What kinds of challenges do new foster carers face?
Becoming a foster carer for the first time is an exciting but sometimes daunting experience with many challenges.
You’re about to embark on an incredible journey – one that is life-changing not just for you and your family but for the young person you’re about to welcome into your home, too.
So, what’s it like?
We spoke to a new foster carer in the Lika family, Judy from Croydon in South London, to find out what her first six weeks as a foster carer have been like — including the challenges she has faced, and the wonderful rewards.
Here’s Judy’s story.
GOT QUESTIONS?: If you want to know more about becoming a foster carer in London, ask our team here.
Why did you want to become a foster carer?
I’ve always thought it was a good thing to do. I grew up in a family of five so I was used to having children around. I had wanted to do it for a long time but I was in a busy job, I did long hours, with a lot of traveling so it wasn’t practical – I couldn’t physically do it. Plus I was a single parent and I think it would have been difficult.
So when I was made redundant a little while ago I spoke to my daughter’s friend, who is a social worker, and she thought I’d be an OK foster carer. She recommended Lika. So I started foster caring about six weeks ago.
What has the experience been like? What challenges have you faced?
The first challenge is the moment they come to the door for the first time.
Up until that moment you’ve read a profile of the child, you’ve assessed how you’re going to react to that child and whether that child is a good fit for you and your lifestyle. Suddenly stop and think that, up to that point, it has all been theory!
Even though you’ve gone through the assessment and the assessment talks to you about what sort of child would be good for you, the reality is that when you see the child for the first time, it becomes real.
The next thing is greeting the child. Whatever you think, it’s never going to be quite that – because the child’s experience is what they come in with. They’re probably going to be a little bit hyper, because it’s extremely nerve-racking for them – nothing is familiar, everything is different, so it’s always strange.
And then when the social workers finally walk out, it’s a little bit ‘oh s*** — this is real now, and it’s 24/7’.
That is the reality — it’s 24/7.
You have some fantastic moments with that child but some moments where you think ‘have I done the right thing?’. But it’s worth it for the good moments.
What’s it like when they come in the front door?
It’s strange because when people come to the door you’re naturally touchy-feely – or I am, anyway — so you just want to give them a big hug hello. But with this child you don’t know what ‘touchy-feely’ means for them. They could be a touchy-feely child or they might not.
So your head is spinning about “should I or shouldn’t I?” You’re very much reading the child on the day and in the moment.
It’s exciting and thrilling and nerve-racking all at the same time – so many challenges
What were the first 24 hours like? Was it overwhelming?
I didn’t feel overwhelmed, no.
You’re busy taking into account that this situation isn’t “normal” but you’re trying to make it normal. So you chat away. You treat them like a normal kid, but you’re also conscious that their head is spinning at a hundred miles an hour.
You just have to get on and be normal. You can’t be someone you’re not; you have to be you – you just have to trust that you can build that relationship. And you can.
Remember it may not be what you had with your own kids, or at least not yet, because that’s going to take a while.
It also may not be a relationship like any other relationship that you’ve had, because this child has been through something. You don’t know what – you’ll never really know for sure. You just treat them like a child and you get on like normal: you get up and make breakfast; you get them off to school. You just have to be aware that because it’s strange for them they may react differently to the way you’d expect.
How did you prepare for the child’s arrival?
When you go through the assessment process it’s quite thought-provoking because it allows you to think about the type of child you want, and also what type of child wouldn’t suit you. It’s alright to say “I want to foster” but it might be through the process you realise you’re better with older children or younger children, or whatever.
So through the process you think about the child that would suit you, your family, your lifestyle. Lika are very good at questioning you to make you think about it. Then the training was really helpful because it tries to give you a different perspective on it.
Lika screen the profiles of the children and, bearing in mind what you’ve explained would suit your family, they try to only talk to you about children who might suit you.
Before accepting the placement, Lika asked me what extra information I wanted to know that would help me make a decision on the child. But also they were very good at recognising where there might be issues or concerns. They questioned me about how I felt about various aspects. They went back to the social worker for the child to ask those questions. So it felt like a robust process.
Then they challenged whether I was up for the complexity of this particular case. They were asking me if I thought I could manage different aspects. It was a very supportive process.
When they thought they’d found matches, they allowed me to think about them and challenge them.
Now the child is here I do a daily log. If there are any concerns or praise or anything they want to offer additional support on, they’re there. I get regular calls, contacts and visits. They’re very much there if you have issues or concerns.
What have the first six weeks been like?
As I understand often happens, the child did make a claim that I hit her, which was quite a challenge. I hadn’t done it.
The council of social workers came out that very day. Obviously, if a child claims anything, it has to be reviewed. But it was a very quick process. The claim was unfounded.
It was quite unsettling because it’s scary, because they make a police report – but I knew I hadn’t done anything. Again, Lika were there and whilst they can’t take sides for obvious reasons, they were very supportive. I could ask questions about the process and so on.
The other challenge was that I have a young kid who has moments where they fly off the handle. That’s partly because of their age, but also what they’ve been through. Sometimes they kick off on things that are unexpected because you don’t know what triggers them. Things that might have been OK with your own kids triggers something else for them, perhaps a memory. So you have to learn and be aware of that.
The other thing is bedtime can be a challenge because it’s at night when they’re lying down in bed that the thoughts come. That’s when the stress comes out in the child.
That can be quite hard because it takes a long time to settle them. But I still can’t believe that this child is standing. She smiles and she’s fun, but then at night the panic comes in. It’s not necessarily that anything has happened to her at night; it’s just that’s when the thoughts come.
A lot of it is common sense and realising that when there’s stress, it’s not personal. It’s not your fault that something happened to the child, you just have to hold their hands through it.
Fortunately the social workers will offer suggestions on how to handle things. They’ve also offered me the support of a therapist, who I can call when I need to. She’s someone I can talk to about what’s happening with the child — who can give me hints and tips. She doesn’t know the child, so she is an independent sounding-board.
How has fostering changed your life?
I spent my working life watching the clock, and for a while there I got out of the habit and relaxed a bit. But now I’m back watching the clock – I’m back to the school run and I have lots of meetings with social workers, the school, reviews, health appointments, and so on.
But if you were working you’d be used to the clock, anyway. It’s fine;, it’s just that I got out of the habit.
You have to think of different ways to entertain the child. Again, that’s getting into a routine for that child and tapping into what they want to do. I think a lot of children come with their preferences settled anyway, but when they’re quite young you’re helping them to find out what they’re interested in.
What’s been the most rewarding aspect of being a foster carer so far?
The fact that people have noticed a difference in her.
She obviously has her own baggage: things have happened to her that I can’t make magically disappear. However, she is building a relationship with me and other people can see that.
She’s a loving, bright, clever little girl — and I can see that coming though. That others have noticed a difference in her is a reward in itself. It’s only very early days, so that’s a little bit of a boost.
People have commented that she’s feeling the benefit of being here. That’s what you do it for.
What advice do you have for people thinking about becoming foster carers?
I think if you are even thinking about it, you should pick up the phone and ask.
You can do the training, it’s all free, you’re learning all the time, and at any point you can stop. Even when you got through to the panel stage, if you don’t feel like it’s the right child for you, you can stop.
It doesn’t cost anything and it’s always down to you. You’ve got nothing to lose.