Look up the word stable and one of the definitions is “able or likely to continue or last; firmly established; enduring or permanent”. When related to the idea of family, we have the universal aspiration. But of course real life just simply isn’t like that. Permanence has been replaced by impermanence in our technologically driven and perhaps increasingly dystopian world. And the effects are far reaching. Divorce and separation are now so common that they are on the way to becoming de rigueur. Only adults, of course, think like this; children, as we know, crave stability. And foster children crave it even more. Should we be surprised? Of course not. When we think more deeply about stability as adults, we know that it is what we also desire. By the way, I recommend the benefit of regularly reflecting on a single word to provide insight. This is a discipline that can impart much wisdom. True, we can learn an inordinate amount from a book, but it is also true that a single word has the power to make us learn through concentrating on the meaning. Much in life can appear meaningless; we live in an age where we thrive on the consumption of much that lacks meaning: something we seem largely unaware of. Take another word – trivia – defined as ‘details or information that are not important’. Is this what we stop to think about when we plug ourselves into the world of social media? Probably not: for in this realm, we can inhabit a world where trivia often reigns supreme and we are conditioned to participate as if our lives depended upon it. If we thought about high levels of exposure to trivia as being damaging, we might decide to lead life differently. We might start thinking about what is important. We might more easily discern answers to problems.
Why does all this matter? Because musing on a single word and its meaning can be instructive. If we think again about ‘stability’ in connection with foster care, and how it might be instructive in this context, we might come up with a better approach to care provision. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is that fresh thinking around the provision of foster care is much needed.
Very soon the new Minister of State for Children and Families in England, Robert Goodwill, will be perusing the results of The Department for Education’s national fostering stocktake. Contributions have been made by organisations, groups and individuals connected in myriad ways to fostering. The leading charity, The Fostering Network, has itself submitted over 10,000 words. Their motives, as always, are beyond reproach: they want to –
“set out exactly what a successful, thriving foster care system would look like for foster carers and, most importantly, fostered children and young people.”
b 10,000 is a lot of words and I am arguing here for the contemplation of a single word to promote clarity of thought and perhaps provide direction. We need to think about all the factors – organisational, educational and societal that relate to ‘stability’ in the context of fostering. Stability, once again, is defined as “able or likely to continue or last; firmly established; enduring or permanent.” This is the ‘fostering goal’ which means any actions, or judgements made, must be measured against their likely impact(s) on stability. Adhering to the tenets of this definition, could create a new modus operandi for foster care provision. So all future policy and decision making should proceed from this point. This may be prosaically simplistic, but that the national fostering stocktake is happening at all, indicates there has been an absence of stability.
Foster families provide care for some of the most vulnerable children in the country – including around three-quarters of the 69,000 children looked after by social services in England. When a foster placement is successful, the results can be literally amazing. But when a placement fails a child may then experience multiple placement breakdowns. Understandably, this can cause emotional and relationship problems. This can result in marked behavioural problems which then feed into the cycle of placement breakdowns. Professionals, families and commissioners of foster care services obviously understand how important stability is, but that is different from ensuring it is consistently in place. The proportion of children who moved placements three or more times between March 2015 and March 2016 has been fixed at around 11% since 2010. Placement moves at this rate are a key performance indicator for children’s social services. It reveals that a significant number of children are routinely being let down.
A review published by ‘The British Journal of Social Work’* in 2015, stated that guaranteeing foster care placement stability was an absolute priority. Past studies had focused on the negative psychological, social and academic effects of placement breakdowns for foster children. It admitted that “less was known about how services can effectively promote placement stability.” Further investigative work was done – including qualitative studies and quantitative research. What emerged was that the correlates of increased placement instability were associated with:
the older age of children in care,
a longer total time spent in care,
the first placement setting being residential care,
separation from siblings,
foster-care versus kinship care,
the experience of having multiple social workers.
Certain factors emerged that pointed toward reinforcing placement stability:
foster placements with older foster-carers,
foster placements where carers provided opportunities and intellectual development,
foster care placements with siblings,
placement with experienced foster carers who possess strong parenting skills.
