Date: 24 May 2021
Our inaugural Foster Carer Advisory Committee took place in April this year, bringing together foster carers from across the country and from a range of backgrounds. This Committee brings us closer to the lived experience of foster care and brings a different type of expertise and understanding to inform our work. The way in which information is shared is different to our practitioner led forums and offers a challenge to our existing ways of working.
Political theorists argue that for democracy to flourish spaces for debate should be structured, not around the concept of rational argument, but as spaces where, ‘citizens can reveal their needs and express their emotions in a process of coming to what might be thought of as a ‘good enough’ understanding of their fellows’ . Even as we introduced ourselves we became quickly immersed in the ‘real world’ of foster care, difficult experiences were shared alongside the more benign everyday practical matters of childcare – in a pandemic. For this group, how we hold a space where we can engage emotionally and fulfil the work required of us as a committee will need careful thought and attention as we develop.
We discussed transitions as an agenda item. Sam shared with us her experiences with Daniel (not his real name). Daniel, had been cared for by Sam from birth. He was moved after a year, to a parent and child placement. Daniel’s Mum and Dad left him after 9 days. It took three weeks from Daniel moving before Sam could see him, even though both the new carer and Sam were constantly requesting this contact happen. Contact was not factored into the planning.
An organisational culture that does not fully acknowledge emotional realities in the life of children will leave carers with uncertainty about how much they can and should feel committed and close to the child in their care… If adequate support and training are not in place, anxieties that may lead a foster carer to doubt the importance of his or her relationship for the child may also result in the foster carer withdrawing from the child 
Sam refused to withdraw from Daniel in this way and at this crucial time when he needed her. She spoke eloquently and emotionally about her fight to see him and the detail of that first contact/reunion. Daniel reached for her, held her gaze, breathed into her neck and then pushed her away, ‘his anguished cry still haunts me’. Sam described feeling that he had been broken and she with him. To engage with this story was heart-breaking. Sam’s loss and grief strongly resonated with the group. I was reminded of Jenifer Wakelyn’s case study of Rahan and his foster carer Nadira:
Nadira kneels next to Rahan and kisses him on both cheeks; he moans and then is very still. She lies down close to him and says she doesn’t know what he wants right now. Is he hungry? Or sleepy? She looks at him wondering. She says she looks after him as if he were hers, babies can tell, they need you to feel they’re yours, with all the love and passion you have for your own children. She says the social workers keep telling her, “Remember he is not yours”. Rahan begins to whimper as Nadira tells me his social worker tells her she should not look after him the same way she looked after her own babies. She turns to Rahan, who has been looking up at the ceiling. She asks him ‘what do you see up there?’ She tries the bottle again, and this time he takes most of it, sucking strongly. There is a sense of tension dropping away…After a while he stops sucking and holds the teat in his mouth; he looks at her languorously as she says quietly; “Drink now, then you can play”
In her work Wakelyn documents and illuminates the intensity of the shared journey of a foster carer and an infant. She highlights the vulnerability of infants and the emotional labour required to support them through transition. Even when planning and support is of a high quality:
…the task of providing affectionate, involved foster care is conflicted and demanding. The foster carer’s readiness to step back as the child moves on, while at the same time remaining available and providing a background of love and security comes at a cost
This is a profoundly complex role, demanding deep empathy and resilience. As Wakelyn identifies ‘providing a background of love and security comes at a cost’ and requires significant practice support.
Sam’s story left me saddened and angry but also hopeful. She articulated the commitment and tenacity we need from our carers.
In our discussion of the Independent Care Reviews in England and Scotland we explored the varied relationships that carers develop with babies, children and teenagers, parents and other kin, adopters and practitioners. We debated the concept of ‘love’ as promoted in the Promise , which is advocating a care system based on ‘love’. We heard from a number of carers who talked eloquently and passionately about the importance for babies of feeling loved. Dawn described her commitment to the babies in her care ‘I do love little ones, they have to have love. Love is a big lesson to learn far more important than spellings and reading’. Cara questioned the way in which ‘love’ was promoted within the Promise documents. She reminded us that for children who have experienced abuse or neglect by their loved ones the concept of love is not straight forward. Steven also questioned the way in which ‘love’ was used, ‘I certainly love my 2 boys. But the term 'Love' is far too subjective to be reduced to a slogan. I love my husband and I love pizza but I love all 3 in totally different ways’.
Sally noted that a child’s right to determine the type of relationship they wanted seemed absent from the Promise. In her experience of caring for teenagers her role differed depending on the young person and their relationships with their birth family, ‘I am led by them’. Sally’s example helped us consider children’s rights and how foster care can be helpful without a deep connection being forged between a young person and their carer. Caring for parents and their babies, providing planned breaks for young people, supporting young people return to parents or their kinship networks all require sophisticated relationship building and a responsive navigation of existing relationships. Hanan highlighted the role of trust, ‘It's probably the most important element and it's missing’.
The circumstances that lead to children coming into care and the distress that some will continue to experience is harrowing. Carers have to bear the knowledge of the deprivations children endure and help children along a path to recovery. Recovery can only happen through responsive relationships. The diversity, complexity and significance of the fostering role was brought to life in our discussions. In the sector as we move to a welcome focus on the benefits of kinship care the term ‘stranger foster care’ and the stated goal of ‘getting children out of care’ are increasingly part of policy discourse. In order to support the reparative and responsive care we need children to receive from foster care we should reject this terminology and demeaning language outright. For Rahan and Daniel and the approximately 60,000  children living in foster families there is nothing to be gained and everything to lose by denigrating foster care. We must be alert to anything in practice or policy that might cause a foster carer to doubt their importance or the importance of his or her relationship to a child.
We are looking forward to working with this Committee and learning from their expertise.
Dr Louise Sims, Kinship Care and Fostering consultant, CoramBAAF
1 Hoggett, P. and Thompson, S. (2002) Towards a democracy of the emotions, Constellations, 9 (1), p.107.
2 Wakelyn, J. (2020) Therapeutic Approaches with Babies and Young Children in Care. London: The Tavistock Series