In the UK, approximately 100,000 children and young people will find themselves caught up in the care system. Of these, most will be placed with foster carers. A relatively small proportion will go home to their birth family, or move in with other relatives. Adoption will offer a solution for a small number. Foster carers remain the mainstay, providing homes for children as they move through childhood to adulthood.
The disturbing reality is that throughout the UK, it is proving enormously difficult to find foster carers to look after teenagers. Recent blogs have focused on the importance of placement stability and permanence: without this, successful outcomes are highly unlikely. Teenagers represent a group where the challenge of providing stability is acute: too often they are placed with foster carers who live a long way from their families and friends. Contact is lost with the school, causing their education to be disrupted – in quite a few cases, teenagers find themselves separated from their siblings. This can have a series of emotional consequences all their own, that militate against placement stability. Particularly worrying is the trend for teenagers to find themselves being looked after by foster carers without the abilities and skills to care for them. A sizeable number are simply being shoehorned into situations which are time limited, as opposed to being offered a foster home for the long term. This means that currently two in five teenagers being looked after by foster carers, are on their third placement since arriving in care. The risk of placement breakdown is obviously high; apart from the upset and disruption caused the young person, there is another important downside: foster carers themselves can find the experience upsetting and stressful. This can give rise to real problems retaining foster carers generally when their experience has been so disheartening. And this is in a period of acute shortage of foster carers in the country.
Leading fostering charity, The Fostering Network has researched* that one in four (25%) teenagers being fostered were living with at least their fourth family in care, one in six (17%) with their fifth and one in 20 with their 10th. Such figures underscore the need to recruit more foster carers who are able to provide teenagers a stable home offering them real permanence. A spokesperson for the charity stated:
“Being moved from home to home can have a hugely detrimental effect on children’s education, wellbeing and ability to make and maintain relationships.
“Not being able to find the right foster carer also means that children too often have to live a long way from family, friends and school and are split up from their brothers and sisters. Finding the right foster carer at the outset of a child’s journey in care can lead to stability, improved relationships and a positive experience of childhood.”
Jackie Sanders, director of communications at the charity, said: “In particular, we need people who have the skills, patience and passion to look after teenagers who may have had a really tough time and be facing some real challenges, and to offer them love, stability and security.”
*Survey carried out in April 2015 canvasing 1,125 foster carers regarding 1,608 young people in their care.
The most obvious point to make is that simply recruiting foster carers in a general way will not provide the answer. The perception that teenagers, even those not in the care system, can be difficult, challenging, awkward and downright difficult to live with is widespread. And why not? It is a fundamental truth that adolescent years can be emotionally trying as young people grapple with issues of identity and what it means to be approaching adulthood. The culture places additional burdens on young people that did not exist a generation ago. Social media invites a level of sensitivity, introspection – and often reluctant participation – that is quite unprecedented. Peer pressure there has always been; but now, supported by technology, it can be almost inescapable: relentless in fact. Adding these factors into the life of a young person who has known only instability, makes it obvious why placement breakdown is rife. Thinking around these issues can make the problem appear intractable: it does, however, point toward the solution. Rather than recruiting foster carers in a general sense; then hope some may express interest in specialising in caring for teenagers, it is better to think about where the kinds of people who have experience of dealing with teenagers are to be found. Defining this group, will provide a ‘target market’ to which the right recruitment marketing messages can be sent. So, people who are experienced already in working with young people: youth participation workers, youth support workers, youth mentors (this can be for a wide range of sporting and leisure activities), teachers, ex-social workers and ex-child protection workers all provide examples of people experienced in the ‘teenage mindset’. The other benefit is they will all be older with ‘life experience’. The alternative is to look at the existing pool of carers and find those fostering younger children who would be – with the right training and support – willing to foster teens. There is a personality type that is naturally resilient and responds to challenge: the recruitment process should reflect this in its efforts to find new foster carers. It is equally important to be pragmatic about the kinds of experiences some teenagers will have been exposed to. These can often be extremely distressing – witnessing drug, alcohol or substance misuse in a family setting. In a minority of instances, scenes of domestic violence or sexual abuse may have been witnessed – and sometimes over a prolonged period. Some teenagers may themselves have been victims of violence, neglect or sexual abuse – a combination of all. A recent National Audit Office report drew particular attention to the difficulties of locating secure, stable homes for girls who might be at risk of CSE (child sexual exploitation).
Finding the right carers with a resilient mentality, predisposed to meet head on the challenge of turning around a troubled teenage life has to be the objective. Robust support and training will be needed on an ongoing basis. There is new work being done around the way foster care is delivered which could bring far reaching changes. The indications are, that moving to a new service delivery model could change fundamentally the way support takes place – see recent blogs Fostering Children and MFM and Foster a child: A New Model
New work is being done on the way foster care is delivered, which early indications show considerable promise. A serious attempt at redefining the core attributes required for the foster carers of the future has to be made. It then has to drive the recruitment process. There is little point in finding new foster carers, just to make up the numbers, if they will not accept challenging placements. This only results in carers becoming disillusioned and leaving, as well as slowing up the process as carers are offered referrals they will almost certainly refuse to take on. Over time, this creates another negative effect: foster carers being tempted to transfer to other IFA’s (independent fostering agencies), but it will, in many instances, be the same challenging young people needing homes they will be asked to consider. Foster carers who relish challenge and overcoming teenage problems positioned in a fostering model that offers training and support – as well as a robust framework of mutual support and interdependency – will make a real difference. It is as simple as fitting the right people to the true nature of the task. It may be that finding such foster carers will never be accomplished in the numbers that are needed. But, uncomfortable as this may be, it is a fact worth knowing since it will mean new solutions have to be considered; or previous ones remodelled. This could mean a different approach to residential care with more resources to fund more activities/training. Confronting the stark reality that it may not be possible to ever find sufficient numbers of highly ‘resilient’ foster carers, is better than adherence to a system that spawns repeated placement breakdowns.
And the good news at the end of this rainbow…a forthcoming trip is being planned by our Youth Participation Officer to ‘Oxygen Free Jumping’ – a great activity for our foster carers to send their young people to really burn off all those calories