Dear Alison Michalska,
I was interested to read that you recently gave your inaugural speech as incoming president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services. However, I was extremely disappointed to read some of the comments you made in which you seem to be saying that the concerns of foster carers, the volunteer backbone of children's social care, are "irritating" and that solutions proposed to some of the very real problems faced by foster carers are "slightly mad notions" and "nonsense".
I can only hope that it did not occur to you how patronising your tone might appear to many foster carers who would hear your speech or read accounts of it in press reports. While many of us struggle to earn the respect of the social workers we work alongside, it is so disheartening to see that somebody in your position of authority is able to speak of our concerns in such a dismissive way.
Like many other foster carers, I share your concerns about professionalising foster care. In over two decades of my working life, including many years spent as a teacher, I have never joined a union. I've never even considered it until now. Nobody knows better than foster carers that what we are trying to provide is a family for children who, for whatever reason, cannot live with their own. We work hard to achieve that, within the limitations created for us by safeguarding and health & safety considerations. I would not be willing to compromise this priority in any way.
And yet foster carers are becoming increasingly 'professional' in their approach whether we like it or not. It has become necessary. The role description provided to me by my LA includes the word 'professional' several times. As a short term carer for pre-school children I am expected to participate in a scheme of continuing 'professional' development with a minimum of five training events per year. I must interact with everyone from birth parents to paediatric consultants with a 'professional' approach. I must conduct myself 'professionally' at meetings and reviews. I have monthly supervisions and a 360 appraisal every year. I am told that I am a valued member of the team around the child.
Over the years I have worked hard to improve my knowledge and skills with regard to speech development (teaching myself Makaton along the way), neurological effects of early trauma and neglect, FASD, the effects of maternal drug abuse on a newborn baby, attachment, theraplay, sensory needs, joint hypermobility, therapeutic parenting and much more, all to meet the needs of different children in my care. I have attended training provided by my LA, paid for additional training out of my own pocket, read books and scholarly articles and interacted with hundreds of other foster carers and adopters in order to improve my practice. I can honestly assure you that my knowledge in these areas far outweighs that of my supervising social worker. Yes, not only am I 'professional', but I have also become a 'specialist'. The very things you are concerned about are already happening.
You find yourself "irritated" that proposals to improve the current situation for foster carers "take no account" of whether changes would improve the outcomes for children we care for. Perhaps I can explain. My local authority has spent a good deal of money training, supporting and developing me in my role as a foster carer. And yet now I find that I simply cannot pay the bills. As a single carer I cannot hold down a job while I foster as the demands of the fostering service on my time are simply too unpredictable to fit with other work. Three contacts per week during office hours? Meetings arranged at the last minute with mandatory attendance? Contacts changed at less than two hours' notice? Mandatory full days of training and no help with childcare? Children arriving into my home within an hour of the first phone call? My family and friends have told me that the thing they find most shocking about my role as a foster carer is the extent to which the LA dictates my whole life.
We would manage with the help of the benefits I am also able to claim if fostering wasn't so unpredictable. My LA has recruited far more pre-school carers than it needs so I can go weeks and months with no work. There is no retainer. There is no option for me to enquire whether another local agency needs my services. There is nothing to plug that gap. I have had to find paid employment. I am no longer fostering, although I stay on the books in the hope that I can return in the future. And this is how improving the situation for foster carers will improve the outcomes for children: it means that expensively-recruited, expensively-trained, experienced and skilled foster carers will be able to continue to foster.
Some time ago I read a lot of stories about the difficulties that 'hot-desking' was causing for social workers. A report by the Centre for Research on Children and Families detailed how hot-desking was adding to stress and uncertainty in what was already a stressful and uncertain role. Other stress-factors highlighted were removal of parking spaces near to offices, inefficient IT systems and noisy offices. The conclusion was that organisations should prioritise improving the workplace environment. And why? Because it stands to reason that social workers who don't feel valued, whose role is being made harder by inefficiencies and whose stress is increasing as a result will find it far more difficult to carry out their role to a high standard.
If this is true of social workers, why would it not be true of foster carers? And if hot-desking increases stress, then think what the possibility of having no work next month and no idea when you will work again can do to a person. Imagine how that stress is compounded when you have been up night after night with a withdrawing infant, or spent the early hours cleaning faeces from a child's bedroom wall.
Times have changed. The rosy, somewhat old-fashioned image of stay-at-home-mum or empty-nester foster carers providing bed and board to a child in need ought to be consigned to history, especially in the demanding and ever-changing role of short-term, emergency and therapeutic care. There is a huge shortfall of foster carers. Many children who come into foster care have complex and challenging needs which demand skilled care and a huge investment of time. I personally know many former teachers, nurses and members of other caring professions who see fostering as far more than just a nice thing to do with a spare bedroom. For us, it is a professional role motivated by love, compassion and a desire to see the very best outcomes for the children we care for. In foster care, as in social work, professionalism and compassion are not mutually exclusive.
As foster carers, we rely utterly on social workers for support and guidance both for ourselves and on behalf of the children we care for. It has saddened me to see the concerns of foster carers so publicly belittled and dismissed by somebody with such influence over social workers as you have in your role. I do not know if the solutions that have been proposed by many foster carers are the right ones, but I do know that much dissatisfaction is created by a sense that our role is not understood or fully valued by those we work with. The tone of your remarks has done nothing to assuage that concern.
A (former?) Foster Carer