How to end a foster care placement therapeutically
When you end a foster care placement, it can be emotionally very difficult for the young person in care.
These sorts of moments — endings and transitions — can be defining points in someone’s life. When we have a role in managing these moments, we have a responsibility to manage the process as well as possible.
In this article you’ll find advice about ways to prepare for and plan transitions with looked-after young people.
Before we get into it, it’s important to note that the advice below is therapeutically inspired. It’s how we approach everything at Lika. As a therapeutic agency that follows the principles of Systemic Family Therapy, we see our role as supporting our foster carers to nurture and promote resilience in the young people in their care during moments of complexity like transition. If you’d like to learn more about systemic principles, we have lots of information here.
What is a foster care transition like for a young person?
Whether a young person is moving to a longer-term foster care placement or to live with birth family, the uncertainty about what’s to come that is inherent in a transition can cause anxiety and fear.
How the adults involved manage the transition can also provoke a lot of anxiety for the young person. A fear of “getting it wrong” is a common worry among adults and professionals involved with planning these transitions. Think about when you started a new job, ended a relationship with a partner or moved to a new house. The newness and uncertainty can feel really uncomfortable.
For a young person who has experienced abuse and multiple traumas in their life, transitions can feel incredibly scary. The young people in our care don’t always have the range of skills needed to manage these life transitions or endings in ways which are calm and considered.
How do I talk about transition with a young person?
Emotional regulation is difficult, and fear-based responses and reactions can take control. This is known as an “amygdala hijack”. The amygdala is the part of the brain which leads someone to fight, flight or freeze when in distress.
Understanding that our young people can have these fear-based responses means that the adults in their life need to plan and consider the way new information and uncertainties are explained.
Seeing these behaviours as a form of communication means that we can move away from blaming or pathologising (trying to diagnose) the young person.
Common mantras we often consider in these situations (things like “endings lead to new beginnings” or “we’re always in transition and embracing this brings new strength”) are not always a good fit for a young person who has suffered great loss and significant change in their young life.
Despite the complexity and distress that endings can have for our young people, there are moments where we can act more therapeutically in our approach.
How to approach the transition conversation therapeutically
Let’s use an example to explore the different elements we need to consider as part of transition planning if we want to approach it in a therapeutic way.
This is a real case study but we’ve changed the names for privacy reasons.
Luella is 13 years old and had been living with her foster carers for around six months before the decision was made (between Lika, the Local Authority and foster carers, Simon and Prisha) that Luella would need to transition to another longer-term placement.
The risks involved in Luella’s care had changed while living with Simon and Prisha. Luella was struggling with physical outbursts and these impacted on Simon and Prisha’s birth child.
This was a new behaviour that developed whilst Luella was living with Simon and Prisha. It’s not uncommon for young people in care to develop new behaviours as they test the resilience of foster carers (at least, that’s often what can underpin new behaviour).
This was Luella’s third foster placement. Despite Luella trying incredibly hard to shift this behaviour, the impact on Simon and Prisha’s young child was felt to be too great.
We will use Luella’s story as an example of how to use therapeutically inspired ways of preparing a young person to transition to a new placement throughout this article. We’ll come back to her in moment. But first, here’s some important research on ending foster care placements.
The importance of timing, place and a clear narrative
Research has repeatedly shown that young people in care have not felt prepared for placement moves and that they’re often unsure why placements have ended.
There appears to be a shroud of mystery over decision-making. Strong feelings of rejection can often arise from incomplete or unclear messages for our young people.
Here is our best advice for preparing a young person for transition.
1. Timing and place are important.
When and where you choose to explain a placement transition is important. Some spaces feel safer than others. Understanding this can help our young people.
For Luella, the conversation was had after school on a day she didn’t have after-school clubs. It took place in the backyard (a place that felt open, safe and not confined) and on a Monday, so she could access her social worker throughout the week.
1. Carefully choose whom the news comes from
Explaining the transition (providing the narrative around it) is usually done by the allocated social worker. But having the foster carers, a birth parent or a key professional present may also be helpful in offering nurture and support.
For Luella this information came from her social worker and foster carers. Luella had a consistent relationship with her social worker but was closer to Simon and Prisha.
As it was a joint decision, it felt important for Luella to hear from the key people how and why the decision was made to end the placement. The carers’ child was not home so that Luella could have all the focus and express herself freely.
2. Don’t blame the young person
If a young person could be living at home with birth family, and not in foster care, they would most likely choose this. We need to be mindful of our own sadness and how we can project this onto others.
It takes time for children and young people to heal and to learn new ways to name and communicate their needs to trusted adults.
The responsibility for Luella moving was taken by the social worker. The social worker expressed how Luella was trying hard to communicate her needs without violence; however, to help her in the next steps of this, it would be with a different family.
Simon and Prisha spoke about feeling that as they had their own child, this didn’t allow them the space to help Luella heal and attend to her needs in ways that were more helpful.
They knew the violent outbursts wouldn’t last forever if Luella was given more time to heal, but this was not helpful for their own child and they needed to keep them safe.
Some work had already been done with Luella, exploring brain development and the impacts of trauma, which the social worker was able to refer to in the conversation. No matter the description, we knew Luella felt rejected, let down and unworthy of remaining in place.
Once the end of a foster placement has been explained, it’s time to make the most of the ending.
Capturing time together, however short
Some endings for young people can feel like a loss or rejection. It’s unlikely you’re going to be able to help a young person overcome this in the time you have with them before the transition.
