Following on from my post “Rehabilitation: The End”, I have put together some advice from my point of view on the rehabilitation process for both parents and practitioners. I use the word practitioner to mean any professional involved in the construction and support of a rehabilitation plan. I hope it can be helpful for any of you when thinking about a child’s return home.
Please note: every circumstance will be different. Some advice here will not apply to your own family. The idea is to take what you can from this post in order to help you to feel less alone. Essentially, I just want to help give you all the best chance at this working.
It is almost certain that your child’s return home from foster care will require you to make some sort of preparations. This can range very widely and is dependent on each circumstance, so I’m not going to cover every eventuality here.I did not stop for the preceding 4 weeks and 6 days to my child’s return home. I went way over the top, repainting gloss-work, wood-staining furniture and doors, upcycling old furniture, cleaning walls, painting ceilings, gardening and even grouting. I desperately wanted everything to be perfect for my son, because I was frightened he would change his mind and choose not to come home, because my home wasn’t good enough. Granted, I was given the almost impossible task of rearranging my tiny 2-bedroom home to fit four children and me…but with the introduction of such constraints as bedroom tax it may be that some of you have had to downsize your home when your children became looked after by the local authority. It may be then that you are faced with a similar Tetris-like dilemma!
If that is the case, I would advise a ruthless clearing out spree before you even consider embarking upon the rehab plan. One man’s junk is another’s treasure so use sites like eBay, Gumtree, Preloved, as well as the many selling and free sites on Facebook. You will be amazed what people will buy, or what people will come and take away for free, and it all helps. To be honest, I always feel a good clear-out helps my head, too.
Give yourself a break
Do what needs to be done, and no more. The important thing is that your child has somewhere to lay their heads, that it’s clean, comfortable and their own space. If they’re coming back to their old room, spruce it up with a clean, and ask them if they’d like some new posters, or bedding, or maybe a lick of paint. Choosing these things together can be a very therapeutic experience and can make the whole process seem an awful lot more “real”. If your child is coming to live in a home they have not lived in before, as in our case, the same applies. Let your child guide you as to what they want. My son chose his “colours” for his room, for example. If your child is very young, maybe pick out a favourite character or toy that they like and base the room around that? Think, too, about their favourite food and stock up? Keeping it personal and involving your child is the key, in my opinion.
Do what I did, and set yourself (almost) impossibly high standards. Don’t exhaust yourself night after night trying to make everything perfect. I did, and it didn’t make any difference to the outcome. Of course you need to prepare, but do it sensibly, methodically and always keep in mind what’s important to your child.
This is vital, for any rehab plan to be a success. However, effective communication relies on trust. You, as Mum or Dad, need to feel that you can trust the professionals working around you and your family. If you don’t feel like that, now is the time to say. Because – like it or not – you will need these people to help to make the rehabilitation of your child to your care a success.
When you are working towards rehabilitation, or if you are in court proceedings and it is looking like the likely outcome, I would advise asking your child’s social worker (or whoever you think) for a meeting so that you can both have an open and honest conversation about how best you can work together to support your child. It may be that this is the very social worker who has previously advised that your child should be removed, or even adopted – so this will be a complex relationship if this is the case.
In our case, earlier last year the local authority were not in agreement with unsupervised contact. This did cause me a great deal of frustration and upset – but I had a meeting with our social worker and her manager and we managed to work together to a solution.
I am not saying it will be easy to learn to trust a local authority who has previously interfered in your family life – for whatever reason. I am saying give it a chance. Extend the olive branch. Make the effort – no matter how self-righteously indignant you may feel about it. This is your family we’re talking about. And when you do, honesty is key. If you don’t agree with their plans, say. If you think you might know a better way – because you are the expert in your family’s life – say.
The final – and most important – point to make is that your child should be involved in the process wherever possible, and in an age-appropriate way. This plan has to suit both of you, as well as any other members of your family, and should be constructed around what is best for your family as a whole, not what suits the local authority or the foster carers.
My child was not involved in the construction of his rehab plan in any way. I now feel that this was a huge error and I did feel at the time that the rehab plan was geared towards what suited other people rather than us.
