Sunday, December 28, 2014

I Don't Hate Social Workers. Honest!

My recent blog about a disappointing experience at the start of a new placement garnered a lot of comments, the vast majority of which were supportive. Of course, I am most struck by the one comment that was not.

It was a former foster carer, adoptive parent and, now, social worker, who felt offended by what I wrote. She felt that this 'sarcastic' and 'derogatory' piece should not have been published without 'context' in such a public way. She was upset by the piece and, for that, I am sorry.

You see, I don't hate social workers. I don't think they are rubbish or useless or undeserving of respect. My purpose in writing that post was not to belittle social workers or other professionals, or the work that they do. In fact, my purpose in writing that post was simply to get my thoughts down on 'paper' after a difficult and disappointing day. I do little more here than to tell something of my story. On that particular day, that was my story. It's been a similar story on lots of other days too. I'm not sorry I shared it. I wouldn't change a word of it.

But perhaps there is a serious point here. Social workers and other professionals have unwieldy case loads and lots of children and families to work with. Foster carers have tiny case loads in comparison. I am approved for two children, but usually have one. This means that I don't have to divide my attention. I am totally focused on the child in my care. I don't actually expect the social worker to know details such as a child's birth weight off the top of their head. That's just one of many hundreds of bits of information they will encounter each week. But, as the child's foster carer, I make it my business to know.

What baffles me is why so many of the professionals I encounter don't acknowledge that. Why don't they don't automatically turn to me for this information instead of scrabbling through their immense paperwork? Why does the LAC doctor ask the social worker for details of a child's immunisations at the pre-adoption medical when I am sitting right there? After all, I was the one who took the child to those appointments.

This is not about my bruised feelings. I have heard so much from adopters who feel as though their child's social worker did not give them all the information they needed to know prior to placement. This does not surprise me. I recently moved BG on to adoption. Her social worker visited us every 6 weeks for approximately 45 minutes. She took the case on in April and BG moved on in early November. So she probably visited us, say, five or six times (being generous). The social worker who was responsible for family finding for BG met her twice prior to the first day of introductions. I lived with her continuously for 10 months. The social workers have the official paperwork, containing information gathered from a range of professionals over the months, yes, but it is the foster carer who has the full-colour image of the child, created moment by moment over the duration of the placement. These two perspectives on the child are both vital and must come together if the potential adopters are going to have the clearest picture.

When it came to BG's intros, the family finding social worker came on day one and observed from the sofa. We had a short review meeting on day 5. On day 7, handover day, BG's social worker came to hand over paperwork. The rest of the time it was me managing expectations, dealing with emotions, ensuring transfer of attachment, walking a tightrope. I'm not complaining. It's my job. But I have received no specific training for it - I'm just totally winging it every time.

None of this is intended to be a criticism of the social workers involved. They are doing their jobs within the parameters that are handed down to them. Some are excellent, some poor, and others fill every position in between. What rankles is the clear sense I often get from the professional team that they are the ones that have achieved this when actually, so much of what must be done falls within the role of the foster carer, not the 'professionals'. The smoothness and success of such a major transition as intros must surely rely in large part on the professionalism and sensitivity of the foster carer involved. Sadly, I have heard of some real horror stories where foster carers made intros a nightmare for the child and the adopters.

In fact, my offended commenter pointed out that she could tell many tales of terrible foster carers (I have no doubt that she could) and although some will "work with [social workers]", others are very poor. In saying this, she pointed out my concern exactly. So many professionals expect foster carers to work with them. There is little expectation that we will work together. The professionals call the shots and the foster carers 'work with' (or perhaps 'for'!).

This is perhaps understandable when the role of the foster carer is held in such low regard, when training is patchy and fairly low level, when even tutors on Social Work degree courses express the opinion that paying foster carers is a bad idea because they should be doing it 'for the love of the children'. Perhaps if foster caring was more professionalised, if the complexity of the role was recognised through better, more in-depth training, and foster carers were truly and universally seen as part of the professional Team Around the Child, then we could actually help to lighten the load of social workers, manage transitions more effectively and handle placement difficulties more creatively to reduce breakdowns.