However, we can show through our actions, words and planning that the young person is worthy of, and deserves, love.
No matter how short relationships are during these chapters in our lives, we can always take something from them.
We can ask ourselves these questions to reflect on the relationship:
- As a fostering family, what have we learnt about ourselves by living with and experiencing this young person? How have we become more resilient? How have we learnt to have more fun and be playful? Perhaps you’ve learnt about street slang or TikTok dances or you’ve finally understood all the fuss about K-pop? Reflecting with a young person about what you’ve taken from them whilst being together shows they have value — that they have knowledge and can form meaningful relationships.
- What have you learnt about your young person? As someone who is new in their life, you’ve been able to observe them. Perhaps you’ve seen sides of them that others have not — a new and multidimensional narrative. Foster carers observe greatness in their young people; this needs to be captured.
- How can we remember this time together forever? Share photos, videos and keepsakes that show your time together.
How to build a young person’s knowledge and resilience
Sadly, young people in care have often had many relationship changes (foster carers, social workers, professionals, key workers, birth family coming and going).
As a result, they have their own narrative about change in relationships. Talk about this with them. Ask them how they’ve negotiated these in the past.
Some helpful questions to ask could be:
- When you were with your last foster carer, how was the ending for you? Was it how you wanted it to be or something different?
Luella had a narrative that placements end quickly, you accept what you’re told and that getting sad wasn’t helpful as it didn’t change anything. This offered valuable insights and we wanted to do things differently for Luella so there was space for her to explore her feelings and thoughts. We also wanted her to feel she was getting a say in future changes.
- What helped you get through the change of last placement? If you had to give advice to a young person who had to move placements, what would you offer?
Luella’s advice was that she would tell the young person to keep quiet, as they’ll only get angry if they try to talk about the move, as it will feel unfair. This insight allowed us to explore in more depth with Luella how we could do things differently with this move.
Our young people don’t always have the language to express what they’re feeling. One of our roles is to help them find a voice and to strengthen their narratives of resilience.
Be creative in how you approach this, as a conversation isn’t always the best way to do it. Texting, art, sculptures, creative drawing, puppets or emotional literacy cards may fit better for your young person.
Planning for the new placement
By talking with young people about their new homes, we’re preparing them for the next steps. We’re talking about the uncertainty of whom they will be living with.
Foster carers and the professional network involved in the transition may not always know where the transition will be to, but just talking about it opens up a space for empathy.
Listen to what the young person wants, their fears, and their needs from their future foster carers. If this feels challenging to talk about as the adult, imagine what it’s like for the young person!
Let’s check back in with Luella’s story.
A couple of days after the conversation about the transition, Luella was able to think about life away from Simon and Prisha. This meant Simon and Prisha were able to gently check in with her, using questions to start Luella thinking about the future.
Here are a few ways the foster carers were able to offer a space for Luella to explore what she wanted:
- Luella, what do you imagine these new foster carers might be like? What do you think they will look and sound like? Do you think they will have children, like we do, or something different? What about other foster children? I wonder if they will hate EastEnders as much as you!
Despite not being able to offer Luella answers, hearing what she is already thinking about opens a space to explore (the intention is to listen).
- Luella, who would you like these new foster carers to be? Where would they live? What would their personalities be like? Do they look and sound like you, or something different? Will they love TikTok like you do? What do you think is the important thing for these people to know about you and what do you hope they never know? Luella, how can we communicate these ideas to your social worker, as they’re keen to hear what you want.
Luella was asked how and if she wanted support from Prisha and Simon with offering these ideas (this offers the young person a space for self-efficacy). Luella created and sent a WhatsApp video with her foster carer which talked about her likes, dislikes and what she needed from her future foster carers. Despite the pain of needing to move, Luella having some control over how she was able to describe her needs offered some reassurance that this transition would be different from others.
Marking the time together
Transitions can be difficult and scary. They’re not always going to be marked with fireworks and celebrations. Responding therapeutically is about asking what your young person needs.
If you’re marking the transition, think about why you’re doing it and whom it is serving. Your needs and the young person’s needs might be very different. Understanding what your own needs are versus those of the young person will help you plan for the transition in a way that is child-focused and purposeful.
Here are 5 key things to keep in mind:
- Ask your young person if they would like to mark the ending and, if so, what ideas they have around it. Allow space and time for this to process for the young person
- Young people don’t always say what they want or know what you’re able to do for them. Come up with ideas that you think might fit for them. Be OK if none of these work for them – it’s their ending
- Marking it shouldn’t feel prescriptive. Be lateral with your thinking. You know your young person. Keep connected to the professional network/birth family to hear their ideas if you’re able to
- Plan the ending together with your young person as much as possible. Often, looked-after young people in care can feel really unsettled with surprises and won’t like sitting with the uncertainty of the unknown “event” being planned
- Sometimes, less is more. A thoughtful letter, card, framed photo and promises that you stick to can be more meaningful than you think.
Luella only wanted to mark her time with the family with her favourite meal. The foster carers’ meals had meant a lot to Luella, so having the transition marked with her favourite food meant a lot to her. Prisha wrote Luella a little book with her favourite recipe that she knew she would be able to make. It was a way for their connection to remain.
In London and want to know more about Lika Family Fostering?
Being a foster carer is a role like no other. Successful foster care requires an excellent support network and team around the placement.
Lika is an innovative agency that uses systemic family therapy approaches as a model to guide everything we do.
If you’re interested to know more, give our team a call on 0208 667 2111 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lika recruits foster carers in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Ilford, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea.