Right Foster Carer, right foster kid: the inside story of a foster placement
When you train to become a social worker, the first thing you learn is that social work is predominately ‘relationship-based’ — that our success often comes down to the quality of the relationships we build with families, children and professionals.
That, of course, also applies to fostering — where arguably the most important relationship is the one between the foster child and foster family. But there are other relationships that are absolutely vital to the success of any foster placement, like those between a foster carer and their professional network.
Let me explain why, using an example.
Relationship building through the foster placement process
Earlier this year I was lucky to be involved in the matching and placement of Rhianna, an eight-year old girl, with Georgia, a first-time foster carer in her early 60s.
Rhianna had complex emotional needs stemming from early childhood trauma.
Moving in with Georgia was Rhianna’s eighth foster placement in three years.
The trauma of separation (from her birth family and multiple foster placements) had already taken a toll on Rhianna’s emotional wellbeing, her trust in adults, and her sense of self-worth.
Careful relationship building throughout the matching and placement process was going to be imperative for success.
The first port of call was her school’s staff, as they had long-standing relationships with Rhianna. Their understanding of this little girl’s very complex life journey, and the challenging behaviours she demonstrated, helped us identify potential risks that could lead to a placement breakdown. This enabled us to consider the level of support we needed to provide to ensure a successful placement and assess whether Georgia and Rhianna were a good match.
Building this relationship with the school not only informed our risk assessment but also helped us consider:
- Does Georgia possess the competencies needed to help Rhianna feel settled, nurtured and secure?
- Does Georgia, as a first-time carer, possess the resilience to effectively meet Rhianna’s complex emotional needs?
- What does Rhianna need from her carer and professionals to help heal from trauma?
- How are we all going to work togetherto make Rhianna’s placement with Georgia a success?
Getting to know the foster child’s personality through the foster placement process
Discussing these questions with the school did much more than just inform our risk assessment.
By talking face-to-face with the adults Rhianna had the most consistent relationships with, we learned a lot about the person she is, very quickly. Her amazing sense of humour, her positive energy and playfulness, and her incredible ability to be resilient came through really clearly. These qualities would have been missed if we had just based the match on words in a referral.
We also learned about Rhianna’s need for nurturing, love, cuddles, and play, and the importance of her finally settling in one place.
Finding the right foster carer for the right foster child
The more we learned about Rhianna, the more we felt that Georgia would be an excellent match.
The next step was thinking practically about strategies that would enable Georgia to respond thoughtfully and empathically to Rhianna’s needs in times of crisis.
Interventions for children who have experienced trauma draw heavily on therapeutic parenting techniques. These techniques enable carers to safely manage children’s emotional outbursts and challenging behaviours in a non-judgmental, accepting, nurturing and therapeutic manner.
Helping children learn from a safe and consistent carer how to regulate their own emotions is a large part of the healing process.
READ MORE: What is a systemic approach to foster care?
Applying a therapeutic approach to foster care
Supervising Social Workers recognise the central role that foster carers play in changing young peoples’ lives. We always keep in mind that foster carers are the intervention for our young people.
Every question and every conversation a foster carer has with a child can be a therapeutic intervention with the potential to aid healing and create change.
But therapeutic parenting approaches are much easier to understand in theory than they are to apply in practice. It means foster carers are often faced with the difficult job of going against their instinctive or traditional parenting methods.
Therapeutic approaches to care mean foster carers need to be constantly self-reflective. That is, thinking about the language they use, their actions and what guides their decisions. This is no easy feat.
For example, a foster child will often try to push their carer’s ‘buttons’ — usually to test the carer’s commitment to them. The child might exhibit extreme behaviours, such as verbal and physical aggression, just to get a reaction.
A typical emotional response would be for a carer to feel angry, fearful or annoyed and to attribute blame. Questions like, “why are you behaving like this when I’m trying to help you?” or “why are you being unreasonable?” are instinctive.
However, therapeutic parenting approaches require carers to be empathetic, thoughtful and supportive in these difficult moments — and especially in these moments when the relationship is being tested.
Even when feeling fed up, carers need to show calm in their body language and facial expressions. Start conversations off by saying something like, “I can see you are upset, and I think this might be because…”. Modelling language and ideas to a young person is key to helping them make sense of what they might be feeling.
Practice, patience and perseverance
A foster carer remaining calm when seeing a distressed child requires practice, patience and perseverance. These techniques can feel quite alien at first and, of course, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to therapeutic parenting.
However, these strategies will not only support the child when they’re learning to regulate their own emotional responses but can also help strengthen the trust and bond between carer and child.
And foster carers are not alone! Through the use of regular training, social worker supervision and sessions with a systemic family therapist, an entire team of professionals is available to help you gain the skills necessary to develop these therapeutic parenting techniques.
Unfortunately, this is not always the fostering experience
It is amazing what can be achieved with good relationships, including professional support relationships. It has certainly lead to success for Rhianna and Georgia.
While their foster family is still relatively new (and hasn’t been without its ups and downs), they’re settling in well — and we’re all seeing a real change in Rhianna, which is thrilling for both Georgia and our team at Lika. It looks like we got the match right.
Unfortunately, it’s not always like that.
I have spent the majority of my career working for local authorities, where the tone is more about cost-cutting and being ‘proportionate’. (Proportionate, by the way, is a term that really means fulfilling statutory duties and ignoring anything that goes ‘above and beyond’.)
My role at Lika in South London is my first with an Independent Fostering Agency and it has been like a breath of fresh air, being part of a team that is focused on making a positive change in a child’s life.
Relationships are at the centre of everything we do at Lika, just as they should be.
When solid relationships are developed, everyone involved can work together for the common goal. Supporting the child’s healing, whether that’s to increase their ability to understand and manage emotions, reduce school absences or learn to build and maintain friendships with peers, are just some of the many tasks foster carers work to achieve.
Relationships, therefore, must be prioritised and nurtured – and a huge part of that is getting the match right.
If you’re in Croydon or South or East London and would like to find out more about foster placement or start your fostering journey, give Lika Family Fostering a call today on 020 8667 2111. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.