‘It takes a village to raise a child.’
This is an old African saying about the importance of community in the life of young people. Many foster carers will tell you this is certainly true in the case of looked after children, who often need twice the amount of love, care and patience than their peers who have not been through the same life experiences of trauma and loss.
We all need people who inspire us, teach us and guide us as we make our way in the world, and these people often help to make us who we are today.
Children in care often have a fragmented version of their identity and want to know where they belong and who really cares for them. Often, they may have had early experiences lacking in safety or secure attachments, and this can mean it takes time to build trust with those around them.
But evidence has shown that the more positive connections a child has, the better their future prospects. Having other people around teaches children different skills and can teach them positive messages about friendship, care and cooperation.
There are many people who can form part of the fostering community. As well as the carers themselves, it is important that the extended family is supportive of fostering.
I am incredibly lucky as my family treat my foster son as one of their own, so he knows he has aunties, uncles and grandparents to whom he is not related by blood, but who are there to help with things such as occasional respite care, celebrating special occasions and even dropping off groceries.
As well as family, there are other key people who can play a huge part in successful fostering stories, such as social workers, Teaching Assistants, teachers, therapists, neighbours, church members and even employers.
Many of these will not realise what a crucial role they play in re-writing the narrative in a young person’s life through their positive interactions and encouragement. It was someone in church simply taking us to a pantomime years ago that led my foster child to join a theatre group and a school drama teacher who believed in him to nurture those skills.
The same drama teacher travelled one weekend from the other side of London to watch him in a show and is now a mentor my foster child confides in. Having those constants makes a huge amount of difference to a looked after child’s self-esteem and resilience.
The past couple of years have been challenging for everyone, and during the pandemic, one survey reported that 22% of foster carers wanted to give up due to feelings of isolation, with 55% saying that it has impacted their mental health (1).
This has also been evident in the huge increase in numbers of children needing to be taken into foster care during 2020 when isolation may have compounded mental health issues in some homes (2). It feels like now is the time to be reconnecting with friends and family members who can help share the role of looking after these vulnerable children so that they have the best chances in life.
Fostering can be incredibly rewarding, but also emotionally draining, so it is vital to have people at the end of the phone to chat to on a hard day. I am especially grateful to the group of fellow foster carers I speak to regularly on WhatsApp, as we also continue to meet on Zoom when it’s not possible together in person.
These are people with whom I’ve laughed, cried and prayed for the amazing children we look after.
As a single carer, there is not someone else at home to talk to at the end of a long day, so it is vital to have these connections with others in the fostering community who understand the joys and struggles.
The charity Home for Good is an excellent place to start if you want to set up a support group or find out more information on how to become involved in the fostering community. You can become a Champion, someone who works alongside their church in ensuring that caring for vulnerable children is on the agenda.
Some Champions also choose to be equipped in specialist roles, such as supporting people in their fostering or adoption journey or speaking on the topic. There is a new training programme being developed to ensure the Champions are able to fulfil this role well.
The theme of Fostering Fortnight this year is celebrating the strength and resilience of fostering communities, and there is so much to celebrate, but still, also much more awareness to be raised of the importance of community in fostering.
One of the first questions you are asked when being assessed as a foster carer is whether you have people around you who will be a support network. They will want to know you have a reliable backup carer who can drop everything at a moment’s notice to help in an emergency.
There may be times when you have meetings with a social worker or Independent Reviewing Officer (and there are a lot of these) but need to pick up a child from school or have someone look after them for a while. These are the times when community is most important.
Not everyone has the space or circumstances to foster but I believe that everyone in the community has the capacity to help fostering families. Here are a few tips for anyone who wants to support foster children and carers but are not sure where to start.
- Ask if they need help with anything. A lot of the time, foster carers may not want to ask for help but will gladly accept it when it is offered. I know that for me it is things such as gardening or DIY jobs that I would always be happy to let someone help with!
- Be a friend to talk to. Some of the time there will be things a foster parent cannot discuss about a child’s situation, but they will let you know if that is the case. Simply being there to chat to makes such a difference, so check in on your fostering friends even if they look like they have it all under control!
- Invite a looked after child to events. It may sound obvious but sometimes foster children are excluded if they behave differently from other children. A lot of the time these children are simply longing to feel included, so the more invitations to parties, meals and days out the better for their confidence and stability.
- Offer to give foster carers a break for some self-care. Just as therapists need therapy themselves to prevent emotional burnout, foster carers also need to take care of themselves. This is often one of the things I find hardest to do, due to time constraints and there not being many official respite carers available. But this is one of the greatest gifts you can give a foster carer, even if it is just for a few hours. (It is useful if you ideally have an enhanced DBS from a safeguarding point of view).
- Celebrate the foster child where possible. If you can be a mentor or advocate for the young person in your fostering community, this can be such an important relationship. Having been in this situation myself with an adoptive family nearby, I can see how useful it is for the young person to have another trusted adult to rely on. If you can attend school/sporting events alongside the family it gives out a powerful message to the young person that they are of value.
If you would like to know more about fostering or how to better support fostering families in your church or community please drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) 'Exploited and ignored': 1 in 5 foster carers considered quitting over Covid pandemic, ITV News survey shows | ITV News
(2) Children in need of Barnardo’s fostering services up by more than half during coronavirus pandemic | Barnardo's (barnardos.org.uk)