1. You are making a difference, even if sometimes it feels like you are not
I know what it’s like to try make a difference to children’s lives: you spend all day trying to say the right things and they just don’t seem like they land; your words get misinterpreted or just seem totally unheard. You think obsessively about how you can adapt your approach so that you can ‘get through’ to a young person, because you truly want to make a difference. You hope that something you say will spark the epiphany that will alter the way a young person thinks and feels about themselves and the future they deserve. I get that, but you should know you are making a difference. For many young people, they are quite simply not used to your love, kindness and good intentions. For some this might be a source of fear, because, somewhere in their past, adults may have done something to them worth fearing. But, young people grow up, they heal, they become incredible adults and in the process of this they think back. When they think back, they will remember you. The words you said to children will echo into their adulthood and when they are ready to listen it will be exactly what they need to hear.
2. You deserve good training
Let’s be honest, those who relate to this message will know exactly what I am talking about. I’ve been to my fair share of training where the topics are unrelatable, leave you thinking ‘yeah, now what?’ and wondering if the lunch buffet is safe to eat (if you are ‘lucky’ enough to get lunch). Having facilitated training for the past 10 years, I get how important it is for you to have opportunities to learn about how you can best support children. You deserve to learn about attachment, trauma, loss as well as a whole host of other topics that will help you best support children and build important relationships. That’s why at The Care Leaders we offer monthly events, opportunities, and training for foster carers. Unfortunately, you will have to bring your own lunch, we just don’t trust ourselves with the buffet!
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3. Don’t think your voice holds no power
I’ve often heard you say that you don’t feel your voice has power. Sometimes you’ve said that you’re as voiceless as the young people you support. This is hard to hear because it tells me two things: first you don’t feel you are valued or have worth (this is the feeling of powerlessness) and second you recognise that many young people are voiceless. An example of this is when you are in professional’s meetings like reviews; you hear professionals talk about children and say things that you don’t feel are right, they use labels, acronyms and you can feel like it’s not your place to talk because you are not qualified or that no one will listen. I would like to encourage you to speak out. If something doesn’t feel right then speak about it. If you see the young person is being spoken ‘about’ then advocate for them. Don’t worry about upsetting ‘professionals’; your young person is watching and just by speaking on their behalf or helping them to speak out you show you value them: imagine how they feel if you don’t.
4. You can stay in touch with care leavers
How many times have you been told it’s inappropriate to maintain relationships with young people when they leave care? This one baffles me. We constantly talk about ‘forever families’, ‘finding permanence’ or the importance of lifelong relationships whilst at the same time discourage connections beyond care because of someone’s pseudo view of what is appropriate or not. It’s two different messages and the problem it is makes us view the system as saying one thing, meaning the other and that leads to us not trusting it or the people who represent it. This one is simple, if you want to and the young person wants to, you can maintain a relationship well beyond care. Don’t be afraid of that Facebook request from the young person you use to care for, they might be reaching out to say thank you.
5. I know you want to be ‘treated like professionals’, but young people want you to be human first
I often hear foster carers say they would like to be treated more like professionals and I want to ask you if you really mean that. Ask any professional in the system what it is like, they will tell you it’s a mix of challenging, rewarding, overwhelming, high pressure and stress. Young people also rely on the professionals to do so much with what is often so little resource. We often feel that the system and its professionals have let young people down and sadly both can be true but what goes wrong when this happens is that we lose touch with or undervalue the importance of the human within the system. Great social workers and great systems are not driven by process and performance; they connect with and are driven by human need. You have a wonderful opportunity to be a human within the system, outside of the ‘professionalism’ that many young people (and professionals) loath. You can connect in a way that is fundamentally ‘human first’, that just requires you to care and know that this is often enough. No child said that someone made a difference because of the training they had, they said it was because people cared about them. But we know that behind that care and that connection was support and training that we all need and in that respect I get the desire to be ‘treated like professionals’. You want access to the same training, support and opportunities as them. I could not agree with you more and that’s why we offer lots of free training, events and more for foster carers. Sign up to our newsletter to find out more.
6. A ‘placement breakdown’ is not your failure
There’s a lot of feelings that happens when a placement breaks down. We can be sad, angry and left bewildered about what happened. We may ask ourselves questions about what we could have done differently, blame the matching process, or just feel that we have failed. I want to invite you to look at this differently. Imagine if you had to live with a total stranger tomorrow and you didn’t know who it was, imagine if you were told that they are different to you, they live in an area that’s not where you are from. Then imagine that you meet them, and they look different, they talk differently and they clearly have different beliefs than you. Now imagine that nervous feeling you will feel sat at the dinner table; you can tell they’re being a little awkward because it’s strange for them too. Now imagine that you are scared of one of the people because they remind you of someone who has hurt you in the past or a loved one that has passed. A pain, fear or sadness – a loss doesn’t leave your side and every time you see them you feel it.
For some young people this is the case; they will see you and feel sad. Sad because you are not their mum, scared because you represent the adult that hurt them or expect pain because, like everyone else in their past, you will leave too. If this becomes overwhelming for a young person, they can show us this in how they behave. If this leads towards a ‘breakdown’ it’s how you act in these moments that will be remembered.
