Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Foster Carer, Foster Parent?

Which am I?

Do I parent the children entrusted to me, or do I care for them?

Short answer: it depends.

Longer answer: it depends on all sorts of things. A child coming here for respite is not usually in need of an extra parent. If a child arrives for the weekend, then they will usually (but not always) arrive with a long list of instructions from the parents, they will need plenty of reassurance that Mummy is coming back very soon, they may want lots of cuddles and affection, but they aren't looking for an other parent. If the child becomes ill, then chances are the respite will be cancelled. If there's an emergency then after I've dialed 999 I'll be calling the parents, and they will be the ones talking to the hospital staff.

An older child coming for a longer stretch of time may not want or need another parent. If a child has lived with parents for years and then comes to live with a fosterfamily, that child probably isn't looking for replacement parents. They're looking for a safe shelter, for space to grow into their adult selves, they may well need parenting (and I don't assume birth parents are the only people to have parental influence over a child - I'd extend that to anyone who exerts a positive influence over a child. The whole "it takes a village to raise a child" thing), but they aren't looking for a replacement Mum or Dad. I have been a Tia far more often and for longer than I have been a Mummy.

I call my girls "my girls" not in an exclusive "mine and no one else's" sense but as shorthand for "the children who live with me and whom I care for". Sometimes, I don't mention the child's status as a foster child to protect the child's privacy. People seem to think that they have a right to know every detail of why a child might not live with their birth family. Failing to mention that I am not the birth parent, to people who don't know, is not to disrespect the birth family but to respect their privacy. Strangers have all sorts of misconceptions about why children may be staying with me.

I also use "my daughter" quite pointedly at times, to reflect the importance of the relationship we do have. Again, not to undercut the relationship with the birth family, but to emphasise to others how important the child is to me. There can be an assumption at as a foster carer I have some kind of caretaker role, without the emotional investment. It has taken me years to persuade my grandmother to stop calling my girls "your patients", years of constantly referring to "my daughters". Others failing to understand the role of the fostercarer will refer to "your clients" or "your charges". So "my daughters" is an attempt to get people thinking about that.

The children living with me do become my children. Fostering regulations require me to care for each and every fosterchild as a member of my own family, whether they're here for an hour or for a lifetime. That's the law. It doesn't mean I am trying to take anything away from the birth family.And it doesn't mean I become "Mummy" to them all - in fact Little Fish is the only child who has ever called me Mummy. And she's not the only child I have had with the ability to talk.

I used to work in residential care. As a key worker, I held special responsibility for three children at a time, as did everyone else working there. We used to refer to "my children" "your children" - it didn't mean we were attempting to replace the parents, and it wasn't intending to imply an exclusive relationship. It meant "those children for whom I am, at this point in time, responsible". The keyworkers at the girls' hospice, and at our local respite centre, use the same terminology. And they certainly aren't in any way attempting to parent the children or replace the parents.

Some children do need replacement parents. I've adopted Little Fish. As much as it is ever possible to own a child (and I'm not convinced it is), she is mine. Legally a Beale, now and forever. I am not going to discuss her birth family's situation - they (and she) have a right to privacy. But she was in need of a permanent, legal, family, and she has that in me and in my wider family.

Mog's situation is different. Whatever people want to believe, she has two loving birth parents. She doesn't need them excising from her life. She isn't able to live with them, but that doesn't mean she should lose them altogether. Which is why we have chosen Special Guardianship. This is a legal order that lasts until Mog is an adult, or until she leaves fulltime education. It give us all shared Parental Responsibility. Mog has extra needs, she has extra parents to meet those needs. The local authority has never had parental responsibility for Mog, and this way, she can become a full legal member of our own wider family, as well as her original birth family.

Mog has a home with me for life. I don't know how long that life will be, but she's unlikely to outlive me, or even outlive my capacity to care for her. She attends Helen House Hospice - hospice care is intended for children who are not expected to outlive childhood. Some do, in fact so many of the children for whom Helen House was built have survived to the age of 18 that we now have the world's first "Respice" for young adults (under 35) right next door to Helen House - Douglas House. Will Mog be one of the lucky ones? Who knows - she has a weak chest, a poor swallow, and hundreds of little seizures every day. And that's on a good day. Whilst other fostered children have moved on, that's not the plan for Mog.

We have back up plans in place in case of emergency - whether that is an emergency requiring my attention elsewhere, or whether that is an emergency involving me. In the event of my death, there are plans for both girls. I choose not to discuss those here, and they are in any event, only relevant to those directly involved in our lives. The plans have been made though.

I am not unique in the world of fostercare. I am in contact with a large number of fostercarers, and many many of these have fosterchildren who are living with them on a permanent basis, but for whom adoption is not the answer. For some, permanency means until 18, but for many more it means forever. Certainly within the field of learning disability, adult family placement schemes are on the increase. This is effectively fostercare for the over 18s. It isn't right for everyone, nothing ever will be, but it is an option. Many fostercarers have kept on their adult fosterchildren, either negotiating a continuation of their fostering allowances, or making sacrifices to keep the foster family together with a drop in income. Other fostercarers cannot make that commitment, or would, but the young person needs something different, and then alternative living arrangements are looked at. I'm aware of more than one fostered child who returned to the birth family on a fulltime basis after the age of 16, sometimes because other children in the family were older and more independent, so the parents now had the capacity to care for the child who had been fostered, sometimes because the needs of the child changed as they grew older, sometimes for other reasons.

Perhaps what we have for Mog is unusual. She certainly isn't the only child in fostercare to have significant relationships with her birth family though. It is not unusual for the wider birth family to remain actively involved in the child's life. I have had more than one child where birth family have provided me with regular respite, and I'm not the only fostercarer to have experienced that. Special Guardianship is relatively new, but people appear to be liking it. Residency Orders have been around for a good long time, and have been used to give fostercarers shared PR with the birth parents.

I love fostering, I really do. Hearing about the possibility of a child, waiting to hear more, meeting that child and getting to know them; it's great. But in an ideal world, every child would be born to parents who love them and are able to care for them, meet all their needs, nurture them and help them to grow into the capable adults they will become. The day that ideal world comes, I and all the other fostercarers will gladly hang up our hats and never foster no more. Until then, we'll get on with it, and hopefully, we'll enjoy it more than we are frustrated by the process. When the child needs a new family, we'll provide it. When the child doesn't need a new family, but does need a place to stay, we'll provide that. In that, I am not unusual. Fostering is a service for the child, not for the fosterers.



Alesha said...

If there ever comes a day when you choose to cease fostering, you really should become some sort of national spokesman for the system itself. I don't know anyone who expresses herself as eloquently and as elegantly as you do on this subject.

Thank you,

Doorless said...

Amen. I am so glad to know you.

Robyn said...

beautifully put!

Tina said...

And the people said Amen.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I think this is perhaps a reply to some points I raised elsewhere.

I'm glad to hear of the existence of adult placement residency schemes. My son attends an SLD/PMLD school and many (perhaps most?) of the children do stay with their parents post 18 and it's good to hear that continuity of care (to use a rather heartless social care type term) can be an option when a child is in foster care.

Your discussion of foster carer vs parent was interesting as well, and kind of how I thought it would be. Thank you for taking the time to write it all out. Certainly a lot to ponder.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for articulating what foster parents feel about their important role in their child's life. It somehow seems second nature when you become a foster parent and I'd never thought about trying to write it down. Your reflection here is the perfect answer to the constant questions about how we can take care of children who "aren't ours" or how we can bear to "give them up" when they go back to birth parents or adoption. Fostering isn't a zero sum game (my kid NOT your kid) and you expressed it so well.


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