Hard come, easy go

Picture of a white teenaged girl wearing a grey jumper with a tiger motif on, with two badges saying "Birthday Girl" and a shiny tiara-like hair decoration, standing next to a middle-aged white woman with curly hair wearing a grey flowery top.Over the past month the BBC has been running a four-part series called Protecting Our Foster Kids, which went out late at night and featured a series of children in Dorset (a mostly rural county in southern England) who were in foster care, and their carers and some of the social workers. It did not feature any disputes (there was no argument about the chidren’s need to be in foster care and no challenges from the parents, and only one of the children — a baby — was facing adoption) but did feature two of the placements breaking down, in both cases months after they started. The first featured two sisters who had been in a number of placements, and although it was meant to be a permanent place for the younger (14-year-old) sister, it broke down after the older one entered the family. The second featured a baby whose mother had post-natal depression and could not cope, and although she maintained contact at first, she ultimately relinquished the baby. The third featured a boy who was in what was meant to be a year-long “intensive” foster placement, but this broke down after about three months. It also featured a family in which the foster carers were seeking special guardianship for the three children in their care, allowing them to make most decisions about their lives and to be without social services’ involvement, which proceeded without objection from anyone.

The first programme (viewable until 7th July in UK) was titled “One of the Family” and featured a mother of four who had been fostering on a short-term basis but who decided to take on a 14-year-old girl on named Amy a long-term basis. The girl had been in a number of other placements and had been taken into care aged 10 because of neglect, although she did not seem to remember what this consisted of. She clearly thrived in her new home and enjoyed having her own room. However, her older sister Natalie needed an emergency placement and was moved into her room with her, which Amy clearly resented, although it was apparently necessary to maintain Natalie’s school place. They started fighting almost immediately, the other children began complaining, and the younger girl became increasingly rebellious. After a few weeks, she was involved in a drug incident at her school, which resulted in her being moved into an ‘emergency’ foster placement over the weekend, which she clearly interpreted as rejection by her ‘long-term’ foster carer. Ultimately, the carer decided she could no longer look after the girls and other long-term placements in the area were found for them, which the programme said they were both thriving in. The carer reverted to providing respite care only.

The second (viewable until 14th July in the UK) featured a baby boy, Jesse, whose mother had put him in care at a few weeks old because she suffered post-natal depression and found she could not cope with another child (she continued to care for his older sister). Although she had regular contact with him at first, when the contact was increased and home visits were due to start, she began cancelling, and went weeks without seeing him. Ultimately she decided she could not have him back, claiming that she could not care for him as well as his foster carer was doing. It was clear that the baby was going to be adopted, although it was unclear at the end whether the foster carer would adopt him, or someone else. The Daily Mail also interviewed Jesse’s carer, Dawn, and the interview features Jesse’s story.

Picture of Tyler, a 14-year-old white boy, riding a scooter on top of a flat-bed farm trailer, against a backdrop of fields with sheepThe third (viewable until 25th July in the UK) featured Tyler, who had been removed from his parents some years previously but had been living with his grandparents for three years; they had returned from Portugal to look after him. He was put in foster care as part of some kind of year-long “intensive” programme as he kept missing school and had been in trouble with the law. He loved his new home, which was on a farm in the Dorset countryside, at first, although he would go into Dorchester every day to ride his scooter at the local skating park. He attended a “learning centre” for two hours every day, a condition of his carer, named Kate, taking him into Dorchester. However, after a few months, he started going missing, on one occasion requiring picking up from a nearby village; on the third occasion, he went missing from school and was found safe and well with his friends, but told Kate he was not coming back. Kate decided then that he could not come back as “he was not letting me keep him safe”. He returned to his grandparents, and was filmed saying he missed Kate, would always want to go back to her, and was upset at having let her down. However, the closing statements said that he was now thriving, attending school regularly and wanted to stay with his grandparents. (The fourth programme has yet to be shown, and appears to have no fixed broadcast date.)

