Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Foster Carers and Smoking

mq, cb posted a question on my last page, and I thought I would answer it here. I hope that's ok with you, mq.

mq, cb

Hi, entirely off-topic question about fostering.

It was reported today that Redbridge Council has just announced that from next year it will not accept smokers as foster parents except in "exceptional circumstances".

As Norman Geras points out in his blog here , this means that it's apparently alright for other parents to smoke and expose their children (or indeed someone else's) to second-hand smoke but that foster parents are held to a higher standard.

Do you think that this is right?

We have been debating this on an email list I am a part of - UKfoster-adopt - I think there's a lot of interest.

Firstly my own views as far as smoking in general is concerned. I'm not a smoker, never have been, and I don't come from a smoking family. Cigarette smoke has a bad effect on both my girls and I avoid taking them into situations which will be very smoky. I do have friends who smoke; when they visit they go to the garden to smoke, and they do so in a way which doesn't tell my girls what they are doing - their choice, not mine.

Fostercarers are held to a higher standard than birth parents on so many things - how many birth families are required to have annual health and safety checks, unannounced inspections, and written policies on behaviour management, pocket money, healthy eating, safer caring, fire evacuation procedures? Fostercarers are required to attend mandatory training on child protection, first aid, legislation, and have opportunities to attend training on all sorts of other things. I don't think it necessarily makes a fostercarer better than a birth parent at all, but there are standards to which we are accountable, to an extent a ban on smoking would simply be an extension of this. Fostercarers are for example forbidden absolutely from smacking children in their care, unlike birth parents.

It doesn't seem quite fair that a child in need is denied a refuge because a potential fosterer smokes, nor do I see how smoking would necessarily make someone a bad choice to foster, unless the child had breathing difficulties or a medical condition that would be exacerbated by the smoky air. Is this what is meant by "exceptional circumstances"?

I'm thinking that what Redbridge means by "exceptional circumstances" would be situations whereby the smoking carer is better than the non-smoker - an adult already known to the child for example. Or where a child has exceptionally challenging issues, and the only adults with the skillset necessary to foster this child happen to be smokers.

Nor do I see why a foster parent should be held to a higher standard than any other carer. As I understand it, you, as a foster parent, have parental responsibility for any foster children in your care, in the same way that you do for your own children (whether adopted or biological children). Should you be held to a standard higher than that?

Actually, foster parents do not have parental responsibility for our fostered children. The only way to gain PR is through the courts - Residency Order, Special Guardianship Order, or Adoption. For the majority of Looked After Children, the only people with PR are the birth parents. Only in situations where there is a Care Order does the Local Authority gain joint PR with the birth parents.

The exception to this is in education - a fostercarer is a parent under Education law. It can be difficult persuading the Local Education Authority of that though!

PR aside, are fostercarers supposed to be perfect parents? No, I don't think so - I don't think there's any such thing, actually. I do think fostercarers are supposed to be parenting to a higher standard than some birth parents; if a child is removed from one family then it does make sense that the second family are better equipped to parent the child. But I don't think smoking necessarily affects that.

I should point out that I have never smoked, but that my father did when I was young. As I was an asthmatic as a child, this did not always make my life easy and frankly I should have preferred if he hadn't done it. However, it didn't make him a bad person, or even a bad parent.

Absoloutely agree with you here. Smoking in and of itself, does not make for bad parenting. I do wonder though to what extent your father's smoke contributed to your asthma; there is evidence to suggest a link. I think where Local Authorities are struggling with smoking and fostercaring is in their legal liabilities in the future - if the child of non-smoking birth parents are placed with smoking fostercarers, and then go on to develop a smoking-related illness, could that child then sue the Local Authority? So much of social work is about back-covering, about managing perceived risk without necessarily considering both sides of the picture. So for example a fostered child may be prevented from taking part in an school activity holiday because the perceived risk of the child having an accident (and sueing the LA) is considered to outweigh the risk of not allowing the child to take part (child misses out on chance to see education as more than simply sitting in a classroom, misses out on opportunity to form deeper friendships with schoolmates and see teachers as real people outside of school hours, as well as missing out on the general advantages of learning new skills and having fun.

