A must-read post from a lady I have “met” on Twitter and who goes by the name of @suddenly_mummy to avoid identification. She is a foster carer giving her experienced point of view, and some truly invaluable advice to parents who have had their babies and toddlers removed. I’m really grateful to her for taking the time to do this and would urge any parent going through Proceedings to read.
As a short-term and emergency foster carer of children aged 0-3, my home is often the first foster placement a child will experience. For the child’s parents, this is often their first experience of having a child in foster care too. Together, we must all navigate this strange, confusing and often frightening world.
From early in the foster care placement, contact sessions can be enormously emotionally charged experiences for family members and children, both positive and negative. Can I give any useful advice to parents in this situation? I can only speak from my own experience and observations over the last four and a half years of fostering. I hope that I can share something that will be helpful.
I’ll start by saying that I believe that contact is the first rung on the ladder for parents. Social workers will ask all kinds of things of parents, most of which the foster carer will not even know about, but attendance at contact is so, so important because it shows that the parent can do the hard thing in spite of everything, putting their children’s needs above their own.
Even very young children – even tiny babies – feel the effects if contacts are missed. Unfortunately, contacts cannot always be arranged at a time that fits well with a little baby’s routine, and it’s hard on them to be woken from their nap, taken to a strange place, made to wait around for 15 minutes and then be taken away again. Feeds and naps are out of place, parent and baby miss vital bonding time, and parent misses out on an opportunity to care for their baby and keep up with their ever-changing needs and routines. The connection between them weakens, and there is the danger that the parent will feel (and appear) less and less confident about their ability to successfully care for the baby should they return home. At contacts, I can keep parents updated on their baby’s changing needs and the milestones they have achieved. I try to help parents anticipate upcoming milestones in the hope that they might have the slight chance of being the first to see their baby roll over, sit or stand during a contact. It is sad when this can’t happen due to missed contacts.
With toddlers, it’s a different scenario. They soon learn that the door of the contact centre means Mummy and/or Daddy, so even if I don’t tell them where we are going, they work it out when we arrive. If I have to bring them home again without seeing anybody, they know it. Many times I have carried a toddler away while they have fought against me and screamed “Mummy! Mummy!” over and over again. It is very hard on the child. Children are often distressed at the end of contacts as they face their loss over and over again, but the distress at being given hope and seeing it dashed is worse. Over time, a sort of resigned acceptance sets in. The child begins to expect the let down, the disappointment, and no longer gets excited in advance of contacts. This is even sadder.
While I have had my fair share of missed contacts, I know that most parents will move heaven and earth to get to see their children, even though the sessions can feel unnatural and sometimes distressing for everybody involved. When it comes to making contacts easier for a child, I am reluctant to tell birth parents what they should and shouldn’t do as each situation is so individual. Some things that happen at contact can be inconvenient for foster carers, but I wouldn’t necessarily say that parents shouldn’t do them. For instance, when a child comes away from contact with lots of sweets and presents and the other children at my home aren’t getting those things it can certainly cause some conflict! But that is for the foster carer to manage and I know that when parents bring gifts it is because they have been thinking about their child all week.
But sometimes, things that are inconvenient for the foster carer can also be hard on the children. Lots of sweets, fizzy drinks and presents being brought to contact can make the whole thing feel like some sort of party for the child and they come away hyped up by it all, often bouncing off the walls for the rest of the day, and then feeling down for the next couple of days. Contact is the only opportunity for parents to treat their children, I know, but I also worry about the impression it gives to contact supervisors who are, as we know, making notes throughout. I have seen many a raised eyebrow from a contact supervisor over gifts like sugar dummies and massive bags of sweets. I can only imagine what goes in the notes. Perhaps instead of buying new things, parents might sometimes like to consider bringing items from home that may be significant for their child and help them to feel more settled. Nearly all the children I have cared for have arrived with only the clothes on their backs, losing all their teddies, comfort items, favourite toys, favourite clothes, etc. Of course we make sure they have what they need, but we can’t replace their familiar things. I would make a point of returning any items with the child if they were returning home at the end of the placement and, if they didn’t go home, they would be important memory box items for the child. It is sad to send a child to adoption without a single item from their lives with their birth parents to take with them.
