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Foster carers can benefit from more respite & peer support

Foster need respite and peer support

Foster carers need peer support

Foster carers are in short supply. There is a shortage: roughly the same over recent years – around 8,000 to 9,000 new foster care families needed. The point about a recurring shortfall is that for as long as it persists, the system will be under strain. This will adversely affect both foster children and their carers. Pressure in the system makes for a host of undesirable outcomes – such as placement breakdowns.

Whatever the pursuit or activity, if a bunker mentality sets in, it can dictate the responses and behaviour of everyone operating within it. Put at its most simple, we do not have floods of people applying to be foster carers. This creates a particular and universal mindset: one of pressure. If the supply of good quality foster care applicants outstripped demand, then the background ‘mood music’ would be very different. And the bar would obviously rise. The key question; since for the imaginable future society is going to depend upon foster carers, is how we might change the entire fostering ‘landscape’. And most importantly, how it appears to the general public, for this is where our new foster carers will come from.

We have to move beyond the platitudinous remarks applauding the motives of foster carers. They have been thoroughly rehearsed over many years now. And the main sentiments will have underpinned many recruitment efforts – those of local authorities as well as independent agencies. Over time people can become inured to such recruitment messages. The result: we still have a stubborn shortfall of foster carers year on year. 

Much of the journalism about foster care presents a situation where carers and social workers appear beleaguered. Everywhere, people appear to have their backs to the wall. What has made this worse, is the language around austerity. This can all too easily become an excuse for the way thing are generally. If only there was more money available becomes the mantra. Quickly followed by blaming the ‘cuts’. All too easily this becomes the default response used to excuse and explain.

The same thing can be seen happening as arguments rage back and forth over knife crime. The Mayor blames austerity and levels of poverty. But poverty is a relative term. Many of those arrested own expensive smartphones. It is also true that in the past there has been real grinding poverty, but it did not result in comparable levels of the murder and mayhem now being seen on our streets. It’s also simplistic; but politically convenient, to argue that suddenly spending huge sums will address the problem. A good few years back now, it became government policy to spend huge sums on IT in the NHS. A flagship patient record and booking system was rolled out yet never worked properly. Some estimates for the project which was discontinued were reported as being between £10bn to £20bn. Note: that’s billion not million! Searches now on Google record the figure reported as  £11bn in the ‘Independent’ and £12bn in the Daily Mail. What is execrable is that the project was so badly managed no one really has a definitive figure. The point of this is to demonstrate that just spending money doesn’t guarantee successful outcomes.

Foster care is an emotive subject. So too is health provision. The latter has been intensely politicised for decades, with the former looking like it could well be about to be. This is because it is part of a much wider picture – one causing grave concerns for child welfare in the areas of education and mental health provision. This year has seen a plethora of news articles warning that vulnerable children are being let down. But this won’t be addressed by throwing money at the problems that beset us. This is a crisis but also something of an opportunity. The problems; and they are considerable, won’t be solved by merely throwing money at them. When it suits them, politicians of parties call for more money. The public has become savvy as they have seen vast sums spent with little or no effect. There has to be better thinking if we are going to deal with the problems that confront us. And this does not necessarily mean new thinking: initiatives might make for headlines, but their potential to convince has diminished. In one time-honoured political phrase, we need to ‘go back to the basics’. It makes good sense to review practices and past ideas that have demonstrated particular merit. Very often their full potential is not realised, or they are simply overtaken by some new policy or initiative. 

Foster care has to mean placement stability.

It is clear that when placements regularly breakdown, a chain of events is set in motion virtually guaranteeing poor outcomes for the children affected. Making placements stable is the fundamental criterion that needs to be in place. If it is not, then we will only be administering a system that is fatally flawed. So can we have a fostering system that delivers stability? The next question that should be framed; and alway should be across government, is: do we first have to pay more or learn more? Or even relearn! It is to this last exhortation we can turn by considering the ‘Mockingbird Family Model’. More specifically, the significance of two elements of the model – respite and peer support. 

First, a brief mention of what the model is. Lily Stevens was in 2016, the project manager for The Fostering Network charged with rolling out a new approach to foster care going under the label ‘Mockingbird Family Model’. Despite inevitable cynicism from some quarters – including social workers – her view was that this was something that could “really revolutionise how foster care works in this country.” No small claim! 

This fostering model was developed originally by the Mockingbird Society in Seattle. Its principles are founded on the merits of the extended family. It has demonstrated considerable success in improving outcomes for foster children in the USA. It’s hardly rocket science either. It uses a dedicated “Hub” comprising foster carers who have been specially recruited then trained to offer peer support as well as respite care. Regular joint planning – with the extension of support and social activities to a “constellation” of between 6 to 10 foster families and kinship carers – defines the core element of the model. 

An end to feeling isolated. 