Make sure you are involved in any meetings and conversations around the rehabilitation plan. Try to rebuild your relationship with the social worker and be honest about how difficult that is for you, particularly if their plans have in the past been that you and your child be separated. Be honest about your fears and your worries, and even about the consequences of you voicing your fears and worries! When you have been scrutinised and judged for so long, you get into a mindset that everything you say can and will be used against you. I know that, you know that. But the social worker may not understand that, or may not know how frightening, debilitating and draining that can be as a way to have to live your lives. So talk, honestly.
Be swept along with the rehabilitation plan. In our case, I knew it was too fast. I said so in the rehab planning meeting. Nobody listened to me and instead said “this is what a rehab plan looks like”. I felt stupid, inexperienced. I didn’t feel confident enough to challenge because I was told (and have been since) that the two people who put the plan together; the team manager and foster carer were “very experienced” at this sort of thing. I didn’t feel I could communicate effectively my worries and fears because I was frightened someone would stop the process. My child had been with his foster carer over four years; that in itself massively affected my confidence as his mum and made me feel as though the foster carer would know him better than me.
What was missing was a conversation about all of this.
You are the expert in your family’s lives. Not the social worker, not the foster carer – you. So if you know that the rehab plan is too fast, or you are fearful of particular aspects – such as overnight stays – you need to say. Similarly, your child should be encouraged, in an age-appropriate way, to contribute to the rehabilitation plan, and should be asked how they feel at all times. Sometimes having a visual communication plan – a calendar of the rehab programme – can be helpful for you both to see what’s coming next. Your child might want to make their own version where they can tick the days off, or something similar.
Keep talking, keep communicating and keep being as honest as you can.
How ever long your child has been away from you, nothing can disguise the fact that you have missed out on parts of their life. Now is not the time to get into blame, or feel anger or resentment. These are all emotions which you and your child will learn to work through together in the coming days, weeks and months. Neither of you will ever “get over it”, and anyone who tells you that – or to “move on” deserves a slap with a wet fish and a very stern glare, with or without furrowed brow.
Right now, what you need to focus on as a parent is educating, or re-educating yourself on your child’s daily routine, their likes and dislikes and preferences. Knowledge is power, and all that jazz.
Something which was mentioned by our IRO – and sadly never progressed, despite me asking for it – was a visual “daily diary”. Basically, what your child does on a typical weekday, and weekend. What they eat for breakfast, lunch and tea. If they have responsibilities or chores. When they get dressed, or clean their room, or walk the dog. I can’t tell you how much it would have helped me to have something like that written up so I could print it out and stick it on the wall in my kitchen. I’m quite a visual person these days, I need to see things to understand them. It would have made me feel more secure, I think.
This again is something you and your child could do together…or – even better – you, your child and the foster carer could do together. This way you cannot be hoodwinked that your child gets up at noon, eats Smarties for breakfast, does zilch in the way of chores and dines on pizza from Dominoes (other pizza takeaway shops are available) (but Dominoes are the best) every evening. Because let’s face it, you’re just so bloody happy your child is coming home it’s likely they’ll get away with just about anything at the moment. And (I hate to be sensible…) but now is the time for consistency and boundaries, more so than ever before.
Know what you’re “competing” with. I’m sorry to use that word, but I always vowed to be honest on my site. Whether it’s PC or not, you will feel pressure to replicate your child’s former way of living.
In our case, I have never ever seen where my child lives. Not in over four years. I’ve never seen their room and was only given their address in the middle of last year after four years. I don’t know if the house is full to the brim of books, or interesting antiquities and objects, or if it’s zen-like and clutter-free. I don’t know if it’s spotlessly clean, or lived in. I don’t know if it’s posh, or…well, not posh. I have absolutely no idea. And that is so incredibly sad and makes me feel very powerless indeed. Because it feels like I, as Mum, am kept at arm’s length, it feels like I am not trusted (which in itself in ludicrous if it is the case), it feels like I am not permitted to be involved, and I just don’t know anything about where my child has been living. I’ve brought it up in meetings to blank faces, no one, bar one senior manager, seems to “get” the significance.
But it is significant, and you do need to know. And, quite frankly, things should be put in place to make you feel welcome so that your child sees you’re welcome and doesn’t feel like the two are entirely separate, because that in itself creates problems.
So – do ask, do probe, do find out. And if you need to modify things here and there in your daily routines to make the transition easier – do it. This is too important to get it wrong. And one thing my son said when everything broke down was that it was “just too different”. I feel strongly that is because more could have been done to ease that transition.