The relationship between the parents and the foster carer can be a difficult one, especially at the start. I wonder if it would help parents to know that, in my experience anyway, we foster carers have virtually no say in anything. We aren’t invited to most of the meetings and, although we attend LAC reviews and write reports for them, we hand the report in to the IRO at the review – it isn’t even taken into account before the meeting. I write a daily log that almost nobody ever looks at. I rarely hear about what goes on during contact. I am very rarely asked for my opinion on anything by a child’s social worker. All this is by way of saying that there is nothing to be lost for a parent in communicating as well as they can with the foster carer. We are not mini social workers. We don’t make any decisions about your child’s care plan and we are not there to assess or judge.
I want to do the best job possible of caring for the children that come into my home. I really need the children’s family to communicate with me to help with this. I keep a communications book which I pass to the family members at every contact with information about what their child has been doing, any milestones achieved or notable moments. I find it helpful if parents write a few words in reply, if they have time. There often isn’t much opportunity to talk at contact handover times.
Children need ‘permission’ from their family members to settle and relax in their foster home. This means that even if the adults are unsure about each other at the start, it is important that we all get along in front of the children. I understand that this is very hard for parents who may just desperately want their children home with them again, but it is a sacrifice that will make the whole situation easier on your children. On my part, I also have to show children my ‘approval’ of their parents and family, speaking respectfully about them and keeping positive about contacts. I try to build friendly relationships with parents so that children are spared any conflict of emotions, and so that the eventual transition back home can be as smooth as possible. In the past, I have supervised additional contacts in preparation for transition home for young children, supporting parents in taking on the care of the child, taking parents with me when shopping for a child’s first shoes. Foster carers will feel more confident in doing this if good relationships have already been established.
In the interests of maintaining good relationships (and I know that there will be foster carers that can be hard to get on with!), I think it’s helpful for a parent to come to terms early on with the fact that the foster carer will probably have a different style and different parenting priorities to theirs, simply because everyone is different. While a parent should always say something if they have a welfare or safeguarding concern, there are perhaps some issues that could best be left alone. I cared for a little girl whose Mum took delight in dressing her hair in elaborate styles and would say something negative about the way I had done her hair at nearly every contact handover which, over time, did cause a bit of tension between us. I knew that this child’s Mum just wanted to still feel like her Mum, despite her loss of control over everything, but it made handovers awkward for all of us, including her child. There are so many benefits for the children to maintaining a good relationship between parents and foster carers that adults on both sides sometimes just need to choose not to mention things unless absolutely necessary. Children should never hear the adults in their lives speaking critically about or towards each other.
I am always aware of walking a line between supporting a parent in caring for their child, and patronising a parent, especially if the child is a tiny baby who has been removed very young. I would like to think that an inexperienced mum could talk to me about their child’s basic care needs but I know that this might be difficult, so if a foster carer is talking to an inexperienced mum about feeding or nappy changing I would hope the mum wouldn’t feel offended. The foster carer doesn’t mean to ‘take over’, but minor errors in basic care during contact will all be written down somewhere, and that could be avoided if the mum had a little advice. Normally a young mum’s own mum would do this, but most of the young mums I have met have had little or no constructive contact with their families and nobody to really help them. I would hate for an inexperienced mum to have a bad mark against her because she didn’t wind her child after feeding, or didn’t manage a soiled nappy very well or something, when really, she perhaps just needed to be shown. The assessments can sometimes be rather unforgiving.
Some of what I have written here may not apply to your situation. Some may seem irrelevant. Some may seem obvious. But my first and last piece of advice to parents of children in foster care would be to turn up to contact. Every time. And if you really, really can’t make it, phone up in good time so that your child isn’t sitting in some featureless room waiting to be disappointed. Everything else can be sorted out as we go along.