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Agents of change

Monday 24 September 2018



Topic: Foster care
Author: Jo Derrick

Additional support for foster carers at the early stages of placement has proven to improve outcomes for families and children.

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Foster Care Associates Scotland has been operating for 15 years now and one of the areas we have been exploring is placement breakdowns among children and young people.

When we started operating, we were seeing a lot of emergency placements for children and young people. It’s in the very nature of emergency referral that there is not as much information as we might like to have to fully inform a matching process, so we’ve always been conscious of the need to be able to provide support to placements, primarily to the foster carer.

But now more than 50 per cent of our children and young people are either in long-term or permanent placements, and with this experience we wanted to explore further placement stability and how this is achieved.

Fragility at two-months

We undertook some research internally and what we were able to identify was that there was a very fragile period at the early stages where a foster-carer might say: “Actually I need to give notice on this placement.”

We found that that tends to be around the two-month mark, and we also found that if a young person was asking to move from placement it was around about that same time-scale, in those first two months.

This won’t come as a big surprise to a lot of people in this field in terms of the ability to form relationships, setting new boundaries and working together. But what we also found was that if we could get beyond that two-month mark and up towards the five-month mark, we were able to see that the number of placement breakdowns reduced quite drastically.

Support for early stage of placement

So we took that information, and used that evidence to enhance our practice. We further reviewed the support system we had in place at that very early stage of placement, particularly when we are talking about an emergency placement for a child or young person.

The majority of carers whom we recruit are new to fostering. They have a theoretical knowledge of fostering. But when it comes to putting this into practice, they are faced with a young person who is unlikely to have made the choice to come into foster care. The carers have to build these relationships as well as a new relationship with our agency.

One of the decisions that we made as a result of this insight was to provide foster carers with a ‘front-loading’ of resources at that very early stage, when a child or young person first comes into placement.

One of the most important aspects of this for the foster carer is the relationship they have with the supervising social worker, and his or her availability.

Our procedures already would see that supervision happens on a monthly basis plus telephone calls in between, but now when a young person is first in placement that social worker is available for an increased number of calls, visits and supervisions during that period.
Our out-of-hours service, which is available to all foster carers, is also geared up to the fact that we have children who are newly in placement and they get a heads-up that a foster carer might want or need to make more frequent contact.

More often than not when foster carers are feeling vulnerable it’s in an evening, maybe at 10pm when a young person has not returned home for example, and that’s when they feel they need the support, so our out-of-hours backup is key, particularly in those very early days.
We also have carer representatives, and the foster is signposted to their local carer representative to get peer support. They also get access to our support services such as education and therapy as part of an overall plan to ensure the carer is feeling competent and confident in order that they can focus on the needs of the child.

Agents of change

But we want to ensure our foster carers can become the agents of change, and we want to minimise the number of professionals involved in a child’s life at that very early stage, so this is about support and not overwhelming.

It’s about being able to provide different supports that the carer can access such as the support groups, the social worker, the different people involved in our unique team parenting approach to support them and they then take that back into the home setting. They can keep things as natural as possible for the child or young person but know they have a high level of support, and that’s absolutely key to success for placement stability.

A really good example of how effective this can be was where we had a single foster carer, new to fostering, and there was a referral for a young boy who had very complex needs.

The child was placed, but the carer very quickly found the level of need from this young person was beyond that which even we had thought would be the case, and beyond what she expected as someone new to fostering. We ensured she had support from the child support workers, a strong support network around her, the social worker was on the phone on a daily basis, and out-of-hours was used regularly.

We also made sure the education support was there to help with the transition of schools so that he wasn’t out of school any longer than was strictly necessary, and worked with the school to see what additional support he might need there.

I’m really pleased to say that placement for that young person was a success: he has remained with that foster carer for a number of years now, and will be moving on to his permanent placement shortly.

The carer has subsequently told us several times: “If I didn’t have that support at the very early stages I just don’t know if I would have been able to carry on.” This successful outcome for this child and that foster carer, shows that this change in intervention and support, evidenced by the experience of carers, has been the right one and has become standard practice within our agency.

Jo Derrick is Managing Director at Foster Care Associates Scotland

Below you can hear a podcast of Jo Derrick talking about a change to the way that Foster Care Associates recruit foster carers.

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