It can very easily be imagined that when a foster carer is dealing with a very difficult and challenging placement, they can rapidly feel isolated. There is existing research; referred to in the governments own evaluation of the project, that has found peer support between foster carers can be highly beneficial. Further, peer support – “ has been found to facilitate emotional and practical support, providing opportunities for carers to learn from one another experiences and be reassured to discover that others have face similar challenges.”

True, there will be support from a social worker, but in all probability, that person will be dealing with heavy caseloads. Further studies showed the “benefit of a shared understanding between foster carers and the value that foster carers place on talking to someone who knows what it is like.” And, the foster child or young person can themselves experience feelings of isolation. 

Dawn Crossley, a foster carer involved in the trialling of the model put it very well viewing the system as one that works equally for adults and children: “Being a foster carer can be isolating – it’s also great for the foster children to be around other kids from similar backgrounds to theirs.”

This is encouraging – especially as the project is still very much in its infancy as far as evaluating long-term beneficial effects. It began with support from the Department for Education’s innovation programme receiving £1.6m in funding. This went to the country’s leading foster care charity, The Fostering Network, to implement the model in eight local authorities. A year-long pilot scheme was concluded in April, 2016. It will continue involving an additional eight local authorities. It is worth noting that placement stability is improved under this model. In the USA, the same is true and critically; given the difficulties in recruiting new foster carers, retention rates have been improved. 

Perhaps the most striking result is the significantly improved sense of community foster carers and children feel when they are a part of one of these “constellations”. Most significant is the ‘peer’ support foster carers can access and when needed, respite care. The experiences of foster carer Khairun Nisa – a hub carer for a constellation in Leeds are illuminating. She is linked every day with other foster carers and able to respond to their calls and text messages. Problems and experiences can be shared and discussed. Often direct help is sought and given – such as helping with picking up a child from school. 

The learning around fostering continues enabling potential refinements to the model. Language matters: it was found that the term ‘Respite’ had negative effects on foster children as they thought it meant their carers needed a break from them. Although this is the idea behind Respite, choosing another term deals with this damaging perception. As foster carer Nisa reports: 

“We don’t call it respite [care], we call it sleepover because we want to change the mindset. Respite makes children feel like their carers need a break from them and they need to go away. Because they come regularly, if there is a crisis, they don’t feel like they are being shipped out or that it’s a punishment.”

If over the next couple of years we find that following this model starts to deliver real and measurable benefits, it should be bedded into the system of fostering provision across the country. This is because of placement stability; although being the essential pre-requisite going forward is only the start. It will be the platform needs to work to ensure that foster children start to catch up with their more fortunate peer. We will only know this when foster children start to make real gains in terms of educational achievements. This is the ultimate test for a system of provision that can be seen to be working. What could be transformative will be the effect on recruitment in the coming years? If people perceive there is a system that allows them to get support and be part of a thriving social network, they will be attracted to it. The great hope must be that success will attract and then breed further success. In any case, foster carers are a changing breed. We need to be attracting younger people into fostering. If we can offer a framework that looks collaborative, supportive and rewarding to be part of, we are much more likely to interest those younger people. 

Dealing with resistance.

There have been some issues. Obviously, there is a fostering provision model; with variations, in place across the country. The Mockingbird Family Model is a radical departure. Not every social worker supports it. Fears have been expressed that jobs will be lost as the need is for only one liaison social worker for an entire constellation. Lily Stevens fromThe Fostering Network has said on this subject:

“There is the worry that the model is going to take their jobs away but it isn’t looking to do that. It’s trying to address what social workers repeatedly express, which is that they don’t have enough time with families because of all the administrative work they have to do. The model – and the liaison worker role – will help take social work back to what it used to be.”

Whatever the consequences for jobs – and it looks like any fears are largely groundless – these cannot prevent the implementation of a new way of delivering foster care. The reasoning behind any system has to purely be providing the best and most positive experience for vulnerable children. It must be designed to give them favourable, or as nearly favourable life chances as other children. After all, it can never be the fault of a child that they have had to be taken into care.

Latest fostering statistics can be seen at –

There are plenty of fostering opportunities with Rainbow.

We need many more people in the London, Manchester, Birmingham and Hampshire areas to provide loving, stable foster homes to vulnerable children. Right at this moment in time, the leading fostering charity, The Fostering Network, estimates a need for an additional 8,600 foster families in the UK. With our help and support, you can play a key part in meeting this desperate need.

Rainbow welcome application from people from all walks of life. We work extremely hard to find placements for our youngsters in foster homes that reflect their own background and cultural heritage. on a practical level, all you need to foster is a spare room, but that’s only the start. All our foster carers display an exemplary commitment and dedication to improving the prospects for the children in their care. Want to find out more? Contact us on 020 8427 3355 or our National Line – 0330 311 2845. There is no pressure or obligation.

Anyone fostering with Rainbow receives a FREE subscription to FosterTalk magazine. This provides a wide range of interesting articles addressing the many different aspects of fostering. Look for us on social media and add hashtags #fostercare  #fostering #children #foster parents if you comment. It all helps to spread awareness of the great work done by foster carers and the need for more of them.

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