I know how it felt to start on a base of mistrust

John’s fostering story: Part 1

Jun 11 2020

Training and support for foster carers letter

What does it mean to be a foster carer?

“To me, being a foster carer is about keeping them safe and providing a stable environment that enables them to find who they are and value themselves. For me, it also means I’m their advocate. I want the best for these young people and I’ll be in their corner – sometimes that means I have to challenge the social workers. Some young people don’t need you to speak up for them because they’re confident and know how to do it, but some are painfully shy and you need to fend for them. I believe I’m an empathetic, balanced, passionate person. I think sometimes if your passion is very strong, your emotions can override some rational decisions.”

Why did you become a foster carer?

“I used to be a builder and then became a youth worker. I really liked engaging with young people and hearing their point of view. I hadn’t thought about fostering until I went to university and spoke to a foster carer on my course. There was also a tragic accident in the family which had an influence too.

My wife and I talked about fostering for a while and then decided to become foster carers with an Independent Fostering Agency (IFA). With them, we looked after many children, but they were only short contracts and although we were making progress with the children in our care, we felt we didn’t have much time with them. We decided it would be better for us to transfer to local authority so we could support placements for a longer period.

We worked with a lot of young people who have a background that may have a lot of stigma attached to it but actually if you’re going to allow that to affect their future, then you may as well write them off now. I think, to a large degree, we need to accept we all have a past, some more privileged than others. We still need to do risk assessments, but my learning that’s come from my previous training and experiences has taught me that actually yes, that is their past but that doesn’t depict their future. Hopefully, where they are today becomes a clean sheet. I think it’s a fair way of describing it. If a young person comes to us and asks for the internet, of course they can have it unless there’s a really good reason for not. For example, a social worker may tell us they’re being exploited. We work on trust and if there becomes a reason for that to be reexplored, then it will be reexplored.

I was in a children’s home when I was young, and I felt I was the problem. Some of the attitudes towards me made me feel that way and made me believe I was the reason I’m in care. It was like a double punishment: 1) I’d been taken away and then 2) I’ve gone into this place where they treat me like I can’t be trusted. I’m 55 now so this was a while back, but I’ve held on to that and so when any young person comes to us, we’re quite liberal in the way we approach that. I know how it felt to start on a base of mistrust. I deliberately do the opposite and say, well actually you can have the Wi-Fi but if we need to revisit it for some reason, then we will. Generally, I never have to and they’ll come and speak about it, because we have an open dialogue which allows us to explore that and then do the relevant safeguarding stuff as we go along. That’s the approach we take, and that child-centered working allows me to do that because it’s based on their rights. They have a right to be safe, be protected and have a standard of care. In my opinion, I think regardless of where they live, children should be able to take that for granted.”

How long have you been fostering for?

“Our fostering journey started in 2006 with Action for Children but we transferred to Hampshire County Council in 2011. Time just flies by. We often find ourselves reconnecting with somebody from long time ago and it’s amazing.

Our son was with us when we first became foster carers and as he was a bit older and still living with us, we didn’t feel younger children were our best move at the time. Della, my wife works in a secondary school. She had a spell of work in a EBD school (emotional and behavioural difficulties school) and in a junior school, though she felt that she enjoyed working with older children more.

Older children suit us better. I think that’s because of my training background in youth work and Della’s experience working in a secondary school. We enjoy helping older children make sense of their identity.

Teenagers are not the most popular to look after. They can be challenging but young children can be challenging too, just in a different way. You need to get them on a firm but fair basis and appreciate they are beings in their own right. We don’t approach a teenager and welcome them into our home with a bunch of rules and say ‘this is where everything is and how it should be’; we have an open dialogue. It’s looking at what they would like and seeing what adjustments we can make to make this placement work.

When teenagers are active in participation, they’re much more cooperative and more willing to buy into that. If you’re spoken to, rather than spoken with, it’s a totally different entity. The days of ‘do as I say and not as I do’ no longer works. We need to be more flexible in the way we negotiate with young people today, compared to what we may have done 30 years ago.

If we’re open-minded and try to see it from their point of view, we can make a positive difference. Some of the things they may have come with, in comparison to our own values and experiences, may be challenging, but to them that’s just their norm. For example, knowing what’s safe and what’s not. Some of the things they want to do are definitely not safe, however we need to make adjustments to minimise any damage and try and keep placement going.

Lots of broken placements can have a really damaging effect on their psychological wellbeing. That sense of ‘they don’t belong anywhere’ in an already psychological damaged place just adds to it. When you’re picking up their pieces and you get that disengagement where they won’t speak, it can be difficult. Just having that active participation, I find, is the most effective way of dealing with it.”

Why is fostering so important?

“I think fostering is so important because its needed. Children and young people need empathic people, people who can improvise and who can provide a stable environment for whatever reason they’ve come into care; and that can be for many different reasons.

Regardless of why they’ve come into care, they need an empathic foster carer. There’ll always be a need for foster carers. Hopefully one day, in the ideal world, there won’t be a need for us but as it stands there is. Being that understanding, empathetic person is what’s needed. I think, that’s the biggest qualification to be truly empathetic and open minded to walk in their shoes… not necessarily for a full mile, even to walk in their shoes for half a mile will do.”

What type of care do you offer?

“Della and I offer long-term and emergency care. We’ve had a lot of unaccompanied asylum seekers too, who have come for a night. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve had a week without anyone.

We usually look after our long-term placements until they’re 18 and then hopefully they’re ready for their next step to become independent. Our long-term placements normally come from a childrens home or a foster carer breakdown and they may come with challenges, but many have gone on to lead productive and rewarding lives and that’s absolutely amazing. In some cases, they go back to a family member which is great too.”

Why did you choose to foster with Hampshire County Council?

“For Della and I, it was an evolution of care with these young people. Previously with an IFA, we had lots of 12-week placements but as soon as you started to see that change and make a difference in their lives they moved on. That’s why we came to Hampshire County Council, so we could have longer placements.

It’s always been about the young people and to be honest, being part of Hampshire enables us to give us more to the young person. From my experience, you are in a better place financially to support them. The allowances for them are better and that is truly my experience. For example, you get a birthday and Christmas allowance which we didn’t get previously. That’s much better for us to support them.

We are skills level 3 carers but we never have more than two placements at a time because we feel we can meet these young people’s needs better. We have one long-term placement and one in emergency because the emotional needs of the long-term placement can be quite significant and time-demanding but that’s the model we tend to work with: one long-term and one emergency.” 

What do you think of the training Hampshire provides?

“Some of the training I’ve had previously does come into play. I believe it has shaped my mind and enables me to access Hampshire County Council’s training from a different perspective. It’s opened my mind and I totally embrace a child sense of working, which is working on a rights-basis – these children have rights and they have the right to be treated with respect. Their history is their history, it’s not their future. That’s not their present either, that’s just what’s brought them into care. As they walk through that door that, in my opinion, is history, it becomes their past and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Whatever the reasons were for making those decisions shouldn’t be carried forward.”