With the migration of people from war ravaged parts of the globe happening on an unprecedented scale, politicians are facing a crisis for which there has been no chance to prepare. What is beyond question is the willingness expressed by people in this country to help. In recent days, the charity, Home for Good organised an online campaign which saw 10,000 people coming forward passionate about fostering refugee children. Laudable obviously: but this is only the first step toward a solution. However enthusiastic, anyone considering fostering, will quickly discover that the process of becoming an approved carer can be protracted and take up to eight months. The problem with such a time scale is that human nature being what it is, an initial rush of enthusiasm in response to a headline or news footage, can wane. And often quickly, when it is discovered that the process of becoming a fully fledged carer takes so much time.
Child protection is always going to be paramount – and rightly so – especially as we live in an age where children face risks not faced by previous generations. Fostering means having to be aware of the plethora of hazards young people face. The best and most troublesome example is the online world where children can be unwittingly exposed to grooming. In addition, social media has played a significant part in making children susceptible to cyber bullying. Perhaps the hardest aspect of this ‘Brave New World’ is that when fostering, it is almost impossible to keep a check on what young people are doing. We live in an age of paranoia. Fear stalks the land: mostly it is unjustified, but because of certain notorious cases, we have to remain ever vigilant. The problem is simple: technology is developing at a rate we should be admitting we can no longer keep up with. This we find unnerving by itself, but when that same technology is escalating risk to to the point every action is defensive and governed by fear of litigation; all our systems are at risk of will grinding to a halt.
We should be honest and acknowledge that the rush of enthusiasm for fostering refugees cannot be managed by the system that is in place. Once someone is approved to be a foster carer, it is by no means guaranteed they will be able to offer a home to a refugee child in any case. We have so many children already who are desperate for a home. It is most unlikely that if you are fostering – either through a local authority, or independent fostering agency, you will be able to specify having a refugee child. And that is right, for a child in need is a child in need, whatever their origins. So what we have now is an impasse. The only realistic option, if the public tide of goodwill is to be capitalised upon, is to completely rethink the situation. A good place to start is thinking about the nature of risk itself. Certainly we need checks, but to a twelve year old that has fled a country where they faced daily imminent death from indiscriminate, risk will be seen very differently. The proof of that is their presence on these shores. For more general information concerning refugees visit: www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/
One idea – just for consideration – might be a system whereby, after initial close vetting, someone keen to foster a refugee child would have to reside within close proximity of an experienced and established foster carer and their social worker. The carer and social worker would have close and regular contact offering support; the carer would be paid a premium rate for their involvement and additional work. This would have the effect of directing more money to experienced foster carers – many of whom are already disenchanted and could be lost to the system. The applicant would be closely shadowed whilst going through the approval process, but at least a refugee child would be found a home. Obviously, each case would have to be judged on its individual merits, but some of the very public outpouring of willingness and goodwill could be harnessed. The country needs around 9,000 new foster carers, so any interest has to be taken extremely seriously. Such an idea will have its detractors – of course. But a lesson from the past might be well worth taking into account. In 1939 Sir Nicholas Winton saved the lives of 669 Jewish children. They were a part of the ‘Kindertransport’ initiative in which the United Kingdom gave refuge to around 10,000 mostly Jewish children. A large proportion of these were placed with foster families. At the time, the BBC Home Service had mounted an appeal for fostering carers which resulted in hundreds of people coming forward interested in fostering. Only the most cursory checks were made to look to see that homes were ‘clean and respectable’ – and then the children were placed. Those were desperate times and undoubtedly most, if not all, of those children would have perished had they not come to the UK.
In an ideal world, there would be time for all the fostering checks to be made. Could they not be done when a refugee child is placed and then closely supervised by professionals? This at least moves toward being a practical response. And of course the world is far from ideal: the exigencies of war, as well as our overloaded care system mean we have to think creatively, pragmatically and realistically. It is important we try and explore new ideas for, despite the recent, shaky ceasefire in Syria, all the signs are the outward flow of refugees from that benighted country is set to continue. And finally, we need to remember all those Jewish children that never made it out of Germany; they would surely have accepted the risk of a home in the UK had it meant the chance of escape.
And the good news at the end of this fostering rainbow…hard work pays off: one of our foster children was struggling last year with their educational targets. We have heard in the last few days they have been successful in securing a much prized apprenticeship. Well done from all at Rainbow Fostering.