I don’t bring the foster care that I do onto the this blog too much. It might be because we don’t have a child in placement at the moment (although that could, of course, change at any moment) but it’s because I know my ‘audience’ is related to social work and I am very wary of any information that might identify a child that is placed with me.
However, there are a few general points that I’ve learnt from being a foster carer, going through the assessment and review process and having my own social worker (a supervising social worker who is allocated to us as foster carers) as well as interactions with the respective childrens’ social worker.
1. The power dynamics in social work while being constantly re-examined in practice, can sometimes be taken for granted by social workers. Having been on the other side of that dynamic is a very very strong feeling. I try to remember these feelings in my own practice. Phoning up social work teams and being passed around/kept on hold/fobbed off can be disempowering. In practice, I try to give people answers as best as I can and be honest with them as much as possible because the feeling that people are ignoring you or are too busy for you is not one that helps an individual or family feel valued.
2. I didn’t grow up in poverty. I see poverty and the effects of it every day at work but having a child come into your house who has never been to the cinema, never owned a book, indeed, lived in a house where there were no books, brings issues of luxury and need v want home in a dramatic way. One child looked aghast at our 32” TV and said she didn’t know people had TVs that size in their homes. One of her best friends described how she lived in a bedsit with her mum and was too ashamed to invite friends round. It put my whining about wanting a 40” TV into context. I knew this on a professional and intellectual level but seeing it made a difference and made me value more what I have and what I had.
3. Prejudice. I have dealt with schools that have policies which seem to be less equitable for children in care or less thoughtful of the issues that they might face – for example, when school trip places are allocated on a first-come/first-served basis and I have to get permission via social services, it means a child in that situation may miss out (I did have a long discussion with the senior staff in the school about that and they just hadn’t considered it and child got her place on the trip.. but that’s possibly because I’m mouthy and pushy). People I meet tend to assume that foster children are ‘difficult’. All the kids I have had the pleasure to share my home with for differing periods have been wonderful, thoughtful and kind but sad. Very sad. Children are individuals. People are individuals. Labels never help.
4. Developing new skill sets. I haven’t worked a great deal with children but I have a strong belief in honesty and openness (while keeping conversations age-appropriate) . It is hard though when a child asks questions that you don’t know the answer to like ‘when can I go home?’ ‘why can’t I go home?’ and the social worker who is clearly pushed for time, endlessly postpones visits so the answers remain distant. I think I expected more support to be honest and more interaction with the social workers and less, just do what you think is best.. Foster care needs a lot of resourceful thinking and quick thinking. It is one of the most responsible ‘jobs’ I have ever undertaken. If ever I feel disillusioned about my idea of going into social work ‘to help people’, I think of the much more dramatic and immediate ‘difference’ I can make with the foster caring. I do despair that foster care has such little regard as far as ‘professional status’ goes and particularly it makes me as angry to hear social workers make flippant and disrespectful comments about foster carers as it does for me to hear some of the foster carers make assumptions and unfair comments about social workers.
5. Assumptions. I think that social workers working with me as a foster carer make assumptions about what knowledge I have and other foster carers who know I’m a social worker are a little bit wary of me. I am absolutely sure I’ve been told information by social workers that I shouldn’t be a party to. I suspect it is because I’m a social worker and they feel a bit ‘safer’ with me but there are still some fairly gaping confidentiality issues that I have been concerned about. Sometimes they chat informally about other kids they are working with. ‘No no no’, I think, internally – don’t tell me that. I don’t need to know! At some of the foster carers’ events, other carers seem a bit diffident and less than friendly and over eager to criticise or maybe I’m just oversensitive. I’ve also mentioned this before but as my partner is the ‘main carer’ and is male, this seems to mess with a lot of the assumptions that people make about us and they still seem to default telephone calls and letters to me, because I’m female.
I think that being a user of social work services is something that is enormously helpful in my practice and hope it will continue to be so. It sometimes feels that the two roles pull me in different directions but I also think that both help the other. I know some of the ‘social work think’ and know the importance of not drawing unnecessary lines of ‘status’ betweeen professionals and users of services.
Respect goes a long way but it has to be given if it is to be expected.