Foster care is a calling. There is no doubt about that. We are fortunate that in this country, we still have people who are motivated to take on the welfare of someone else’s child. In fact, all of us engaged in fostering provision should take heart from research undertaken last year. This was produced by YouGov for Coram and it revealed that around 11 million adults would give consideration to providing foster care. Problem over: this would address at a stroke the current shortfall of 8,000 foster care families in the UK. Sadly, life’s not like that. Notwithstanding this, the CEO of Coram, Carol Homden, in response to the findings said:
“In the context when the number of children in care has increased and the need for greater numbers of foster carer is pressing, these findings are very encouraging. That people have a genuine desire to help vulnerable children during times when they cannot be with their birth parents was evidenced by our charity which pioneered foster care in the eighteenth century. The challenge now is how to build on the compassionate impetus of the public in order to meet the needs of those tens of thousands of children who need the love and support of a foster carer during difficult times in their lives.”
The problem is that the compassionate motivations of the public are notoriously fickle. Each year the numbers of children entering the foster carer system are rising. The shortfall in the supply of people going into foster care remains persistent. This is despite initiatives such as the annual ‘Foster Care Fortnight’. What is also discouraging is the difficulty in finding foster carers prepared to foster teenagers, sibling groups or offer parent and child placements.
Often there is a negative reaction amongst foster carers to the idea of providing foster care for a teenager. This is an urgent problem and one of perception. Teenagers as a group are now, especially vulnerable. They will be a considerable way down the educational path. And if they are encountering problems both in and out of school, this can have severe repercussions for the rest of their lives. Only six per cent of care leavers go on to university compared to fifty per cent of their peers. This is a completely unacceptable statistic in 2019 and needs to be urgently addressed. It is evidence that much needs to be done. A recent high profile enquiry sought to explain this unacceptable statistic as the consequence of more children in care being SEND (Special Educational Needs & disabilities). Even if this is so, we need to find ways to enable such children to achieve more.
But, where does this leave those of us battling to find more people to provide foster care for teenagers? Foster care providers need to educate people about the mental health issues afflicting teenagers. We need to go out there with a clear message: this must explain why teenagers have such emotional problems. By doing this, we will create understanding. This is necessary to facilitate the commitment to providing foster care for teenagers. Teenagers inhabit a world wholly unfamiliar to the rest of us. This has always been the case. And it has been natural that this is so. Rebellion and the search for individual identity is entirely natural. In the past, this quest was played out over terrain that was familiar – at least to us adults that had traversed it. We could understand since we had walked the same path. But now, we live in a massively altered world: one changing so quickly the terrain moves beneath our feet. It should come as no surprise that teenagers have become extremely vulnerable. This is not conjecture – there is evidence – figures from the NHS indicate that 1 in 8 of people under 19 in England had a mental health disorder in 2017. This was revealed in 2018 in the first official statistics published in thirteen years. 9,117 children and teenagers participated in a survey which revealed that the incidence of mental health disorder had risen to one in six for young people between the ages of seventeen and nineteen. By the time that both sexes had reached this age range, worryingly, it was found that females were more than twice as likely to have a mental health issue.
What research highlights is that “social and family context” are both highly significant. Around a quarter of individuals between the ages of five and nineteen with a mental disorder were in families that did not function well. By comparison, fewer of them – around ten per cent – were in a situation that could be described as “healthy family functioning.”
What was interesting was that twenty-eight per cent of affected young people possessed a parent that had been trying to cope with a mental illness of their own. This was compared with nine per cent of youngsters without mental health issues. The research also found an apparent correlation where there was a parent who themselves were in receipt of a disability-related income.
One of the co-authors of the research findings, Professor Tamsin Ford, said: “a variety of family adversities was also part of the explanation. That could be parental separation or a financial crisis in their home.”
Those delivering foster care need to understand that the terrain today’s teenagers are trying to navigate is digital. The online world has changed out of recognition in the last few years alone. This is the first generation that is having to cope with an environment that humans have never confronted. There has been an explosion in social media ‘channels’. Everyone is familiar with the list: Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and others. Providers of foster care services need to be ahead of the game in appreciating the damaging effects of social media.
What has been almost impossible to predict are the consequences of engagement with these channels. Their power lies in promoting the idea of inclusion and the flip side of that – which can lead to so much distress – is exclusion. This is a form of bullying and because social media is available around the clock, there is no escape. Teenagers have reported being under intense pressure to always be available. And that they felt it was always necessary to respond instantly to a text or post. Because of this, it is quite common for teenagers to be on their smartphones late into the night. There is an emotional investment that is so powerful that it has been discovered that twenty per cent of teenagers will be awake and be logged onto social media in the night. The result is that levels of anxiety are rising. It is also thought that such activity could well be damaging to normal sleep patterns. In turn, this can lead to a heightened risk of anxiety and depression.
Dr Heather Cleland Woods has conducted a study into social media. This found that children as young as eleven were engaged both, with Facebook and Twitter and making considerable use of them. At a school in Glasgow some school children were using more than one device simultaneously. And they were logged on “into the early hours of the morning.”
Cleland Woods has also said “Adolescence can be a period of increased vulnerability for the onset of depression and anxiety, and poor sleep quality may contribute to this. It is important that we understand how social media use relates to these. The evidence is increasingly supporting a link between social media use and wellbeing, particularly during adolescence, but the causes of this are unclear.”
