It's Foster Care Fortnight right now and so there have been a lot of news reports and editorials on the subject. As usual there are the many, many stories of people who say they really wanted to foster but were put off by something or other that social services said to them, fuelling the debate about whether it's simply too hard to get into fostering and adoption.
I've blogged around these issues before, but I'll say it again: if you find the process of being approved as a foster carer too much like hard work, or too intrusive, then you're probably better off not doing it. This is no criticism. Fostering isn't for everybody and there's no shame in saying it's not right for you or for your family at this time or maybe ever.
But let's be realistic about the children we're dealing with here. These are children who, at the very least, will have experienced the trauma of being recently separated from their families, their friends and their homes, not to mention what might have gone on before that. These kids need more than a place to live or someone to feed and clothe them. It is not enough to take care of a child's material needs - they have serious emotional needs as well which will take a toll on the families who take the challenge of caring for them.
On today's 'You and Yours' on Radio 4 a person had emailed in complaining that, as a single male carer, he had been put off from continuing with his fostering application when he discovered that he would be expected to give up his work and look after a foster child full time. In his opinion it would do a fostered child a lot of good to be around somebody who was actually working.
Let's leave aside for a moment the assumptions inherent in such a view, and unpack this idea of fostering a child while holding down a full time job without a second carer. Supposing he had fostered a child of school age. No problem, you might think. The child would be at school for most of the day. Maybe so. But even if we assume that this carer had a regular 9-5 job with, say, a half-hour commute, then we can see that extra childcare is going to be needed in the early evenings, not to mention during the school holidays.
So this fostered child would be removed from the family and friends they have known (and this is a trauma for children, regardless of how awful we might consider their situation to have been) and placed in the home of a total stranger with habits, rules, food and a lifestyle that are completely different. While they are still getting used to that they will be introduced to another stranger - the person who will care for them after school while the foster parent is at work. Another strange environment to get used to. And then maybe another new routine in the school holidays. For a child already at risk of attachment disorders this might all be a bit too much to handle.
And that's just part of it. The majority of fostered children have regular contact visits with family, usually during office hours. How can that be organised if the carer is at work? Fostered children have more medical appointments than other children, and foster carers are often called into school to deal with problems that might arise there. All very disruptive if you are trying to hold down a full-time job.
Most of the objections I hear people raise on these call-in shows seem to basically boil down to this: social services wouldn't let me have it my way, so I gave up the idea. The suggestion seems to be that if social services would only agree with the assumptions and views and requirements of the totally unqualified prospective foster carers then there wouldn't be such a shortage.
I'm not denying that dealing with social services can be a complete pain, but many of their ways of doing things that seem so strange to us are based on years of research, studies, reports and experience. They don't always get it right - that much is obvious - but alternatives to these methods need to be based on something more robust than "well, it's common sense, isn't it?"
There is very little about the situation of looked after children in our country that is common sense. It's not common sense for children to be neglected, abused and brutalised and yet it goes on all the time. If we are going to make a real go of helping these little ones then we are going to need to abandon our presumptions and preconceived ideas and really, truly put their needs first.