John Simmonds

Reflective Fostering – exploring the minds of the foster carer, the child and the professional

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When a child is removed from their family because the local authority has identified risks to their safety, welfare and development, this is unfortunately unlikely to be the end of them experiencing risk and trauma. 

The child will have strangers coming to their home to discuss with their parents the concerns that the local authority has and possible solutions. Several options are likely to be explored but for some families this results in the child coming into care and being placing with a foster carer or another family member.

For the child, this is likely to cause anxiety and trauma. Whatever the child may have experienced as threats or risk within their own family, the new threat of being escorted out of the front door of their family home with a professional stranger to be transported to an unknown place – the home of another stranger – cannot be ignored. The range of emotions that children may experience as they try to make sense of what is happening, can include thinking they are at fault or being scared of their foster carers and the foster care home.

As professionals, we need to approach and respond to children with sensitivity. What do I say or do, am I being helpful, what else should I be doing? These are the typical questions that all those in children’s services face.

To children’s services relationship based practice is key. Trust is essential in this. Children and adults will want to be listened to with sensitivity and warmth and not be judged. But building trust is not straightforward when often the specific issues being addressed are likely to be highly emotive, typically complex, subject to challenge and with high levels of uncertainty.

The child’s perspective

Since the early study by Ainsworth multiple studies of attachment have taken place and in 2013 UNICEF published a statement ‘The first 1,000 days of life: The brain’s window of opportunity’. From the day a child is born, they will reach out into their world emotionally, cognitively and behaviourally, showing their parents that they need their attention and a response. For parents, they need to explore what they should do to meet the needs of their baby. Over time, this should develop into a familiar pattern of interaction that the baby experiences as secure and stable - a pattern of attachment. This is an evolving emotional, cognitive and behavioural interaction in the mind of the parent and the child. This secure base is fundamental to the development of the child.

As children and parents develop their relationship, there are always experiences that raise questions such as ‘Do I understand what is going on in my child’s mind or in my mind? Is this my fault or is it something that has changed in their mind.’ It can be easy for parents to feel lost and these questions can be a source of stress and distress for both parents and children. Parents may need an opportunity for reflection with a partner, friend, or maybe a professional. Guilt, blame, anger and a sense of failure are common feelings at this time.  Discussion about the possible issues that have led up to the challenge and the emotions of anxiety, anger, blame and ‘opting out’ are often needed. Feeling that someone is listening carefully, asking questions sensitively and is balanced will help in exploring solutions. It comes back to trust.

Reflective parenting

The development of the model of Reflective Parenting (Cooper & Redfern, 2016) has been particularly important in exploring the detail of the issues set out above. The model started with issues often experienced by parents and their children. It is currently being explored in relation to foster carers including kinship carers and has been noted for its relevance to children placed for adoption. The reflective foster care model is set out here

The children in care sector has explored and delivered a variety of approaches that focus on providing support to foster carers. Reflective Fostering combines a professional and peer support model with a comprehensive psycho-social framework of children and parent relationships and interactions. The evidence base is being explored through a funded project.

The challenge, intensity and consequences of a local authority removing children from their family and placing them in kinship or foster care is significant. From the child’s point of view how does this make sense, what does the child think and feel about what has happened and what do they think and feel needs to happen now and in the future?  The consequences are often life changing and lifelong.

Every child needs to build relational world where trust, belonging, preferences, choices and identity are present and the Reflective Fostering project is aiming to support children and their foster carers or kinship carers to do just this. There is still an opportunity to join the programme to explore, learn and contribute to the detail and development of Reflective Fostering.

John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research and Development, CoramBAAF