In this blog post, founder of The Care Leaders, Luke Rodgers, chats with fellow lived experience leader, Karylle Phillips, and Madlug founder, Dave Linton, about the real-life experiences transitions of what is like to move foster placement, the challenges that come with this process, and what it truly means to find permanency.
When Luke thinks about his experience of foster care, he says his brain goes into two spaces.
“As a kid, I thought [none of my] foster carers really cared apart from one,” he says. “As an adult looking back, I think that most of them cared. I just wasn’t ready to be cared for.”
On the subject of moving placement, Luke’s first thought is around the ‘illusion of permanence’. “The whole idea of a foster placement [being] child-focused is around permanence and stability. So we say we need to provide permanence for the child and we need to give them stability. But I don’t think we can offer that to a young person at all – I think it’s an illusion.
“How do we actually give young people permanence if the system comes to an end?”
Luke also mentions young people moving as a consequence of going into things like temporary foster care. “I think that we’re maybe educating people wrong because we’re saying to services that the most important thing to give to a child is a forever family – stability. But when you’re 18, it’s gone. I think we might be setting people up to fail.”
As an adult, Karylle reflects on her experiences as a young person in care as a way to help her navigate the world today.
“I like to think what can foster carers do and what can foster placements do in the time that they have with the child that will give them messages like that to reflect upon?” says Luke. “It’s not about the length of time that is that you spend with them, it’s about the quality of time.
“What can foster carers do if they flex their mind into that space knowing that this child might not be there forever? What does the world look like if we accept that young people are going to move to different placements and let go of the idea of permanence?”
Dave previously fostered a young person for a short period who is now in their twenties and still a part of his family. “If you’re young person-focused, [I agree], it’s about making an impact and being relational and having a positive influence when you are there,” he says.
“When it’s youth-focused, it’s about ‘what does the young person need for now?’. So often, we’re trying to create this sense of permanency. But we don’t talk about moving – and it’s because we’re trying to hold on. We think it’s our responsibility to keep it as [a] long [placement].
“If it breaks down and it becomes the young person’s fault for breaking it down, that’s not a youth-focused culture. A youth-focused culture is this child has arrived, how can I build a relationship and have a positive time at the level where that child or young person is?”
“Imagine taking two adults from social care, from completely different departments, sticking them together and saying, ‘you’re going to live together now forever. And if and if it doesn’t work out, I know one of you has got a problem’,” says Luke.
Luke often hears from care-experienced people that they remember people in their past, like a social worker or a foster carer and add that person – maybe a social worker – on Facebook to thank them for their support. But a lot of social workers are told it’s inappropriate for them to accept that Facebook request, and it’s the same for foster carers.
“How do we encourage and inspire more foster carers to do that?” says Luke. “I think that’s a very common mindset but another mindset is, ‘well, we don’t get support to look after these young people anymore so I can’t keep a relationship with them’.
“How do we influence them to have a relationship with a young person beyond care even though they might not be being supported for it?”
Dave says it’s okay for a young person to not connect with a foster carer, to move on and to have no other connection. “What’s important for me is in that short time that they leave having some form of experience of what love is, what focus is, what care really is.
“So, if somebody has been in for a couple of nights and [it probably] isn’t going to work and the child needs to move again, [it can still be a positive experience]. You know, they didn’t force me to sit in the living room and feel awkward. The kids in that home played PlayStation with me]. I had a blast.
Karylle agrees. “Even in that short time of providing respite, you can do so much,” she says.
“A lot of the times, especially in children’s social care, whether you’re a social worker, teacher, educator, foster carer, residential care person, there is a space where people assume a relationship has to be built within the first three days, and if it’s not, it’s not going to be great. [They also assume] we’ve got all the time in the world to do this and I think that’s where we mess up a lot of time in social work.”
In regards to permanency, Karylle says we need to have this realistic view that it might not be permanent. We can build relationships, and we know young people can do it because we see them in school. “How many of us still speak to our year one school teacher? Probably not a lot of us. And yet we had that relationship for one year and we moved on successfully and transitioned without ever needing that relationship.
“What that relationship provided in that short time was significant for us to move on successfully to continuing education. And so I think [we need] to replace this idea that relationships require a long length of time with the [realisation] that they actually don’t.
“In this short space, you can do so much – even if it is just moving them on so they don’t look back, so they don’t even have to remember that they stayed with me, but they move on successfully. I think that’s really, really key.”
Dave agrees that we all remember the teachers who actually cared and who left an impact. “I think the other part is we’ve got to break the stereotype that it’s the child that’s the problem.
“If you’re helping a child who has problems and you’re trying to fix them, that’s going to be a breakdown from day one.
“It’s actually a privilege to be able to care for a child or young person in this time of challenge.”
Luke says part of the issue is that we have too much expectation. “We [say] I expect you to be a particular way which isn’t giving – that’s a transaction. So therefore if you don’t [behave this way] and if I don’t see an outcome of my exchange with you – you being fixed – then what use is that to me? There’s something deep to look inside [yourself there] and actually [ask] why am I doing this?
“A foster carer once said to me ‘I care but I don’t care’. She said ‘I really care about you, I really care that you do well, but I don’t care about the outcome because I can’t. I can only wake up in the morning and care about what I do today, but I can’t really care about what you do with that.’
“I think it’s a really useful mindset. Young people are going to come to us and they’re going to be challenging because they’ve had challenging relationships in the past. We should expect young people to find our relationships with them difficult because in the past, their relationships have been difficult. They’re not broken – they’ve come from places that are broken, and they’ve had things done to them but they’re not bad kids.
“We might not be able to look after them forever but we’re a part of their life journey and it’s a privilege to be a part of that for whatever period of time.
“I suppose it’s a question of endings. Nothing is permanent and everything is going to come to an end at some point. So how do we then start having meaningful conversations about endings? And when is it when is a good moment to move a young person and to really focus on the conversation of an ending?”
“Why aren’t we just saying this is not permanent? What’s the fear about that as well?” says Karylle. “These are young people who have already experienced abrupt endings.
“Young people, and children in particular, aren’t aware that this is happening. They’re not aware that these things are going on, and so for them, it’s happened abruptly. So why aren’t we leading with that? I think being honest and open with young people and children is so important.”
Dave says that often, even foster carers don’t know that it’s ending. “I’ve heard stories where the whole family and the foster child has been at a zoo and then they get a phone call from the social worker saying, I’m picking the child up in an hour.
“If we really think through the lens of what is the right thing for a child, we make better decisions.
“You could be a simple mentor to a young person, you could be a short break, you could be a wraparound care support.
“At [aged] five when my dad died, [I had] trauma from that but I didn’t end up in the care system. I had social workers, but I didn’t end up in a care system because I had significant adults who were all doing different parts of the job, building relationships with me that made it work. And so in the care system, [I believe] we need more of that rather than just one person or one family. The challenge of it is they move too many too far away from their support networks so it’s hard to build relationships and bring people around. But that for me is the key.
“If you think young person you think, then what does a young person need?”