An article I read recently in Community Care Magazine has got my cogs turning. The premise of the article was simple, and summed up in the headline: By spending too much on shoes and phones, are we setting up children in care to fail?.
The writer, a children's home worker, told stories of young people finding life extremely hard when they left their residential children's homes and moved on to independent living, perhaps on benefits or in low-paid employment. Suddenly, there would be nobody to replace their mobile if they lost it or broke it or dropped it down the toilet. Suddenly the branded trainers they had previously taken for granted were way out of the reach of their wallets. For some, it means a real crash down to earth.
I have no experience of what goes on in residential homes, and the children I care for will certainly not be experiencing independent living any time soon. But, in the majority of cases, they will be moving on somewhere else. I wonder how well I am preparing them for what they might face? Is there any way in which I'm setting them up to fail?
I've always taken the view that the children I foster deserve good things. Sure, I gratefully accept gifts of second-hand items where appropriate, but there are regular shopping trips for clothes and toys, meals and snacks out in cafes and restaurants, holidays in the UK and abroad, trips to museums and activities and soft play centres, a house full of toys and craft items and comfort, not to mention the 3-6 monthly visit to Clarks for foot measuring and, if necessary, new shoes. This is all heightened when a child first comes into care, often with next to nothing in the way of possessions. The first few days and weeks must seem like an endless disorientating roller coaster of acquiring and acclimatising.
It's hard enough to prepare a child for moving on to an adoptive placement. I have no idea what kind of parents the new people will be, or what kind of home the child will be living in. Occasionally I'll hear or read something an adoptive parent thinks about their child's foster carer's parenting style, habits or lifestyle and I'll raise my eyebrows and wonder what is said about me! But I do at least feel certain that in the home of prospective adoptive parents there will be regular food, a comfortable, warm, safe home, and some thought put into appropriate activities, whatever form they might take. A child's new home and family will certainly be different to mine, but the basics will probably be similar enough.
More uncertain is the transition back to birth family. None of the children in my care have actually had a successful transition back to birth family, although it has been attempted in two cases, but I know that eventually I'll find myself one day taking a child back to their home and their family, and dropping them off with their suitcase of recently-purchased clothes, toys, books and shoes. I wonder how that transition will feel?
Of the children I have fostered, none of their primary care givers have been working. None of them have had a car. I have to presume that money can be tight, and opportunities for day trips and holidays more limited. I do not wish to rush to judgement about birth families. I know there is love. I know that in order for children to return home, progress should have been made in overcoming any previous issues. It's not that I think the child won't have what they need. But I wonder if they notice if some of the little luxuries they have become used to are no longer possible at home. I wonder if they mention it to their families. I wonder if they blame them, complain to them, resent them because of it. And in turn, I wonder how birth parents feel if their child returns to them with a bag full of toys they couldn't have bought, and clothes that would be out of their price range.
We are warned as foster carers not to overload children with too much new 'stuff' when they arrive with us, but over the course of their time with us, they can't help but acquire new things. Maybe they will have a birthday, or it will be Christmas, and there's always the need to replace worn clothes and shoes, and deal with all that growing that they do!
It's hard not to spoil them. It would be counter-intuitive to give them less or to withhold things, and I don't think I could ever do that, but it's yet another huge factor in the dramatic transitions from one life to another that some children will experience over and over again.