We all know that children and young people do well when they are supported by people who demonstrate love and acceptance. My role as Lead for Learning, Development and Wellbeing for an independent foster care agency, prompted me to explore how that needed to look for individuals.
The outcomes for children and young people across our agency are good. Despite feedback from our fostering families telling us that they receive excellent support, there is always room for improvement. Across the UK, children and young people who are unable to live with their own families often experience multiple placement moves. This can be for many reasons, including placement breakdowns, all of which have a negative impact on their wellbeing and future outcomes. When placement breakdowns happen, this can have a long-term detrimental impact on fostering families, and many decide to end their fostering journey.
I work at a small not-for-profit agency based in Scotland. We pride ourselves on the therapeutic support that we provide for all members of the fostering household. We know this has a positive impact on placement stability. I wanted to explore and find out more about why this approach was successful but also understand more about why, across Scotland, children and young people found themselves having to move on.
My research, entitled ‘The first family should be the right family’, explored the ideal. Although this statement is ideal, knowing it supports stability, acceptance and love, we must ask whether it is realistic. There are many other factors that impact on the well-being of members of fostering families, some of which we have little control over. Interviews with young people, foster carers, adoptive parents and professionals across Scotland provided valuable information. The research identified four key themes that are
important for us to consider:
• The importance of rigorous processes for assessment and matching It is important to understand the reasons and motives around why people want to foster. Quality assessments, of both the child/young person’s needs and the fostering family are essential, guiding a needs-led approach to matching. Foster carers need to feel comfortable asking for support, knowing that the support is there when needed.
• The value of creating therapeutic environments :Environments that support the development of trust, meeting the child’s need for love, kindness and reliability, go a long way in supporting the healing process, supporting children and young people to overcome early adversity. Love is important but it is only one piece of the jigsaw. Households should be flexible, adapting as needs change. Foster carers who are emotionally available are a top priority for children and young people. Having realistic expectations and boundaries are also deemed important. Play-based interventions happening in the everyday, help children to go back and fill in the gaps. Fostering families who can receive emotional communication, and respond in a way that demonstrates understanding, are essential in restoring a child’s capacity to think and generate new thinking. Young people valued relationships with others who could act as mediators between them and their fostering families.
• What support should look like in those environments : When placements begin, intensive support is important. Every fostering family must be treated as an individual set of circumstances with individual needs. Each one has their own experiences and strengths and we must appreciate where they are in the lifespan. Support for the birth children of foster carers is essential. The fostering families use of a shared language to tell their story was important too.
Young people talked about the power of being accepted for who they are. They also wished that they had one consistent professional in their life, someone who carried their story for them. When life transitions were due to take place, these must be well planned and supported.
Foster carers valued long-term relationships with knowledgeable professionals who they could trust. Professionals need to make time to receive emotional communication from foster carers, understand and respond, promoting a foster carers’ capacity to think. To support foster carers’ knowledge and understanding, igniting their desire to learn is important in creating stability. Learning needs to be with other foster carers to allow time to make sense of the learning. It is important to provide opportunities to refresh, go back and learn again, to be provided as part of ongoing support where there is opportunity to ‘wonder’ about thing.
• An awareness of the impact of external factors on the stability of placements- The home environment doesn’t exist in isolation. Society is made up of many factors that could influence the outcomes of children and young people. Schools and other educational settings need to become more trauma-informed and more understanding of the needs of children and young people who have experienced early adversity. Caring for the foster carers is important, supporting their wellbeing. How others view fostering often had an impact on continued relationships for both the fostering family and the child/ young person. Families shared their experiences of losing friends, and sometimes extended family members, as a result of their negative perceptions. Systems and statutory processes can often complicate and affect the stability of placements too.
One of the most significant points was that relationships were a key factor in determining success in all areas.
In my setting, we continue to learn every day. This research has been useful learning, helping us to develop the excellent level of support that we offer. The small-scale nature of this research means it can only offer suggestive findings, useful observations, and insights into what may support better outcomes for children and young people. Scotland’s Care Review concluded in 2020 and the vision for those who are care experienced has been set out in ‘The Promise’. This vision echoes many of the findings highlighted by this study.
The recommendations from the study are:
• We must improve the assessment and support of everyone involved in the process and become more effective in finding ways that allow children/young people to participate in every aspect.
• Once children/young people are placed with fostering families it is important to monitor their wellbeing and act on what that assessment highlights.
• When developing plans for children/ young people, we need to be aware of the impact of risk-averse cultures in creating barriers to supporting children/young people to reach their full potential.
• Every child should have an advocate who is able to work with the fostering family, to support them to get through difficult times and help their voice be heard.
• Foster carers must be supported to have sufficient knowledge to feel empowered and promote access to support and equality of opportunity for children and young people.
• We should make use of assessment tools to assist our awareness of both strengths and vulnerabilities and reassess as needs change.
• We must be mindful that relationships are key to providing information and an understanding of situations. Relationships that are identified as being protective factors should be maintained.
• Learning for fostering families must be relevant and specific to their situations and link theory to practice.
• All educational establishments need to be trauma-informed and staff need to be aware of the needs of children and how their experiences may affect their ability to learn.
• The need to create a buddy system of support for fostering families so that they have access to less invasive support that is more natural and in keeping with family life. Buddies can be extended family, friends or other fostering families who have the knowledge they need to be able to meet the needs of the child/young person.
Looking to the future, these recommendations and ‘The Promise’ will guide developments within our agency. My aim is to share the study findings across the sector.
This research has illuminated, once again, the importance of relationships. It is through relationships that we begin to understand the complex interactions between children, young people, their fostering families, and their environment. Children and young people do well when they are safe and have relationships in which they feel accepted and loved.
The statement about whether the first family should be the right family is perhaps too idealistic and not reflective of the complexities of the situation. We must also be mindful that not every child is able to live with a family as a result of the trauma caused by past experiences. Relationships though can be established in many settings and, where individuals work from a premise of relational therapeutic care, the impact can be life changing.