When a child is showing their feelings through behaviours, when they are trying to push us away because they are scared, or if they say things that might hurt our feelings, just remember they are overwhelmed, take a breath, and do everything you can to show compassion. I can promise you when a young person regulates their emotions and looks back to these moments, they will remember how much you tried to understand them, and in a world where they feel misunderstood this is exactly what they need to experience.
7. It’s ok not have a formal work degree, you don’t need one
Lots of foster carers tell me that they don’t feel equal to their professional peers because they don’t have a degree. The only equality we should be concerned about is being equally able to support a child in the way that they need. The rest is nonsense!
Children don’t look at you and assess your educational background, they look at your character and they are actually really good at working out your character! They don’t care if you have a degree, but they do care that you are confident that you can make a difference.
Don’t let an insecurity about academia cloud your judgment on your ability as a human; just care about the children you care for, do what you can to be compassionate and be confident in yourself so that young people can learn from this and reflect it in their own character.
8. Placement referral forms are not how you get to know a child
Like you I have seen my fair share of placement request forms that say: ‘high risk of absconding’; ‘sexualised behaviour’; ‘history of drug abuse’; ‘difficultly with relationships’ and a whole host of other unhelpful statements. Not only are these unhelpful, they are just damaging for the young person. You are left to make an assumption about how you think this child will fit in your home and if you read things like this it often leads to you to saying ‘no’ because you don’t feel you can do anything to help.
I guarantee that what you read on paper is not the young person you will meet on day one. Young people are not the sum of their actions and other people’s judgements. If you can look past the preconceptions lists of behaviours create and see the young person and stop telling yourself you can’t help and give young people a chance, you will meet a completely different person to whom you thought and realise that you may be able to help make a difference to their lives.
9. Attachment and loss impact you too
We understand that relationships cost and are scary sacred for young people, they are equally costly for you. This message is a reminder of something that we often forge: attachment and loss impact us too.
As a foster carer you have to be resilient, compassionate and give a lot of yourself in the pursuit of relationships with young people. This comes with reward and challenge, ups and downs and can lead to loss when a relationship comes to an ‘end’.
We talk so much about how these endings impact young people, how each breakdown will add to the cycle of separation, or how it might impact their ability to build relationships with other people. It also impacts us, but somewhere in that conversation I feel an understanding of how this impacts foster carers is missed out .
I am not discounting the impact of loss for young people, we all agree this is difficult, I am asking for you to remember that you are the other half of that relationship. You owe yourself the same compassion and care you give young people. If a relationship comes to an ‘end’ take care of yourself, nurture your feelings and remember that it is not a failure.
10. Children will remember you; how do you want to be remembered?
We want to see the good in the work we do, we all need to get feedback that tells us that what we are doing is making a difference and it’s good enough. Like the child taking their homework home to gain the approval of their parents or praise from our boss to say ‘well done’ it is something we all need. This is no different when we are caring for children; we want to know that what we are doing makes a difference and we need to be told and shown this.
It can be hard to see the impact of your ‘work’ with young people and very rarely do we get instant gratification. Humans are not homework, they are complex, relationships require constant effort and not a momentary exertion and its very unlikely you will hear a child say ‘well done, you have done well I am now healed’.
The truth is for a lot of young people they will help and heal themselves later in life. They get to that stage of adolescence where they look back at their past experiences and draw on their memories to drive them forward. Years later, the memories of what you said and did can be part of that young person’s reflection.
This requires a different lens for us when it comes to measuring our impact, quite simply we may never know the impact of our work until years and years later when a young person is ready to recognise we cared. These are important moments for young people. Imagine if you got to 18 years old, you were living independently and had lost all your support. You are sad, lonely and have nowhere to turn. You would think about your past life and what would you want to remember? You want to remember people that cared about you. These memories are powerful and can be the very thing that drives a young person forward. So what you do today may not impact until tomorrow but keep doing it; it is making a difference.
11. Good schools get it!
When the young person you are fostering encounters the school system it can be a great experience. School can be a place with positive relationships, new experiences and new confidence for young people but when it is not, what do we do? The first thing to remember is that you have a key role here. You know your young person, how they ‘tick’, what they are good at and can make sense of the wider context for a school and a good school should welcome your expertise. But you’ve got to get through the door and speak to the right people and that can be hard to navigate. So here a few top tips.
Get to know the school’s designated teacher for children in care. Every school has to have one – it’s statutory and it can be useful to read the guidance https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/683556/Promoting_the_education_of_looked-after_children_and_previously_looked-after_children.pdf
The most important part of the designated teacher role is to know and support the children. You can help, so treat the designated teacher as your ally and expect to be treated in the same way: you both have the same focus.
Get to every Personal Education Plan – PEP – meeting. Each child in care must have a PEP that sets out their needs, their aspirations and how they’ll be supported. You are an expert in this! Make sure the meeting works for your child, that they are prepared, heard and not talked about but with. So big meetings that swamp the child are not OK.
Get to know your Virtual Head – the Local Authority person who has overall responsibility for all children in care. They are there to support children so they should want to support you too!