All the carers were affluent — they all had big houses with large gardens in the countryside, something that foster carers in urban areas no doubt mostly do not have. They were all older people (in their 40s and 50s) who had retired from well-paid professions to “give something back”. Some had children of their own, some did not. Some foster carers are in fact single and some are disabled, and others have health problems which mean they can be taken into hospital at short notice, resulting in the child having to be suddenly rehoused (other programmes have featured this). None of this featured in the programme; of course, many social service departments will not allow media access to the children in their care, even with their own and the parents’ permission. And stories involving malpractice by social workers never feature in any of these programmes, and rarely in the media at all because of reporting restrictions. Still, a few programmes over the years have been made: Kids In Care, Safeguarding Our Children, Finding Mum and Dad. In this series, the foster carers took centre stage, the social workers mostly a back seat. It’s not about how tough it is to be a social worker.

Something that’s not been questioned in any of these programmes, including this one, is the ease with which foster carers can pull out of a placement. In some cases children are moved suddenly, several times, often fearing making friends or putting donw roots in case they are separated for reasons that are nothing to do with them. If there is a pretense that a foster child is part of the family (despite the old term “foster parent” being abolished, quite rightly as the children usually have parents, do not want to call anyone else Mum or Dad and want to return to them), then the carers should be willing to persevere through a blip or a crisis. In a family, a single incident where a child was hanging around with people who were taking drugs would not result in them being exiled for a weekend, unless it was happening regularly. In a family, a few incidents in which a child ran off and was found safe and well in a village would not cause a breakdown. In a previous series on this subject, a 14-year-old girl was in a small care home which did not allow her (or any other resident) out unsupervised, and was looking forward to moving back with foster carers she had had to leave (for reasons unknown, but apparently neither she nor the carers wanted it) a number of years ago. Shortly before she was due to move, she slipped out one night and went into town, and didn’t come to any harm but caused the adults some worry and it was suggested that this could imperil her new foster placement, something the carers themselves did not entirely rule out when she spoke to them on the phone, although it was probably not their decision. In the event, she did move in with them, but the threat of rejection, of an entire new home being withdrawn at short notice, was used as a disciplinary tool for a fairly minor infraction.

In a family, of course, parents use the loss of privileges — the use of a computer or games console, or a bicycle, or going-out time, or a trip out at their expense — as a means of discipline, which is fine. But in care, one’s very home and security of place can be used against them, and often these are children who have been moved several times, they badly need the stability and to know that the people caring for them love them and will stick by them. It is also known that children in care have been reported to the police for fights and damage that takes place in foster or care homes, incurring criminal convictions, something that again would not usually happen in a family. But parents do not reject their children for going out without permission; it is a given that they remain at least until they finish school, often longer, unless there is a total breakdown in relations or the parents become unable to parent.

It’s hard to think of a way to deter foster carers from pulling out of a placement over small things that could be weathered, with a bit of help, without deterring them from becoming foster carers in the first place, and authorities would not want to lose the affluent carers who can give children a lot of space. But they should be doing everything they can to encourage them to persevere, and to require those taking on troubled teenagers to undergo some training rather than naively thinking they can “make a difference”. But certainly, the use of the threat of rejection or removal to keep children in line is wrong and should be eliminated.

Roya (right), a young, mixed-race white/Asian girl, wearing a light blue top wtih a white pattern on it, holding a large bag over her shoulder, with her unnamed male foster carer (left), a well-built white man with a moustache, wearing a white T-shirt, a black quilted waistcoat, and an old pair of jeans.(And has anyone else been following the story of Shabnam and Roya/Jade in the BBC soap EastEnders? Sarah Ismail has been monitoring this — [1], [2], [3] — as a developing story about the lung disease cystic fibrosis, but as a story about a child in care, it has so many holes. To begin with, if Shabnam named her Roya at birth, she would still have that name as she has not been adopted. The ease with which people can so easily find out where people are with a few phonecalls beggars belief after a few such incidents, as with Sharon and her long-lost dad. The foster carer would not covertly meet the natural family of someone he was fostering or agree to allow a visit from her natural father and his chaotic family, and any such contact would have been supervised by social workers after a thorough background check, and it would not have been at the foster home but at a social services contact centre. And although it might be possible for her natural family to reclaim her as she has not been adopted, the fact that they have not seen her for seven years would make that a very gradual process if it was allowed at all. It’s very surprising that she has yet to be adopted, even with her condition. Needless to say, Shirley’s and Buster’s histories as well as the question mark over Dean’s character, even without a criminal conviction for rape, would make it a lot harder. They clearly did not do their research on this aspect of the story.)

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