Perhaps then, in the discharge planning meeting, the social workers could relax about knowing details such as birth weight because they could feel confident that the foster carer would be on top of it and, more importantly, that the others in the room would recognise the foster carer's knowledge and expertise and go straight to them for the information, rather than putting the social worker under the pressure of rooting through their notes for the right answer. Then the social worker could concentrate on doing the things that only they can do. We can help you better if you recognise how we can help you!

Just a final note. My offended commenter was of the opinion that what I described in my account was all part of the foster carer's job, just as paperwork, meetings and long hours are part of a social worker's job. During training I was told that when a new placement started, children would be brought to my home by a social worker who would give me all the information I needed to know. In reality, I have been asked to be present at the removal of three out of the five children I have fostered. In every single case, I have been the person to actually physically remove the child from the mother. I was specifically told that this would not be part of my job. What does and does not constitute 'part of the job' is clearly open to debate.

But this I know for sure. When a social worker gets to the end of their long hours, they go home and leave their place of work. My home is my place of work. Don't talk to me about long hours. It's insulting.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Our new fostering placement - how it begins

I can't find a parking space at the hospital and end up parking far away from the grounds in a superstore car park. It's a long, uphill walk back and I arrive flushed and dishevelled. Flustered, I confuse my 'ante' and 'post' but eventually manage to stumble across a gaggle of obvious professionals standing in a corridor. I stand with them, making smiling eye contact with the one social worker I recognise.

"Are you the foster carer?" someone asks. I introduce myself. Everyone looks at me and then goes back to staring at the floor, the walls or the files they are clutching,

Eventually a nurse arrives. She is irritated. This mother and baby were ready for discharge three days ago and they are unnecessarily taking up a bed in post-natal due to delayed paperwork. We are ushered into a room with instructions to "just get it done".

There are seven of us. Everyone apart from me is wearing a local authority or NHS lanyard. Two health visitors, a hospital midwife, baby's social worker, mum's social worker, mum's support worker and me.

Someone asks when the baby was born. Baby's social worker gives a date. It's the wrong date. There is some confusion and shuffling through paperwork. I supply the correct date. Nobody pays attention. Eventually baby's social worker confirms the correct date. Then somebody asks baby's birth weight. Again there is paper shuffling. Again, I supply the correct information. Again everybody continues as if I have not spoken. I think for a moment how nice it would be to have one of those lanyards . . . and a voice.

When mum arrives with her tiny baby and a supportive friend, she is crying. We all shuffle around to make space for everybody. Social worker suggests that mum sits next to me. Mum looks uncomfortable with the idea but complies.

This is a 'Discharge Planning Meeting', but everybody knows that once the talking is over, this mum is going to be separated from her baby. Tension arcs across the room. Professionals start saying things that are almost certainly sailing right over this distraught mum's head. I think what a waste of time it all is, getting all these people here to pass on information that will only be forgotten, confused and misunderstood.

After a while, mum finds her voice. She wants daily updates on her baby. Baby's social worker asks if I will send daily texts. I explain that I don't use my personal phone for that. Social worker expresses surprise that I don't have a works phone with a blocked number. I inwardly express surprise that social worker doesn't realise that I don't 'work' for anybody and therefore don't receive such perks as a mobile phone, a lanyard, national insurance payments or a pension.

Mum's social worker wonders whether I could show mum the daily log that I keep. No I can't. It's strictly confidential. But I will keep a communications book to be passed between us at contacts. And I would be prepared to send regular informative emails to one of mum's workers so that they could pass information on by text. Nobody volunteers an email address.

Then mum asks what she needs to do next. What does she need to do to get her baby back? Baby's social worker says vague things about keeping her solicitor's appointments. I think this is incomplete advice. If they asked me I'd say turn up to contact every time without fail. Be on time, early even. Be clean, tidy and presentable. Be sober. Nobody asks me. Nobody else has anything to say.

Inevitably, the time is drawing close when somebody will have to take that tiny baby out of its mother's arms. The empty car seat sits there in the middle of the room, increasingly drawing everybody's eyes towards it. One by one, the professionals start to excuse themselves - "I'll just wait outside." - until there is only me, mum, mum's friend, baby's social worker and baby.

