I was both heartened and saddened in equal measures by the response by foster carer Jane, to my recent blog about commitment by carers, Commitment, like love, is not enough.
Jane was speaking from the heart about the emotional commitment she has for each child she has fostered, the criticism at times from practitioners for showing this love, and the emotional toll she has had to shoulder as a result. As Jane says:
“The problem was not the love and attunement we showed to the children but the reaction of the system to that loving care. I've often had to defend the criticism that I was too emotionally attached and every time my answer has been the same if I wasn't emotionally involved they wouldn't have thrived”.
It seems clear to me that Jane knows what children need and the skills required to deliver that. What she might not have is the back-up she needs and deserves.
I have never met Jane but I have met, worked alongside, and supported, many who feel this frustration. They work in every care setting: fostering, bringing up their own kin, and looking after children in residential care.
Of course, not every carer may feel or act the same as Jane does towards the children they care for, but many share similar frustrations, as highlighted by my colleague Kenny McGhee’s in his blog, Commitment must be matched by deeds, not just words. Many feel they have very little control over planning for children to arrive, decision-making over how long they will stay within their care, managing transitions from one care placement to another, or to so called independence - the ‘instant adulthood’ described by social worker and academic Mike Stein.
While Kenny is focusing on throughcare and aftercare in his blog, he often explains how those stages can only be successful if the planning and the commitment to children is built in from the very start of any care arrangement.
For years now, carers in every setting have been maintaining healthy relationships with children who have moved on from their care in spite of, rather than because of the care system. They know this feels right and these enduring relationships are often crucial to the developmental needs of children and young adults. Care Visions’ ‘Why Not’ project is a good example of bringing this practice out into the open and celebrating its importance.
Stability is fundamental for children’s development but the current care system can institutionalise and normalise disruption of relationships. Carers or teams of residential workers in isolation cannot offer this commitment. The commitment needs to be part of the whole package for children, right from how social workers and their managers assess children’s needs; how services are commissioned; the funding arrangements put in place; the awareness of the importance of enduring relationships in decision makers at child care reviews, Children’s Hearings, and in schools; and in the responsibilities and responses of all corporate parents.
Carers know that the care system at all levels has to be informed and driven by what we know about child development, relationships, and recognising the complexity and messiness of lives.
But this, in itself, is far from straightforward, especially for our carers and workforce, who can be vulnerable to secondary trauma, compassion fatigue, or burn out. Where these responses are internalised by individuals, rather than addressed organisationally, this impacts on workers’ abilities to remain relational, compassionate in their practice, and decision-making, and for carers, compassion fatigue could affect their ability to emotionally invest in the children they care for. The strategies that are recommended in work places for coping with compassion fatigue, such as self-care and work-life balance do not fit with settings such as foster care given their 24/7 commitment to children’s care.
Some organisational responses are likely to reduce compassion fatigue in foster care too, for example, a break for foster carers to recharge and reflect after a placement ends, rather than immediately introducing another child to the foster family.
When a relationship ends, there can be significant loss for anyone and this is often the case for children in care and their foster carers. The temporary nature of foster placements may lead to some carers maintaining an emotional distance from children in order to protect themselves from potential future distress and, mistakenly, feeling that this approach also protects children from becoming too attached.
Recurrent exposure to traumatic events and the stress of wanting to help children and young people who have been traumatised can increase the likelihood of experiencing symptoms of secondary traumatic stress. It is also known that the qualities that make people capable of empathy are those that make them also vulnerable to secondary trauma.
As I reflect back on my own emotional health as a social worker and manager as, well as observation of many social workers and carers over my career, it is critical that we support our child care practitioners as well as our carers to enable them to demonstrate their compassion and commitment to children. Defensive, self-protective ways of working are not conducive.
Enduring, committed relationships with at least one caring adult have the potential to restore children’s development. Whatever way of working we develop; it must be dynamic and support meaningful, restorative relationships for children
The current carer must be able to show love and commitment whilst they live together and then once they no longer do. Where it is in the child’s best interests, supporting children and their birth parents to maintain enduring relationship with previous carers can be crucial for the child’s development and stability.
Let’s return to the words of Jane, the foster carer who responded to my blog, in thinking about the children she had cared for.
“I am immensely proud of them all and would love to see a system where these relationships are protected.”
Maintaining such protective relationships with children’s carers, in partnership with parents where possible must be the focus for our children and young people.
Gordon Main works within our Improving Care Experiences programme.