We are open, responsive and actively listen

19 September 2018

Topic: Foster care
Author: Michael Stewart

Michael Stewart, from Fosterplus, gives an insight into a model used to improve foster care practice

A teenager talking to two adults

‘They act nice at the start, sometimes say to you this is where you will live forever, usually untrue, ‘cause you might not.’

This comment from Clare* aged 14 when describing her experience of coming to live with her previous foster care family; she had several placements prior to living with our carers. 

Her description for moving in to live with this new family was:

‘My [previous] carers never told me that ‘You’re staying here’; however they [the new carers] asked me if I wanted to stay here, they listened and made me feel welcomed.’

What changed with this young person’s experience from one carer to another?

Since 2016, Fosterplus Scotland has been committed to embedding the Secure Base (SB) model into our practice. When I joined the agency in March 2017, I was interested in how the agency had developed their systems and practice to reflect the five dimensions of this model.

The model is drawn from attachment theory, and adapted to include an additional element: that of family membership, for children who are separated from their birth families. The model proposes five dimensions of caregiving, each of which is associated with a corresponding developmental benefit for the child:

Availability – Helping to trust
Sensitivity – Helping to manage feelings
Acceptance – Building self-esteem
Co-operation- Helping to become effective
Family Membership – Helping to belong

What is meant by ‘helping to belong’ is a sense of belonging to their foster family, whilst being helped to recognise and value their birth family network.

As an agency, we have been implementing Secure Base as a whole system approach and revising internal systems and processes so that we consider feelings and reactions within the five dimensions. Carers and staff consider how the dimension affect us, and use this to modify or adapt our reactions to how we then respond to the needs of children in placement.

In May 2017, we invited Professor Gillian Schofield, who alongside Dr Mary Beek from the University of East Anglia, developed the model and has been instrumental in developing it within the UK and internationally, to present her work at our annual conference.

Impact on young people

When considering the impact of us using the model is having on young people, Clare was asked what the difference was between her current family and past foster placements:

'They wanted me to be part of their family; they showed me this by not letting me to go off the rails – I can be a bit of a handful. My carer tells me that she loves me, and wants me to be with her but that my behaviour is sometimes not acceptable.’

When we asked foster carers about how they demonstrate providing a secure base to children and young people in placement, Hannah, a foster carer, provided the following observation:

‘With my young man, it was important to him that he had a sense of security, also that he still had a place within his birth family as he still has contact. I explained how his family is now part of our family, and vice versa, as a result we include his family in events and celebrations and highlight how lucky he is to have such a big family. It’s important that he felt he could be a member of both families.

‘From my past fostering experience, I am aware that belonging is about things that are tangible, that you can see, before you get the feeling that you belong. Seeing things provide a reference point. We have a door naming ceremony, where we put his name up on the front door, alongside other members of the household. We celebrated this with cake and balloons and now his post comes in his own name, not ‘care of’ which is very important.  It means that every time he opens the door to come in he knows it’s just as much his home as it is ours.’

For staff, we have introduced reflective practice sessions. These are facilitated by an external therapist to give some space and time to reflect upon how Secure Base can help them develop effective relationships with the families they support. 

Cheryl, one of our social workers, explained to us how this has helped her to support a family who had experienced a placement disruption:

‘I used the group to think about what I was feeling, what the child concerned must be feeling, as well as what it must have be like for the carers in relation to what had happened. This meant when I went to have the discussion, I could be available to the carers within the session, consider how best to respond sensitively to them, and accept their point of view, and work co-operatively to develop our working relationship. The result was that the couple feel supported and remain a part of the Fosterplus family.’

We are still on the learning curve when it comes to using Secure Base to full effect and have key priorities to work towards, including setting up reflective practice hubs within each of our offices.

Creating opportunities for children and young people, whether they are with their birth families or in foster care, to help us develop the model further and embed the model across all dimensions of our work, are our other key concerns.

It’s an exciting time and we won’t always get it right, but we will hopefully give a message to all that we are open, responsive and actively listen so that we can improve. 

Michael Stewart is Quality Assurance Manager at Fosterplus.

*The name has been changed to protect their identity

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

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