Mum stands up, clutching baby, sobbing. Social worker starts filling her arms with baby's things, mostly soft toys and cuddly blankies. I don't see much in the way of clothes, essentials. There is no coat, but I have one waiting in the car. Mum's friend doesn't speak or move. She is frozen in her chair. Mum moves forward, lowers baby into the car seat and fumbles with the straps. I hesitate before going to help. There's a delicate balance between letting mum feel humiliated because she can't do it, and letting her feel humiliated because I jumped in as though I thought she were incompetent.

We are ready. I look at the social worker. She is backed against the wall. She shrugs her shoulders at me, indicating that her hands are full with baby's belongings. Mum's friend doesn't move. Mum looks at me. I take the car seat off her gently but firmly and say a quick goodbye. I wait, holding the seat awkwardly as mum leans in for one more kiss on baby's head. Then we leave her.

Outside, there is a line of professionals against the opposite wall like some kind of sombre parade. They don't look at me. I can hear mum's sobs behind me as the door closes, and I still hear them following me as I move quickly down the corridor. Baby's social worker trots alongside me, chattering in a high-pitched voice about how she shouldn't be doing this, she's a looked after children's worker, she hasn't done a removal in over 20 years. I think, well, you haven't done one now have you? You let me do it.

The following days are a flurry of arrangements, meetings and appointments. I may have a brand new baby in the house today, but that doesn't stop anybody arranging a placement planning meeting for tomorrow. Then the social worker calls to cancel the placement planning meeting, but three professionals turn up at my house anyway as they weren't informed. The midwife comes. There is a contact arranged. The placement planning meeting is re-scheduled and again the house fills with professionals. Another contact. At every one of these occasions I have to be clean, professional and on the ball with all of the information. Baby has to be dressed, clean, fed and in perfect order. Chronic lack of sleep is to be no excuse for any dip in standards.

Today I took baby for her third contact with mum. It was to be held at mum's placement. Mum wasn't there.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dear Prospective Foster Carer...

At some point during the coming year I will be speaking to you around lunchtime of one of the long, gruelling days of your Skills to Foster training. You will be there, expectant, maybe unsure, head reeling from what you have just heard about safeguarding or attachment or health and safety or whatever. I will be attempting to encapsulate what I have learned from four years of fostering into a short talk that enthuses you without exaggerating, and is honest without being off-putting.

The truth is that what you are likely to hear from me will probably be heavily influenced by the week I will have just had. Fostering is quite the roller coaster. If you were to hear from me tomorrow, you would likely hear:

  • that while your supervising social worker may 'get' what you do, other social workers could well be oblivious, viewing you as little more than a babysitter, or a 'house with a spare bed'
  • that this will result in a staggering lack of appreciation of the impact that their last-minute arrangements and hurried changes of plan can have on you and your family
  • that, since you really are quite low in the food chain when it comes to care proceedings, the one-word apology, however carelessly spoken, that would have made you feel at least appreciated, will probably not come
  • that you will be public property with everyone having an opinion about what you do, from professionals to people you have never even met, including opinions on how you care for the children, the shoes and clothes they wear, your behaviour management, how you spend your own money, the cleanliness of your bathroom, and pretty much anything else you can think of
  • that you will be constantly frustrated that all the hard work you do, all the planning, meetings, goal-setting, carefully-researched parenting, form-filling, contacts, training, nurturing and caring, will go mostly unseen by the hordes of people who apparently abhor the idea that fostering should in any way be seen as a 'job' and believe we should only do it out of 'altruism' (i.e. for nothing, as if we don't have to put food on the table like other people)
  • that there will be periods of your life where you live in total limbo, unable to make plans, running to the phone every time it rings in case your life is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of a traumatised child
  • that sometimes, after you have spent hours making arrangements and preparations, you will get another phone call telling you that it's all off, and you go back to the waiting
  • that, when you do get the call, your heart will ache for all the people whose lives are about to be torn apart and you will face once again the conflict that your livelihood is their tragedy.