*’Understanding Foster Placement Instability for Looked After Children: A Systematic Review and Narrative Synthesis of Quantitative and Qualitative Evidence.’ The British Journal of Social Work January 2015
One key finding was that children who had regular contact with the same social worker were far more settled. Children who had a number of different social workers did not fare so well. This was seen as playing a part in placement breakdown.
The impact of placement moves on foster children
There is research to show that generally all children crave stability. Disruption may well undermine their feelings of well-being and ideas of self-worth. It must be recognised that, a placement move can be in a foster child’s interest. In some cases, children may themselves want to be moved. It is not the case that all moves result from serious disruption. It has to be said that research available does not entirely explain whether placement moves themselves produce poor outcomes for children, or whether they may be the result of children’s previous difficulties. Some past research has suggested that instability itself leads to poor outcomes; one study found that children who did not show behavioural problems before being taken into care were, however, badly affected by subsequent placement moves.
A holistic assessment of factors governing stability
Children coming into care are now presenting with behaviour which is more challenging. There are more children with complex needs. The shortage of foster homes for teenagers is becoming acute. Because of these reasons, we should think differently about the kind of foster carers that we are going to need in the future. And it will be important to address the kind of training and support that existing foster carers require on an ongoing basis. The national fostering stocktake will not be able to skirt this. The defining issue will be how to recruit emotionally resilient people able to cope with challenging behaviour and demanding situations. Have we listened to our foster carers? Not enough: for too long we as a society have been happy to perceive them as all minded individuals existing on the margins. We are grateful, but not to the extent we have accorded them the respect they feel they deserve. Remuneration is a factor, but it is not the main one. If it was, we would be experiencing desperate shortages. There are many wonderful, generous foster carers who routinely dip into their own pockets to provide additional treats for the children in their care. As a society, we can no longer have the kind of homespun idea about fostering that sees carers as long suffering people who will always be there. The world is now a different place: the skills needed to look after and guide children exhibiting challenging and destructive behaviour are not easily found and do not come cheap. In life we seem to understand ‘you get what you pay for’. The national fostering stocktake must not be a fudge. The situation is becoming parlous so this is unlikely as the government cannot continue being purblind. But we are quite possibly at the at the eleventh hour.
The national fostering stocktake will by now have accrued hundreds of thousands of words – and there is still time for more. But I will stick with stability and how it is achieved. We can decide to invest in increased remuneration for foster carers. We can then decide to invest in many more social workers to ease caseloads. We can then decide to significantly ‘professionalise’ the role and status of foster carers so they feel valued. We can then decide to provide the resources for foster carers to benefit from regular specialist training. However we then decide to organise the delivery of fostering services we will be doing so having first created the necessary stability. And that was done in sixty words for those who were counting!
24 Seven Timeline – in the News…
Fresh priorities for the new children’s minister to take on board
July 7th, 2017
There is a new Minister of State for Children and Families in England: Robert Goodwill will be arriving in post knowing that children’s social care faces significant challenges.
Time to seriously consider foster caring…
24 Seven are an independent fostering agency that receives many enquiries about fostering from people from all traditions, backgrounds and ethnicities. We pride ourselves on the strength of our Recruitment Team. They are highly knowledgable and always on hand to answer any questions that you might have. Always remember, fostering is a uniquely rewarding experience, but there can be challenges along the way, so there are a few questions for you to consider:
Do you think you would be able to devote the care and attention to a foster child as if it were your very own?
Do you have a spare room that you can provide for the exclusive use of a foster child/young person?
If I have a police record, will it stop me from being a foster carer?
Are you capable of joining in and enjoy being part of a team?
Do I have to be a British citizen to become a foster carer?
Would you enjoy playing an active part in the life of a child or young person?
Will I be allowed to foster if I have pets?
What is the difference between fostering and adoption?
It’s always time to celebrate something at 24 Seven!
Another summer month with birthdays to mark for our foster carers and children. Wishing everyone