The National Citizen’s Service youth programme commissioned a study of teenage girls and their stress levels which indicated they look for comfort and reassurance from social media when they are feeling worried, depressed or anxious. This survey involved a thousand twelve to eighteen-year-olds and it discovered that nine out of ten teenage females had directly experienced stress – with seven out of ten experiencing the symptoms of stress-related illness of one type or another.
What is worrying is that these teenage girls are choosing not to talk with their parents about their concerns and anxieties. Instead, they are reverting back to the use of social media channels. It could be that there is a vicious cycle in place: anxiety is caused by prolonged use of such channels which are then used to try and overcome it.
Five years ago a Commons health select committee produced a report looking into the effects of cyberbullying which highlighted the dangers to youngsters. It also warned of the risks posed by web sites that advocated self-harm and anorexia. It was seen back then that psychological harm was being caused by a toxic blend of violent video games, the sharing of pornographic images combined with other uses of social media. The chair of the Committee, Sarah Wollaston, stated – “In the past if you were being bullied it might just be in the classroom. Now it follows [you] way beyond the walk home from school. It is there all the time. Voluntary bodies have not suggested stopping young people using the internet. But for some young people, it’s clearly a new source of stress.”
There is a disturbing rise of around thirty percent in the numbers of youngsters seeking help for mental health problems. There needs to be much more emphasis on the pre-cautionary principle. Now that we are in 2019, it is clear to see the very real risks that are posed to children in foster care who can be vulnerable to social media channels.
For information on accessing mental health services, visit: https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/nhs-services/mental-health-services/how-to-access-mental-health-services/
Fostering a belief in the value of moderating the pace of communication.
Those of us involved with fostering provision need to be conscious that it is communication that lies at the heart of all relationships. It can be good, it can be bad or indifferent. Before the internet enveloped us all, we were used to communication happening at a relatively set pace. Now, the speed at which we can communicate is such, we may be losing sight of what it is we are actually communicating. ‘Likes’ on Facebook can be made in what might be termed ‘instinctive mode’. The invitation is to respond speedily. This militates against operating what might be termed ‘reflective mode’. Throughout our history, humans have reflected. It is inbuilt. A strong argument should be made to champion this trait. Support for the printed word is vital. Why? Look around, we are still surrounded by books, despite the past claims of futurologists they would be redundant. And the printed word, whether in the form of books, newspapers or magazines provide a marvellous opportunity to build relationships. If foster carers can be given a sense of the value of reflection and discussion then an opportunity for engagement is opened up. One thing that can be said about most teenagers is that they are opinionated. Sharing an article or opinion about a book can; if carefully chosen facilitate a conversation. And conversations count in so many ways and perhaps some of the most interesting conversations are to be had with teenagers. Fostering a teenager should be an incredibly rewarding experience. It means engaging with the world of young adults as they explore, experiment and attempt to find their place in it. Could anything be more stimulating for an older person? There might be far less mental illness amongst young people if they were enabled to engage and form their ideas shielded from the dizzying speed of social media. The challenge is there for fostering providers to promote the unique rewards of caring for teenagers. They do, after all, have the power to keep us ‘oldies’ young at heart. How good is that?
Care for a teenager with Rainbow and create a very special partnership.
If you think you might be interested in providing a supportive environment for a teenager as they find their way in the world, we would like to hear from you. If you decide to become a foster parent with us, it could be one of the most satisfying life changes you make. Fostering is a career and we will commit to giving you all the professional career opportunities possible. You could be earning up to £40,000 per annum as a fully trained therapeutic foster carer for example. Or, if you develop the expertise to foster teenagers, sibling groups or accept parent and child placements, your earnings will also rise as you become more experienced.
Find out more about us, our values and ethos at http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/about/
We now have offices in Birmingham and Manchester as well as fostering opportunities in Bracknell, fostering in Luton and fostering Milton Keynes.
Please remember foster care is not adoptive care.
Our children are fostered – they are not adopted. Adoptive parents assume the full legal responsibilities for the child that they adopt. In fostering, the Local Authority retains – as the ‘corporate parent – the legal responsibility for a child or young person. Some of the children and young people of ours have gone for adoption – if a long term placement has worked out well. There is also a shortage of adoptive parents in the country.
At Rainbow, we work to build the parenting skills of our foster carers. This equips them to cope with the emotional demands of fostering. Remember, children and young people, come in all shapes and sizes. there are children with disabilities and special needs. Over 65% of children coming into care now have experienced some form of neglect and/ or abuse. This means they are traumatised and their ongoing developmental needs will be high. They may need the support, often, of a trained therapeutic foster carer. Find out more about this form of foster care and the emotional support it provides at http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/therapeutic-foster-carer/
When people apply, they do not have to have a background in children and youth care at all. All you need to know is that with your commitment – along with ours to you – offers a career in foster carer can give rich rewards. We offer the best in training and support – along with plenty of respite care for our foster carers.
Rainbow has a highly successful recruitment record. We understand that to become a foster parent will need plenty of ongoing support and guidance. and this is on a 24 Seven basis – all year round. Currently, some 8,000 additional foster families are needed across the country to provide love, security – as well as advocacy for ‘looked after’ children.