It's complicated. When a child is in a residential facility, smoking is legally banned, not to protect the children, but because it is a place of work. When that same child moves into fostercare, the fostercarers may smoke. A fostercarer's house is not a workplace (although the fostercarer does work there), it is a family home.

Given that my own personal preference is for people to not smoke around me, I would hope that a fostered child would also have that option available. I certainly don't think that fostercarers who commit to smoking only outside, or smoking socially with friends, or who have one "smoking room" in their house should be banned from fostering. But chainsmoking fostercarers living in houses which are steeped in years of smoke so thick you can cut the atmosphere with a knife? I'm not so sure. That probably won't win me any friends with said carers.

An analogy. It is entirely legal for adults to drink alcohol. Inside, outside, in pubs and restaurants and at home. It is entirely legal, although probably not advisable, to drink onesself into a stupor day after day after day. It is entirely legal to go out and get drunk once in a while, it is entirely legal to begin drinking at breakfast time and continue throughout the day, all day, every day.

Fostercarers are required to keep alcohol out of reach of young children - common sense for everyone but a statutory requirement for fostercarers. I see absolutely nothing wrong with fostercarers enjoying alcoholic drinks - but I wouldn't be happy with an alcoholic being approved as a fostercarer. On the other hand, children are not automatically removed from alcoholic parents purely because the parents are alcoholics. Another instance of higher standards for fostercarers I suppose.

The Fostering Network has a policy on smoking and fostercare.

I'm still not entirely sure where I stand on it. In an ideal world, all children would be living in smoke-free environments. On the other hand, in an ideal world, each child would be born to parents who were willing and able to love and care for the child into adulthood and beyond. And the world doesn't work that way.

We have a national shortage of fostercarers. A blanket ban on smoking isn't going to help increase recruitment. But local authorities do have a duty of care towards the children it supports; where there are two, equally good in all other respects, fostercarers available, it does make sense to me to place the child with the carers who do not smoke. But better a loving placement with carers who happen to smoke than living without love.

I am rambling here; I have a child beside me demanding to be squeezed, and another hinting for music. I need to make tea and start our evening, but these are my inital ponderings. Your thoughts welcomed.



mq, cb said...

I drafted a long comment on this very cogent and thoughtful post last week and then lost it somewhere between checking my punctuation and pressing "send".

I hadn't appreciated that the standards under which you operate were so much higher than those of parents, but then as I was reading the list I found myself thinking, "well that seems perfectly reasonable" so I daresay that I just didn't think about it hard enough. On the other hand, some of them did strike me as things that good parents would do anyway.

I daresay that you are right that part of what prompted Redbridge's Council's announcement (and why local authorities generally would be concerned) is that it was worrying about its potential legal liabilities, although this strikes me as somewhat cowardly.

The chances of you being able to prove on a balance of probabilities that Factor X caused Condition Y such that you could fix the local authority with liability seems fairly low to me.

I doubt that my asthma had much to do with my father's smoking in that it was certainly not caused by it; I had attacks when he wasn't there. I also had siblings who had no such problems. I grew out of it, even though he continued to smoke and many things could trigger an attack. I suppose that it is possible that a combination of factors (including second-hand smoke) could trigger an attack (although my recollection some thirty-odd years later is not good enough to confirm this) and certainly breathing in smoky air made an attack worse. I think that this goes to show that proving a causal link between smoking and a relatively common condition so that you could fix someone with legal liability is very difficult.

In the end, all life is risky. There are few activities that you undertake that are without risk. This does not however mean that we should do nothing. Nor if you were to do nothing are you necessarily preparing a child for an adult life where risk must play a part.

If smoking is really that bad, then ban it because if a foster child should not be exposed to smoke, then why should anyone? And if you find yourself instinctively shrinking from such an option, then haven't you answered the question as to whether it is such an important factor that it would determine which child is placed where?

Tia said...

Thanks for replying.

I hope I didn't set fostercarers out as being better than other parents - obviously, most fostercarers will be working to a higher standard than some birth parents, but then most birth parents are doing a better job than a fairly small minority of parents who for whatever reason can't parent adequately.

To ban something outright due to theoretical concerns over legal liability is cowardly you're right. Risk aversion is something many fostercares do battle with other professionals about sometimes on a daily basis.

I am going to try to persuade R from Festering Times (see my blog list) to post on this - he says it well!



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