Fostering Assessments: Intrusive? Or telling a story?
Jamie McCreghan is one of LiKa’s supervising social workers, he also undertakes fostering assessments of new applicants. Jamie has written this post to help potential applicants still on the fence about being ‘assessed’ so they can decide whether assessments should be viewed as ‘intrusive’ or an enjoyable exploration of their life story so far…
How long does it take to complete fostering assessments and what is involved?
I love this question! Why are we always in such a rush to get to the finish line? We aim to take no longer than 6 months, however earlier than this is definitely doable. I think if you’re aiming to have a fruitful fostering career, 6 months is a drop in the ocean. We remind everyone that the assessment process is just that, a process with the fostering assessments only in the early stages of learning.
People considering becoming foster carers hear that foster assessments are intrusive. Would you agree with that statement?
I guess we all define this differently. If you’re someone who isn’t used to talking about yourself, it might feel intrusive or strange. I like to think about the assessment process as a chance to tell stories. From what I know about people, they are generally good at telling them. Stories about their family and how this shaped their upbringing. Stories with morals or what’s important to them. Stories that make us laugh or get us to be still and listen.
My job is to listen to these stories, how the applicant makes sense of them and how these shape the way they might foster a young person. Everyone does fostering differently, which I love! In the fostering assessments process, it’s a chance for me to get to know how you might do fostering. Where your strengths sit, what learning needs to emerge and where you might need some handholding.
There’s an idea I like, by Barnett Pearce, where he talks about the stories we tell about ourselves and the way we live our lives, at times being different. I think this tension between the two can be difficult to talk about. Especially when you have someone sitting in front of you deciding if you are safe and able to look after vulnerable children.
I think of it as: I have a story about myself as someone who is kind to all living things. However, anything with eight legs walking around my home is generally flattened within seconds. The story about myself as being a lover of all and killing spiders, doesn’t really match up. Not realising or being used to this tension can be difficult. As part of my role in assessing your skills as a carer, is modelling how to do this and skilling you up to help young people that may come in to your home who have real difficulties in being able to tell a story that resonates for them. Remembering how it feels to tell your story to a stranger is invaluable, as young people are forced to do this over and over again as part of their looked after journey.
What are some of the main qualities you are looking for when assessing applicants that give you a sense they will make good foster carers?
Social Workers assess differently and have distinctive areas in what they look for and appreciate in potential foster carers. I’m definitely drawn to a few areas, which I prioritise as key in becoming a well-rounded carer. I have the acronym GREET in mind. To be innovative and relationship-minded, I need a potential carer to be Genuine. I think young people in care are wonderfully attuned to spotting someone who isn’t genuine. If you’re trying to blag your way through a conversation without commitment, faking stories or not being in the moment, you’ll be spotted a mile off.
Being able to Reflect and using this skill to think about who you are and how you influence, is such an important skill to have. I look for carers who can do this or at least have the potential to really grow in to doing this. Relationships are complex and messy. If you’re not able to reflect on how you might impact a young person and contribute to the relationship, you’re journey to being an outstanding foster carer will be difficult.
What makes a good carer is being able to understand what situations, stories and people get your Empathy pounding. I believe most people are hugely empathetic and want to help create a better world. How we think we can do this looks very different for everyone. Knowing these ‘buttons’ and understanding how you show empathy in some situations over others is key in being able to match you with a young person that can benefit from your warmth and support in this area.
Please, please, please, be Enthusiastic. Think of the people in your life that have positively influenced you. I’m sure that if they didn’t show enthusiasm in their mannerisms, they demonstrated this in the attention, affection and language in the relationship. Young people generally don’t choose to live with foster carers, so being that person who inspires with enthusiasm is not only key, it’s the foundation to the relationship and how to meaningfully create change.
Not exhaustive, but what I feel makes not only a thoughtful person but a great foster is being Tactful. Being aware of your influence, how words shape others and your intention in any conversation is what I test out when assessing carers. Think back to that enthusiastic person you remembered moments ago, what was their level tactfulness in the relationship? Young people don’t always have the skills to regulate themselves as we’d expect, which makes being that carer who is considered and clear in their method just so effective.
The last area, which I haven’t mentioned as it is H and doesn’t fit in to my neat GREET acronym is Humour. Use this liberally and thoughtfully as toast in well-soaked butter. I’m biased, as humour was used in my home when I was growing up to help me not only navigate and understand the world but to enter in to some difficult conversations. If my father was reading this, he would most likely say “Jamie, you can win the world through laughter”. Be that carer who offers some respite during times of uncertainty for the young people in your care.
What would be the reasons that you would not approve someone looking to foster?
When it comes to fostering assessments, there are a few things that would rule a potential carer out, such as any offences against children. It feels quite common that potential foster carers can be worried about having criminal offences show up on their record. Some violence related or offences involving deception may rule someone out at the early stages, crimes are not committed in isolation and without context. This is what we need to know. Being able to reflect on past behaviours and actions and offering a narrative to this allows me to be able to get a richer understanding of what was happening then to now. So, it’s definitely not a no if there is a criminal background. Gaining references from colleagues and family members is also used to help navigate some of these worries people might have about their history.
Another key area for me when assessing a potential carer is them being able to reflect on their life, experiences and the learning from this. If someone is held quite tightly to their opinions and do not have the willingness to be able to shift in their ideas or being open to difference, I would struggle to be able to move forward with their application. Learning doesn’t stop and when we aren’t able to grow from past or current experiences, I would worry how this might show itself in a young person living in their home.
Is support offered during the fostering assessment process?
It’s really open to what is needed by the applicant. Everyone responds differently to the fostering assessment process and with this need reassurance, time and guidance in no singular way. Being open with me about how the assessment is impacting and who is around to help make sense of some of the discussions, is really important. Holding the idea that family and friends are central to being emotional supports is great preparation for fostering, as the emotional challenges ahead may take you by surprise. During the assessment time, any proposed carer attends three Skills to Foster Days, which are information days on learning about child development, the fostering task, managing risk as well as a fourth day which is focused on using Systemic Family Therapy ideas as part of the foster role.
What advice would you give someone who would really like to become a foster carer but is worried about telling their whole life story or may have a difficult story to tell?
I’m sure it would be a fascinating story, but we’ve got those timelines to follow! I need to hear some of your stories, but not your whole life. Where would it end? When I first meet with applicants on fostering assessments, some of the questions I might ask is about how we might manage difficult stories together. Such as, “during our discussions, what areas might feel easier than others?”, “are there ways that you have been able to discuss some of these in the past, how did you negotiate this?”
Our ideas of a worrying story may be very different from one another. I’m thinking that if I was being assessed and I had some stories about me or choices in my life that I felt may impact on me being able to foster, I would most likely offer this at the early stages of meeting. I’d be doing this to not only test out the social worker’s assessment, but how it felt to say something difficult out loud.
If you’re thinking about fostering or just really curious to know more, give us a call at LiKa Family Fostering. We can explore what the process is like in more detail and demystify some of the worries you may have. Knowing more puts you in a good position to think about how your fostering journey could look.