Henrietta Bond is the author of a number of CoramBAAF books about fostering. She is also a communications consultant and a professional leadership and relationship coach. We spoke to Henrietta about writing our vital new set of pamphlets on Things Foster Carers need to Know. She explains why these topics were chosen and reveals some of the surprising information she discovered in the process.
What’s the aim of this series of pamphlets?
It's hard work being a foster carer, particularly in today’s world where technology brings so many rapid changes. We wanted to create really useful resources that help carers keep abreast of some of the key issues affecting children and young people, especially those coming into their homes.
You say ‘we’ – was there a team behind these pamphlets?
There’s always a team behind any CoramBAAF publication I work on. In this case the ideas for the series came from Shaila Shah [former Publishing Director] who identified the topics of Gangs, Radicalisation, Self-Harm and Internet Safety because she felt that carers would benefit from some down-to-earth, accessible information on these matters. I added in the suggestion of including Sexuality as I felt it was an issue that is so important for young people’s wellbeing but can be difficult and embarrassing for carers to talk about. Together with Jo Francis [Publishing Manager] we spent a lot of time discussing – sometimes arguing about - what foster carers needed to know about these thorny issues.
How do you know you’re covering issues which are really important for carers?
That’s where the specialist readers came in - foster carers and social workers who gave feedback from their own experience, pointing out where I’d overlooked or misunderstood some part of a topic and adding in their own suggestions, to ensure we were producing material that was truly valuable to already stretched carers who have so much to think about. I also want to mention the invaluable advice from Paul Adams, who is CoramBAAF’s former Fostering Consultant, and was my fall back for many awkward and complex questions.
It sounds like it was quite a learning process for you?
Yes indeed! I’ve been working within the fostering world for nearly 30 years and I’ve written a number of books on the subject, including my most recent book The Foster Carer's Handbook on Parenting Teenagers, and I’ve always marvelled at how resilient and flexible foster carers need to be, adapting to the needs of each child and young person coming into their homes. But when you add in the extra layers today’s world throws at carers – for example, needing to be aware of the potential dangers of County Lines, understanding the way young people may be groomed for Radicalisation and getting their heads around the many ways that the internet can influence and possibly endanger vulnerable people, it’s a major ask for any carer. Yes, there’s plenty of information out there but how many carers have the time to sit down and study all of that and then gather in a whole range of different perspectives! I made so many surprising discoveries in the process of researching these pamphlets and it felt very important to convey them in as straightforward and accessible way as possible. It’s why we decided to start each pamphlet with a quiz – for carers to test their existing knowledge and maybe make some discoveries, and we then presented each pamphlet as a series of questions and answers.
You’ve used the words ‘surprising discoveries’ - can you tell us some of the things that really surprised you?
Well, starting with the first pamphlet which was Young People and Self Harm, I felt I already knew something about this topic. I’d had a conversation with a young person who had described turning a small cut on her thigh into a open wound by constantly worrying at the skin – and how this had helped her cope when her step-mother was beating her. However what I didn’t appreciate was why someone feels they need to do this. Words are part of my life – as a writer and coach – and it had never occurred to me that when a young person can’t find the words to express their feelings, cutting themselves, burning, scalding, pulling out hair, banging their heads becomes a way to communicate difficult feelings, and can actually help a young person to feel more in control of their lives.
So, what can you do if a young person is self harming. Should you try to stop them?
Naturally you want to protect the young person from doing serious damage to themselves, but it isn’t helpful trying to make them promise that they will stop. Instead, they may become highly secretive and not turn to you for help when they really need it. You want to try and create a calm, non-judgemental environment where you can support and encourage the young person to find other ways to express their feelings.
I believe that the next booklet you wrote was about young people and internet safety. Wasn’t there an awful lot to cover about this topic?
Yes, there was. And I’m not a natural techy myself so I was a bit wary about tackling this subject. However, with the support of Shaila, Jo and other advisors, I came to realise that my position of ‘not knowing what I didn’t know’ probably reflected the position of many carers. I realised that there are, indeed, many challenges facing young people, but you can’t approach the internet as something dangerous that needs to be avoided. As one carer explained to us, you need to treat using the internet a lot like driving. It has huge potential to get you where you need to go but it can also be dangerous if you aren’t aware of the hazards and don’t obey the rules. So with this pamphlet we set out to help foster carers ensure that children and young people became ‘safe drivers’ of the internet. Personally, I’ve always found things like parental controls and privacy settings very confusing so I spent a lot of time writing a summary of online safety measures and where carers could find more information about this.
Which areas of potential danger did you decide to cover in the pamphlet?
