Up and down the country, there are thousands of foster carers who provide loving and stable families for their foster children, but who don’t have the confidence to speak out. Whilst we’ve slowly grown in confidence to advocate for care experienced children and young people, I am uncomfortable with the suggestion that we do this because we’re in some way special – we’re not!
How we arrived at having the confidence is a little more complicated. No-one tells you what the obstacles are going to be and we often get the sense that it’s as if we are deliberately being kept in the dark about how to overcome them. After all, who wants fostering families who are empowered to question the decisions of other professionals? We certainly don’t know everything, but going through each of the battles and having small victories has gradually given us the confidence to challenge others and be a voice for our foster children. We don’t win them all and even when we do, it can take an incredibly long time; we had to fight for four years to have our foster child’s missing savings returned to her. Eventually, we won! Polite persistence is a tactic that we find most effective. After all, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease!
Another thing that we do is to make good use of our supervising social worker. If any difficult confrontations are needed, we tend to get them to do the dirty work. We have also found that a conversation with them, before meetings with other professionals, is helpful in ensuring that we aren’t contradicting each other.
Being aware of your foster children’s rights is absolutely crucial; so we’ve had to do our homework. Whilst all the information that you need is “available”, it’s unlikely that anyone will tell you about it; you have to go looking for yourself. Become charity have a care advice line (0800 023 2033) which you can call on behalf of your foster children and get informed so that you can ensure they’re getting the right help and support. I’ve read every bit of statutory guidance (all of which can be found on the Government website) that relate to care experienced children and young people in England. We even take printed copies with us to meetings. This helps us to feel prepared and acts as a signal to others that we mean business! Remember, no-one else will tell you that this stuff exists so you need to go and find it . If you do, the chances are that you will be the best-informed person at the meeting.
Outside of my fostering world, I teach in a University so I’m in a privileged position of having people around me who can offer advice on schooling and all other things fostering related. We know that others don’t have ready access to former Lawyers, Social Workers or Head Teachers and fostering can be an isolating place where you often feel like you are the only one questioning decisions that are being made. The reason for writing this blog is to say that you aren’t the only one. If you can develop your own networks of advice and support, that can be of real benefit. I’ve found that connecting with other foster carers on social media is a great source of information and encouragement.
There is currently a hot debate about the employment status of fostering families. Whichever side of this debate you sit on, I find the argument that you ultimately work for your foster children to be a persuasive one. Given that we work for our children, we’re accountable to them and that should give us all the confidence that we need to challenge everyone else.
Keith Bishop is a foster dad, youth worker and a senior lecturer in Children, Young People and Families at Newman University in Birmingham.