Making a difference: advice from a former foster child
Making a difference: advice from a former foster child
When you are looking at making a difference, what are the best things a foster carer can do to make a young person feel welcome in their home? What mistakes can they easily avoid?
Often we answer these sorts of questions from the point of view of other foster carers. In this article, we answer them from the perspective of a former foster child.
Jo is 21 and lives in London. She had three relatively short but highly influential periods in foster care, aged 13, 15 and 16 – each with a different carer. She now works as a nanny and regularly sits on LiKa’s foster carer assessment panel.
Jo has gone from being a foster child to helping people become foster carers. She has a lot of insights anyone preparing to become, or thinking about becoming, a foster carer will find invaluable.
This is Jo’s story.
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What was it like first going into foster care?
Jo found herself in her first placement after telling someone at school of the trauma she had been experiencing at home. Her first carer was a single woman, with an adult daughter still living at home.
“I was really nervous to be in someone else’s home and in someone else’s space. I wasn’t really sure how to conduct myself,” Jo said.
“I remember feeling awkward about that, but I also remember this great sense of relief that I wasn’t going back home that night. I remember thinking, ‘even if this is not for very long, I’m so relieved.’ I remember feeling very grateful.”
How did they make you feel welcome?
“When I came to her, I didn’t have a lot of stuff,” Jo said. “I didn’t have a lot of clothes and school supplies, just because of the circumstances of (leaving home) – I didn’t have a chance to collect a lot of things.
“I remember one of the first things she did was she took me shopping and she got me some things for school – and just some things that were mine, that I could put in my room. I remember that really helping.”
Jo said the carer and her daughter were “very casual” about inviting her into their routine and home life, and she found that helpful.
“They would encourage me to do things, but if I didn’t feel like doing something they were fine about that. I could skip whatever they were doing that day.”
How can a foster carer make a young person feel comfortable when they first arrive?
“Let them feel their room is their own space,” Jo said. “Especially if they, like I did, feel awkward in a strange place. It helps them feel they belong.”
Jo also stressed the importance of getting the communication balance right.
“Let the young person know that you’re there for them; that you’re there to talk,” she said. “Show them there’s no judgment there. I think as a young person coming into that setting you’ve already spoken to countless social workers, doctors, therapists, police officers, the list goes on. So giving them that space to feel comfortable, and not like they’re in an interview room, is quite important.”
What qualities make a good carer, from your experience?
Jo said, in her view, one of the main qualities a good carer should possess is empathy.
“It’s really important to be able to imagine the young person’s perspective,” she said. “Often young people do or say things that don’t make sense to an adult, or a foster carer, but make sense in the young person’s mind. They’re not thinking rationally.”
“I think it’s quite important to be able to help the young person into a routine – whether that’s your family routine, the young person’s own routine or a combination of both (which is always best).
“But I think keeping them busy and having things to look forward to is really important. Especially when they’re going through a hard time. It’s good to know ‘I’ve got contact tomorrow; I’ve got to see the social worker on Sunday; I’ve got that lunch on Monday or football on Saturday’.”
Is there a particular memory from your time in care that is really special to you?
Jo’s second foster placement was with a woman in Ilford, East London.
“She was a bit older, and when I first got there I wasn’t very keen,” Jo said.
“I just remember she was very outspoken about people standing up for themselves. I remember every day after school I would go to meetings with social workers and I would come home at the end of the day absolutely shattered and she could see how broken I was. I just remember her giving me little pep talks every evening, telling me to stand up for my rights and for myself. It was what I really needed to hear at that time.
“It was very sweet. Knowing that I was going back to that just made it better.”
Is there anything a foster carer did you think they could have done differently?
“The third and final carer I was placed with was a lovely lady but we didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things,” Jo said. “She was very adamant about me following the same routine as she would.
“It was good up to a point, but I remember at the time I was staying with her she had a lot of family events. She really wanted me to attend all these events and I attended the first two then I didn’t want to attend the third one, and she got upset about it and we sort of had a mini argument about it.
“I think in hindsight, as a 16-year-old, I probably said some things that weren’t in my favour, but I think she could have been a bit more understanding about my situation.
“It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for what she was doing but… well, no one wants to be in foster care, do they?
READ MORE: Understanding the teenage brain
Jo skipped the party and ignored her carer’s phone calls.
“Obviously as a looked-after child, that’s not something you can do,” Jo said. “She had to report me as missing. I had everyone calling me. It wasn’t a great night. I did some things that weren’t very smart. But she could have handled it better, too.
“I don’t think she was being malicious; she wanted me to feel involved and wanted to keep an eye on me. But at 16, I did not get that, at all.”
What qualities do you look for in foster carers?
As mentioned above, Jo now regularly sits on foster carer assessment panels for LiKa, helping approve new foster carers and review the performance of current carers. As a former foster child, Jo has invaluable insight.
“I think certain qualities really stand out to me in foster carers,” she said. “For example, when they speak about letting young people have a certain sense of control in their day-to-day lives, about having choices.
“This is especially important for a young person at a time when you’re told you have to stay at this person’s house, you have to go to contact, you have to see your social worker – all these things they most likely don’t want to do. So it’s nice to hear carers say they want to let young people take charge of their own lives.”
Jo said she also likes to hear about a carer’s own children, including:
- The attention parents are paying to their children’s mental wellbeing
- How their children feel about having a foster child in the home
- Details about how their children have helped create an inclusive foster care experience.
“As a carer you want to help young people that are less fortunate than others, and that’s going to be really tough if the people in your household aren’t on board with that,” Jo said.
“I think a lot about my own experiences when I’m listening to carers think about their techniques or plans for caring for young people.
“So my foster carers taking me shopping and being there at the end of the day to listen to me, I think about that quite a lot. When I hear people saying that they allow the young people to be independent, I find that really positive. And when I hear about the foster carer helping the young person decorate their room or helping them integrate into their routines, that really sticks out to me, personally.”
Why do you do the panels?
Jo’s experience in foster care is still quite recent – just five years ago. We asked her why, now she is an adult, she wanted to be involved in foster care through the assessment panel process.
“It’s the same reason I’m a nanny,” she said. “Because I had such an awful start to life, I just love children for how innocent they are – and I just think children should keep that innocence as long as possible.
“Whether it’s after a day of nannying where I know I’ve made the little one I’ve been looking after really happy because we’ve been to the park, or whether it’s after a day of panel where I know I’ve helped to make a decision that is going to see a young person with the right family, that is just so, so fulfilling to me.”
Jo is now considering studying to become a social worker.
What is your advice to anyone thinking about becoming a foster carer?
What is Jo’s advice to anyone who wants to become a foster carer?
“Yes, it comes with its challenges, and yes, there are going to be moments where you think ‘why did I sign up for this?’ but the difference you are going to make in a young person’s life – or multiple young people’s lives – doesn’t even compare,” she said.
“When you see the progress of the shy 12-year-old that came in that couldn’t communicate properly compared to the now 18-year-old who is ready for independent living, and you know you’ve done that. That’s incredible!”
Foster care in south and east London
We’re in the London boroughs of Croydon, Sutton, Bromley, Merton, Lambeth, Westminster, Wandsworth, Lewisham, Southwark, Islington, Camden, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, City of London, Haringey, Newham, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, give the helpful team at LiKa a call on 020 8667 2111. We’re here to answer all your questions.