If I saw you tomorrow I might tell you all of that. On another day I might wax lyrical about the joy of seeing a scared little one come out of their shell, or the immense pride you feel when you see a child overcome huge barriers to make progress in their development, or the bittersweet thrill of being there at the creation of a new forever family.

You should know that fostering is not for the faint-hearted. Some days you will feel annoyed at the world, unappreciated, forgotten and misunderstood. Other days will bring elation, laughter, fun and total fulfilment. Some will say that you are part of the problem. Others will call you a hero. Neither will really be true.

But despite all of that, and regardless of my mood on the day, I think I would want to say this:

Fostering can be hard. Do it anyway.

Friday, December 5, 2014

No Compensation for Those Abused in the Womb

So, the little girl with foetal alcohol syndrome did not win her case and will not be awarded compensation. And women will not be criminalised if they knowingly and against medical advice continue to drink through pregnancy.

This story had me in a quandary when I first heard about it back in early March. I blogged then about my mixed feelings over the complex issues involved. I worried about how this would be enforced and whether it would have any real effect on those who persist in drinking when surely the medical advice is well-known already.

It was a comment on the recent court decision that made me realise that in that last blog, I was making a mistake replicated by so many - I was thinking about it almost entirely from the point of view of the adults involved, and not the child.

"The UK's highest courts have recognised that women must be able to make their own decisions about their pregnancies," said representatives from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.


There's my problem right there. As long as we view unborn children merely as 'pregnancies', then we are unlikely to accord them such rights in law as a child might be expected to receive after their birth. Calling an unborn child a 'pregnancy' allows us to accord it the same status as, say, a parasite, or a cyst. Calling it a 'baby' evokes a different response. Lord Justice Treacy explicitly stated that compensation only applies when grievous bodily harm is done to 'a person'. A foetus is not a person in the eyes of the law.

If, during the birth of a baby, negligence or deliberate actions lead to permanent, lifelong brain damage to the child, then compensation is sought and often received. There is a recognition that this child's life has been irrevocably altered by the actions of another, and compensation is necessary, at the very least, to ensure that the child will have the support and therapies and equipment they will need. Sometimes there is also a punitive element to the compensation.

But, according to the new ruling, a woman, making 'her own decisions' about her pregnancy, can knowingly take action that will permanently harm the child, and no compensation is to be forthcoming. She can continue to knowingly harm that child right up to the point of birth and not be held culpable.

I am pro-life, and I'm aware that this standpoint will colour my views on the matter. But I think we can all agree that un-terminated 'pregnancies' will eventually become 'children'. The damage may be done during pregnancy, but the effects will be with the child, with the adolescent, with the adult, for the rest of their life.

Do I think we should criminalise women who drink or take drugs or smoke during pregnancy? I'm not entirely sure that I do. While I believe that unborn children should be accorded far more rights than they currently are, I also believe that, in this unique relationship between mother and unborn child, competing rights should be weighed in the balance - I do not believe that the rights of the unborn should, of necessity, trump the rights of the mother. The case detailed here was an extreme (although not uncommon) one where the mother reportedly drank several cans of strong lager and half a bottle of vodka per day, but there are many other, greyer areas where the daily decisions of a mother carry a risk for an unborn child. Where do we draw the line? Drinking? Smoking? Eating unpasteurised cheese? Driving a car? There are many activities that could potentially harm an unborn child. What about women who know that they carry a genetic abnormality who take the risk of passing this on to their unborn child? Or women who are HIV+? Once opened, this can of worms could easily become totally unmanageable, and, as I said in my previous blog, the monster that is addiction will not be dealt with through punishing the addicted.

But, sadly, we live in a time and a society where even getting recognition for the struggles and difficulties faced by children with FASD and other conditions caused by mistreatment in the womb is extremely difficult. These are children who will face the lifelong impact of what has been done to them. Support, therapy and, yes, money is needed for those children and those who care for them. Where is this money to come from? How many times have I heard of adoptive parents desperate on behalf of their children who have struggled to get even the most basic therapeutic input? The cost on the health service and education alone must be astronomical, not to mention the personal cost for the young people and their parents and carers.

So, if the mother is not to be held responsible, then who will bear the responsibility for this great harm?