Expect the transition to be flawless. It might be, I hope it is! But be realistic about it, about how long your child has been away from you, about how different their life might have been during that time. Keep in mind that you – and the professionals working with your family – might need to bend. They (and you) might have to compromise a few things, might have to change a few more. Don’t let life be “too different” for your child. Engage them, ask them what they value in their lives with the foster carers, and don’t be disheartened if you can’t “compete”. Just do your best. My son goes on foreign holidays with his carers. I can’t provide that, I don’t have the money. My son has a carer with a car. I can’t provide that, I don’t have the money. These things don’t matter, not really, but the knowledge of the differences – and the acknowledgement of the differences, can help the transition process.
Please note: this post mainly applies to you if you are a social worker, a team manager, a foster carer, a fostering social worker, but can also apply to a health visitor, a school nurse, a teacher, a pastoral mentor….anyone who is involved in the planning and process of returning a child to live with their parent(s).
If you have children, or if you’re an aunt, or uncle, or even just know someone who has children, you will know the preparation that goes into having a baby. The medical checks, the awkward classes where everyone is terrified of everything, the scans, the trips to Mothercare on a Sunday where you watch a smug, knowledgeable assistant demonstrate how to open and close the latest pram (which costs more than your first motor) whilst you watch and nod like you understand and vow to check YouTube out when you get home.
And then there’s baby showers and lots of well-intentioned people knitting for you and buying oversized bears and ridiculous devices that will be on eBay by the time you register baby’s birth (wipes warmer, anyone…?).
My point is this. You know you’re going to have a baby and you have nine months of preparation. Plenty of time to leisurely read Dr Miriam Stoppard et al, plenty of time to frantically consult Dr Google and wonder what on earth you’ve let yourself in for.
Imagine then, for a second, what it must be like, as a parent to prepare for your child coming home from care. You don’t have nine months. There aren’t any books on the subject. Google is useless and powerless here. No one knits for you. No one buys presents. You don’t get a welcome-home-from-care-shower. There aren’t any medical checks. There aren’t any fun shopping trips. There’s an air of feeling you should be grateful. And the whole thing is tinged with a thousand different emotions, the main ones being guilt and fear.
Show kindness, always.
Try to put yourself in the parent’s shoes and think what you might need at this moment. This will differ dramatically, from family to family; some parents will need practical support with housing, or signposting to other agencies who will be in a position to advise on benefits or any financial support parents may need. Lack of adequate housing should not be a barrier to a child returning home if that is the best thing for the child and family and god knows I can attest to “where there’s a will, there’s a way”.
Little preparations help; gathering hangers for clothes for example. No one ever thinks of those! Extra cutlery, mugs, plates too. Helping out with transport for a big food shop if needed, or asking for a bit of funding from senior managers if the family needs any extra furniture. Practical help means a lot, and parent’s will appreciate it.
However, other parents need emotional support and this is a great opportunity for relationship building during such an important and emotive time. Listen, really honestly listen to what parents say they need. You might be met with surprise; we’re not often asked what we need, or what we want. But by listening to us, we are far more likely to let our guard down a little and allow ourselves to trust you as much as we’re able. All of these preparations, both practical and emotional can help to form the solid foundation we badly need for the road ahead.
Abandon us. This is a precarious time and we are likely to be feeling very vulnerable. I know I was. We might feel overwhelmed with the amount of preparation “work” we feel we need to do before our child can come home – be that practical or emotional. And whilst we understand that you have other cases, right now, we need you to be there as much as you’re able. Think carefully about when rehab starts – does it fall on a week where you’re going to be involved in a final hearing? Or where you’ll be on holiday? If so, is it better to think about delaying by a week to make sure you’re around? Our social worker was away for the first three days of our rehab plan and so no one was checking in with us to see how we were. I think this was a mistake and showed poor preparation. Real, genuine partnership working is needed here to give the rehab plan the best chance of success.
