The best foster care is transformational but that’s not always the case. How do we transform the system so it can transform the life chances of children who need it? Before writing this blog for foster care fortnight I did the usual thing of looking though all the things people are saying about foster care. This was trickier than I imagined because I discovered that there were lots people with lots of opinions, views and ideas about foster care. I was intrigued by commonalities between these people – hence my ‘five archetypes.’
The five archetypes I will consider could not be more different but they each have a contribution to the foster care transformation debate. Through exploring these archetypes and what their views of transformation are, I hope to provide a balanced view of what’s needed to transform foster care from the views of people who work within it. I recognise that although these archetypes are different, they all had something in common – they all want the transformation that will make foster care a transformational experience for the young people it serves.
The first archetype is the ‘systematist’. They want transformation in foster care to come via systematic change, funding, strong leadership, and a good culture. Though they may be frustrated with the Government, they believe if they work within the rules for long enough they will find themselves in a position of power to make the changes they think are needed. You will often hear them say, ‘this is the way things are’ because they are often only work within the system to make change happen. Deep down inside they know that more needs to be done than following regulations, so they commit to change and improvement within a regulatory system. Their strengths are that they create a sense of safety and order and they are leaders who want to do the right thing but get frustrated by the red tape and bureaucracy. Their weakness is that they can fear innovation, can be hampered by rules that they know don’t work and therefore move more slowly than some of my other archetypes would like.
The second archetype is the ‘freedom fighter’. This archetype couldn’t be more unlike the systematist. They fight the system and believe that transformation in foster care comes through freedom from bureaucracy and breaking out into a world of love and humanity. They can be very intellectual and enjoy deconstructing the system though clever language and well-constructed arguments but sometimes can fall into the space of sophistry. They are child-focussed to their core and do not want to let the rules and regulations of the system distract them, even though their fight with the rules can sometimes do just that. They don’t want to do things in the system’s ‘right way’; they want to do ‘the right thing’. Their weakness is their difficulty in collaborating with others who don’t share the same views. They can be hot-headed and sometimes struggle to listen and so alienate potential supporters. Their strength is their ability to communicate, share powerful stories that motivate and call people to action and, of course, call out system injustice.
Our third archetype is the ‘champion’. They believe that transformation in foster care comes with giving foster carers more power to create a more equal system. They hate injustice, inequality and think they system is broken. They can be very angry and feel justified as their anger can come from an experience of injustice, exploitation or an abuse of power. They speak passionately and openly about their experience and their ideas and about what needs to change. They will often side with ‘freedom fighters’ and attack ‘systematists’. They have very pure hearts, are driven to the point of self-exhaustion and will think obsessively about their role in how the system needs to change. Their weakness is that they can bludgeon or think someone else should solve the problem. They are also susceptible to burn out and can sometimes let emotions get the better of them. Their strengths are their resilience; they will push further than most. They are compassionate and put their heart into all they do and are the true speakers for those who don’t have the strength to speak for themselves.
Next up is the ‘diplomat’, this is the person who ‘sits on the fence’ and tries to create balance in the arguments to come to a collective solution. Their approach to transformation in foster care is to get everyone to co-design a new system that considers everyone’s views. They are driven by the desire to achieve consensus and will listen intently to the views of others with the focus to come to a holistic understanding and a widely agreed solution. They reserve their opinion and often will not be asked to share it, not because it doesn’t add value but because people see their role as the diplomat. If you were to be one-to-one with a diplomat and asked them their views, they would be able to give you very rounded, considered and carefully constructed answers. They are unheard advocates, who don’t ask for much but have a lot to give. Their weakness is their belief that they shouldn’t share their opinion as they are often meaningful and wise. Their strength is their ability to hold people and absorb their views, ideas and feelings and mediate between people who have different views.
Finally, we have the ‘onlooker’ – the most hidden archetype. Their approach to transformation in foster care varies and can be a collection of the diplomat, champion, freedom fighter and systematist. They are almost impossible to find online and I have only come to know these people through my conversations with peers. They don’t get involved in conversations, not necessary because they are introverts or don’t want to but because they keep their head down and get on with what they are doing. They extract from what they see online; they learn from the arguments, conversations and views without unsettling the flow of what’s being said by getting involved. They are tactful in how they approach people and situations and have a calm and balanced nature. It’s hard to know what they truly think, but they certainly have a depth of knowledge and strong morality. Their weakness is that they can be absent and don’t always share what their motives are, this can lead to people not trusting them. Their strengths are their ability to learn, make things happen through their network and spot opportunities for development.
It’s important to understand the value in all these approaches, because when you look at everyone’s idea of what transformation might look like, we tend to find a lot of common ground – you realise that everyone wants transformation and the best foster care for young people, we just all go a different way about it. We do need systemic change within foster care. We want foster carers to operate in a system that is wholesome, supportive and makes them feel safe and valued. We know that the rules and regulations surrounding foster carers, though set up for safety, can often take away their power. If a foster carer feels they can’t make simple decisions or are told that they can’t ‘get attached’ then we create a world for children that is indecisive and lacking in love. We should encourage a more human approach to foster care. This is not about abolishing the bureaucracy; it’s valuing humanity alongside it, or dare I say, seeing humanity as having equal importance. It pains me when I hear foster carers say, because of their lack of power, that they want to be seen as ‘professionals’, because this is not what young people want and not what I think they mean. What I think they mean is that they want to be seen as equals to their professional peers and be part of an equitable system, in which they have appropriate power, training and support.
We could all listen a little better and work towards a common way of working. No one view in this sector is the right view and we forget that sometimes because of the emotion surrounding the work we do. This work is hard. It’s sleepless nights, messy relationships and frustrating red tape and amongst all this is a child who needs our love and attention – only by working collectively can we provide that. It’s the old saying that a village raises a child; we are that village and we need to learn to like and communicate with our neighbours.
There’s something to say about understanding each other’s views and recognising that all of us hold value. Through sharing ideas, communicating views and welcoming difference I believe we have everything we need to transform foster care so that it supports young people and the carers that look after them. All we need to do is to create opportunities to co-design and collaborate and we will create services that have meaning and will transform the lives for the children who receive them.