We covered the areas where children are most at risk online – such as cyberbullying, websites glorifying self harm, viewing pornography, sexting, gang recruitment, radicalisation, online gambling, drug sales and both the harmful and positive ways the internet can be used for family. It was very pleasing to find that the way we explained these things was welcomed by readers ... can I share with you a review this pamphlet received from the National Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP)... the comment that particularly pleased me was:
‘Overall, the author wisely deflects the idea that the Internet is a place of evil, but more a place where evil can happen, drawing parallels with the real world... If foster carers want to be informed about internet safety, they would do well to read this pamphlet.’
You mention gang recruitment as one of the potential dangers ... was this the inspiration for the next pamphlet?
I know Shaila Shah had always felt strongly about the importance of sharing information about this topic, and it was good to be able to dedicate a whole pamphlet to it. We really wanted to help foster carers understand the appeal of gangs to young people – particularly for young people in care who may feel themselves lacking identity and a sense of belonging. We wanted to help carers understand more about gang culture, how young people are recruited and the drugs, guns and knife culture that surrounds this. I remember Shaila was very keen for me to research the practical question of what you should do if a young person brings a gun or knife into your home. The answer was far more complex than you could imagine...
Gang culture has changed significantly with the introduction of County Lines. Is this something that you covered?
Most definitely! I was halfway through my research on this topic – looking at the traditional structure of teenage gangs, whose activities tended to focus on raiding shops and petrol stations as well as getting into fights with rival gangs, where being arrested or going to prison could add to your status with your peers and rivals – when I came across an article suggesting that gang culture in the UK was significantly changing. Today’s County Line gangs tend to concentrate on drug and arms dealing and use websites and social media to organise their activities and recruit new members. Horrifyingly they use children – sometimes as young as eight – to carry drugs into new parts of the country. Drugs are often inserted into the child’s body and then forcibly removed at the other end. This process is filmed so that the young person can be blackmailed with threats of the material being shared online. Our aim with this pamphlet was to help carers understand the processes gangs use and the signs they need to look out for that a child or young person is being groomed and exploited by a gang.
Recognising that a young person is being groomed and exploited was one of the key issues you focused on in the next pamphlet – Young People and Radicalisation. Does this happen frequently?
No - radicalisation is far less common than many people realise, but still an important issue to cover. We wanted to help carers recognise the difference between a young person taking an interest in their cultural heritage or becoming passionate about social injustice and political situations, and the routes which draw young people into extremism, terrorism and unthinking loyalty to an ideology or cause. We wanted to give carers realistic information about the signs to be aware of and the services that can support them, as well as debunking some of the myths.
Does the idea of fostering a young person who is radicalised put some people off foster care?
There’s a real possibility that this may happen. We were concerned that the case of the Parsons Green Bomber – an 18-year-old Iraqi refugee who planted a bomb on a train, and was in foster care while his asylum claim was being processed – had put some carers off the idea of fostering asylum seekers. However when we view the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan and the horrors of Beirut it’s a reminder that so many children come from situations where they are living in constant fear, often without even the most basic facilities, and not knowing from day to day if their family members might be arrested or killed, and their homes bombed or burnt. They may be fleeing from people who have committed terrorist acts in their own country. The priority for most of these children will be to feel safe and secure, to have food, go to school, enjoy some of the pleasures other children take for granted - and they will often be very grateful for the opportunity to do so.
You said that the Young People and Sexuality pamphlet was one you suggested yourself. Why were you so keen to write this?
I was very fortunate to grow up with a mother who believed in the importance of being open about matters around sex. Overall my family was quite conventional and conservative, and my mother was quite naive in many ways, but she always made it clear that I could tell or ask her anything. Which I did – and noticed that very few of my friends felt able to do the same. As a result I grew up feeling comfortable about discussing sex and being clear about issues such as consent and my right to enjoy physical pleasure. So I wanted to support foster carers in their important role of helping children to grow up with a healthy sense of sexuality, while recognising that these conversations can be difficult for carers who grew up in families or cultures where these topics were strictly taboo. I wanted to make sure we provided information that was non-judgemental, easily accessible and supported carers to have these important conversations, whatever their own values and beliefs.
What topics did you cover in this pamphlet?
People tend to think about safe sex and consent when they think about talking to young people about sexuality. We wanted to include broader information, such as understanding sexual identity – and, for example, giving foster carers an overview of some of the terms people use to identify themselves. We wanted to help foster carers think about the way current society pressurises young people, especially girls, and to cover issues such as the prevalence of sexting and ready access to porn, and the unrealistic (often alarming) expectations this may create for vulnerable young people.
What are your hopes for this series of pamphlets?
I’m hopeful that they will help to bridge the gap between what we believed foster carers would find helpful and the reality of caring for troubled and traumatised young people. Naturally, there are many highly skilled carers out there who have a great deal of knowledge of their own, but I believe that everyone can benefit from a new perspective or a different approach to an ongoing problem. Or just that extra knowledge about a new website or a helpful organisation. Ultimately my aim – in whatever I write for foster carers – is to play some small part in supporting them to give their very best to the children and young people in their care.