“If there is anything that children need from parents, even more than food and shelter, it is knowing that parents are committed to them” (Mary Dozier, This is My Child, 2005)
Our current practice, culture and systems in caring for children who are unable to live with their parents keeps them safe and allows them to survive, but for some a lack of true and enduring commitment from their alternative carers can still be devastating.
How does our current system of temporary foster or residential care make sense for children? Does it make any sense for the thousands of carers that want to provide and show enduring commitment, but feel unable to because of the emotional risk they would place themselves in- committing to a child who may not be able to remain with them?
I am not talking about any old commitment here. We are committed to many things, but the focus of that commitment can change. Depending when you catch me, my own commitment to certain tasks at work, getting along to watch my football team, or having one or two less beers on a Friday night can fluctuate. But, ask me about my sons and, given half the chance, I will express way too much delight in goals scored, school problems solved, running achievements or any and all other fascinating elements of their characters. For many children, such different degrees of that ready expression of joy and lifelong commitment to them is the norm.
This is not a given for children in or on the edge of care. Their experience of parenting is likely to have been confusing, frightening or inconsistent, or neglectful. They may have had caring adults in their lives at different stages, but the overwhelming needs of their parents or carers may have made those relationships with them impossible to sustain.
The pathways taken into care may also have inadvertently broken some of those ties with their wider families, their brothers and sisters, friends, teachers or neighbours. The Care Inquiry in England in 2013 found the greatest failing of the care system is that it can break, rather than build, relationships for children.
So, it’s not just ordinary parenting or standard commitment children in care need. The type of commitment Mary Dozier is talking about in relation to young children in foster care is the extent to which carers’ expressed interest in enduring relationships with their foster children and the extent to which they thought of them as their own.
High levels of carer commitment are optimal for children’s development: this reduces the chance of placements breaking down and helps to protect children who have lost attachment figures from negative self-image. Children are more likely to develop an internal working model of themselves as loveable and worthy of care.
Commitment, like love, is not enough. Skilled, therapeutic parenting is needed to help children recover from trauma and loss. Carers, regardless of their setting, need specialist training, active support, containment for their own needs, and excellent, readily available peer support to ensure children’s development and wellbeing. Practitioners and carers know this, but we’ve not yet delivered on all of this.
There are many examples and models of us progressing on this journey. There are also innovative steps towards strengthening existing commitments or growing new commitments from children’s own wider circles. Kinship work that is using family library searches and family group meetings in Scotland’s two biggest cities is showing promise.
It is worth stopping to ask why it is that, in spite of the built-in challenges to our current delivery of kinship care - poverty; overcrowding; lack of wider resources, training or peer support; emergency placements; carer ill health - many children cared for by their kin in high income countries fare as well, or better, in their health, education, social skills and stability of placement, as those looked after by non kin foster parents?
Could the more positive opinion children have of being placed with their kin, rather than in other care settings, be down to their sense of feeling loved and valued, and the enduring commitment from their relatives? Does this provide the precious ingredient for children that psychologist Michael Tarren-Sweeney describes as ‘felt permanence’?
I have no desire to elevate one type of care above another: what we need to strive for is the best possible version of care, regardless of the setting. We need to shape services and support our residential, kinship and foster carers in knowing the importance of, and expressing strongly, their enduring commitment to the child they are caring for, regardless of the challenge that the system presents.