a professional framework; write reports and other paperwork; make assessments; conduct home reviews; get involved with the police; attend placement agreement meetings; manage contact with birth family and complete life-story work.”
And the chief executive is right in describing this as a shortlist. This is incontrovertible – because of the changing nature of fostering over which the government has scant control. The principle driver in this area is the need; now an urgent one, for a quite different class of foster carer altogether. Gone are the days when being a foster carer simply meant putting a roof over the head of an unfortunate child. Many young people are coming into care as a result of having been traumatised – some particularly seriously – by their experiences. Providing care for these children is far from straightforward. So we now have a pressing need for therapeutically trained foster carers – and many of them. This development is going to make it far harder, if not impossible, for the Government to continue to perpetuate the notion of a foster parent from a vanished age. This is especially so considering a report just out from the children’s commissioner, which: “estimates that 2.1 million of England’s 11.8 million children – nearly 1 in 6 -are living in families with risks so serious that they need help.” What is particularly worrying is that 890,000 children are living in homes where the parents are suffering from serious mental health problems. Breaking the figure down figure we are left with the alarming figure of 100,000 children forced to live with the consequences of routine exposure to “the toxic trio” – domestic violence, mental health problems and alcohol /drug abuse.
The authors of the foster care stocktake, rather conveniently it seems, left it to others to deal with the issue of mental health and the young. But considering the facts contained in the commissioner’s report, it seems bizarre to cling to the notion that anything other than a professional cadre of foster carers will be needed to support these particular children. We then also expect our foster carers to lead and inspire so that the youngsters they care for can compete with their more fortunate peers.
Although the foster care stocktake has concluded, it is important that organisations and agencies representing children’s interests maintain the pressure on government to keep fostering high on the agenda. If the stocktake was only a snapshot with a few recommendations, it will be judged as having failed to grasp the scale of the problems disadvantaged children face. And they can be entrenched: in 2016 an OECD study of basic skills ranked England lowest in the developed world for literacy. This can only mean foster children are likely to be losing out still further. It is interesting to speculate what would have been the approach and subsequent conclusions of the foster care stocktake, if its start point had included such worrying facts and their likely long term consequences.
All blogs written by Will Saunders: Rainbow Fostering – Content Management/Marketing
Do you, worry not all children have a stable, loving home? Enough to do something about it?
The becoming a foster carer may be for you. We provide 24/7 support and excellent training for all our foster carers. Should they want to progress their careers, we can provide training in therapeutic foster care. At Rainbow, we are a caring, compassionate team highly motivated to find homes for children who desperately need them. At the moment there is a particular need for foster homes for teenagers and sibling groups. We can advise on foster care rates of pay, how long it takes for someone to become a foster carer as well as qualifications foster carers can get.
If you are a foster carer thinking about transferring…
Call our recruitment team: we are always keen to inform cares of the benefits of joining ‘Team Rainbow’. And you may be eligible for a special bonus if you meet certain criteria. Many of our foster carers have been with us over ten years, which tells its own story.
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