This is vital, for any rehab plan to be a success – and it starts with you. If the relationship you have with parents has previously broken down, it is extremely important that this is addressed and repaired as much as possible prior to any rehabilitation beginning. It often feels as though the onus is on the parents to “move towards” the local authority – being as we are often accused of “not engaging” if we do not. However, think for a moment how it feels to try to communicate with a social worker, to leave messages, texts, emails, voicemails, and to not have what we would term a “quick response”. You may have 20 other cases, all needing attention. We only have one. Ours. It can feel as though the local authority are not engaging with us. It then feels like there are double-standards at play, and the whole “us and them” narrative is enforced.
Do please try to keep in touch with parents at every stage. I realise you have extraordinarily busy working days, and I think most parents appreciate that. We do understand you can’t always be there and you’re not always able to answer the phone. But it takes under a minute to send a text to us to say that you will contact us later in the day or the next. That means a lot to us and reinforces the feeling that we are working in partnership. It also lessens the feeling that it’s one rule for you and another for us. This is important right throughout social work practice, but particularly at such a vulnerable time as rehabilitation.
Do also involve the whole family in the planning and preparation process. It’s important to be transparent, particularly if there have previously been concerns raised about the parent’s care of the children. Sometimes it’s helpful to have these concerns really clearly set out, in writing, so that there’s no ambiguity. There’s more on that in the next section.
Make sure that parents and children have all of the contact details of everyone relevant before the rehabilitation process begins. Most importantly, keep in touch with the whole family when it starts. There was no one checking in with me, I think this was a missed opportunity. It may not have changed the outcome but I suspect we would all have felt a great deal more supported.
Ignore the concerns parents or children raise about the rehab plan. It is vitally important to really listen to us, otherwise you could be inadvertently setting us up to fail. I’m not suggesting that’s what happened in our case, but I don’t think it helped when no one listened to me saying it was too fast.
The single most important thing in all of this is the family. Not timescales, funding or moaning from management. The family. We need to know you are going to be there, and you’re going to listen to us. We need to know we can trust you.
There are two families who are about to be affected by a significant change; the birth family and the foster family. Having the knowledge of how both live is imperative to putting together a successful rehabilitation plan. It is not enough to say that “this is how it is done”; this is not a ‘one-size fits all’ process. We are all individual and therefore each rehabilitation plan should be reflective of this. Gathering knowledge about the foster family’s daily routine, can help to shape a plan which will help to make the transition smoother. You have an important role in brokering all of this.
Being transparent about what could go wrong is also important. I suppose it’s almost like contingency planning. Sharing your concerns with us is crucial. I think what I’m saying is that we all need to know where we stand with each other.
As a parent, regardless of the circumstances, if your child has been in the care system it feels like the local authority has all of the power. When it is agreed – or ordered – that your child is to come home, that power shifts back to the parents. This can be a difficult dynamic to navigate for everyone. Don’t allow it to become the elephant in the room.
Get the foster carer/s and parent/s together if possible to share knowledge about the child or children before the process begins. Drawing up a daily routine, making notes on favourite foods/activities/books/outings/etc will prove incredibly useful. Be aware that parents may not have the financial freedom that the foster carers may have, there will be differences and it’s the knowledge of those differences that will help the transition. If the children are involved in activities or clubs that cost, perhaps the local authority could help out with that during the transition period. Remember that it takes up to 12 weeks for child benefit to be paid and up to 8 weeks for child tax credit to be paid. The family cannot live on fresh air, so if you can help, please do.
Think about, and plan for what might go wrong. A “Contract of Expectations” might work well in this situation or a Family Group Conference might be useful so that there can be a clear plan of action if any concerns are raised again. Now is not the time to either pussy-foot around, nor be fatalistic about our chances of success.
It’s also useful to empower yourself and the family with the knowledge of local services that may be able to offer some help and support, particularly around the practical side of rehabilitation. Most service users, myself included, don’t want to be reliant or dependent on social workers any longer than absolutely necessary, so signposting us to non-statutory organisations can help an awful lot.
Expect the family to be wondrously happy because they are back together, and don’t expect parents should feel anything but grateful. Don’t expect that there won’t be hiccups along the way and that it may not go as planed. My post Rainbows and Reality may be useful reading. Don’t ‘leave us to it’ (unless we ask/tell you to!!). Know that we will all be experiencing a whole range of emotions and this is part of the process and part of our story. Know that you still have a role to play.
Give your families the best chance of success by empowering them with knowledge, communicating effectively and preparing meticulously.
Thank you for reading.