Foster care: the heart of our care system

By Alison Michalska

| 19 May 2017

There's a common myth that does the rounds in the run-up to all elections. We've all heard it: the belief that the work of local authorities grinds to a halt in a bid to remain independent and unbiased so that we don't fall foul of the Purdah Police!

"You must all have your feet on the desk for the next few weeks," people will say.

Of course, we all know that nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, our work increases as we try harder to ensure that our vital work continues without disruption, especially while the politicians we support are otherwise occupied with campaigning and generally being out and about more in their communities.

We all know that this is certainly true within children's services, where the day-to-day work must continue if we are to ensure the best outcomes for families who need our help.

But that said, this pre-election period does bring with it a particular level of uncertainty for all of us. Whatever the outcome of 8 June, we know that we will be facing political shake-up in some form, a commitment to delivering Brexit and the introduction of whatever new policies were promised in the manifestos of the political parties before the election.

As leaders in our local areas, we learn to live with this uncertainty. Some even thrive on it. We make plans as best we can, some short-term and some longer-term, and we focus on those goals we know we can achieve for our citizens and that we know will improve the lives of the children and young people that we work with.

I believe that one of these goals is the need to recruit more foster carers for our children in care. Many of you will now be in the midst of campaigns to support Foster Care Fortnight (8-21 May) - and I'm always emphatic in my own authority that this is one priority that never stops: not for Purdah, not for an election, not for anything.

Providing loving, stable homes for children who need our help the most is essential work. So we've been at pains to ensure our drive for foster carers continues throughout the pre-election period. There are no feet on the desk here; it's business as usual.

The cornerstone of our messaging, which supports the national drive by the Fostering Network, is for people to make a difference and change a life by becoming a foster carer. Although some of our authority's campaigns will come and go, fostering in Nottingham has been designated an ‘always on' campaign that runs all-year round. It really is that important to us.

Like many authorities, we have workstreams that lead on both the recruitment of new foster carers and also the retention of existing foster carers. We've focused recruitment on professions like teaching and nursing, as well as reaching out to our many faith communities. And we're trying to ensure that we have more local homes for local children in the communities from which they come. This is essential. I hope that the DfE's National Fostering Stocktake, can really get cracking after the election and that it can help us to continue to reduce fostering placements outside of our immediate area. It's so important for our children.

For retention, we go out of our way to show our foster carers how valued they are to us. We recently honoured the work of more than 150 of our foster carers at a celebration at Nottingham's Council House. It was a wonderful evening; our opportunity to celebrate them and to say a huge ‘thank you' for their dedication.

Hearing their stories and experiences was certainly emotional, as was the realisation that collectively in the room we had hundreds of years of fostering experience.

Such case studies drive home the fostering message with a clarity that transcends political messages.

In particular, two of our foster carers, Will and Sue, have fostered hundreds of children over 33 years. It's a remarkable achievement.

Sue says that her best memories are simply from giving children love and care - for her it's about making them happy. She believes that this is the sure-fire way of knowing you've done something really good; that you've made a difference to someone's life.

And so for three decades, Sue and Will have been driven to continue to foster. For them, too, it's business as usual. In 33 years, they'll have seen elections, governments and prime ministers come and go. In 1984, when they began their fostering journey, we were into the Thatcher years - the height of the ‘Yuppie' and the ‘look-after-yourself-first' era. Since then, we've seen John Major, the rise and fall of New Labour, the austerity of the Coalition government and now Theresa May's triggering of Article 50 and our upcoming Brexit from Europe.

Through all of this change, Sue and Will have remained constant, committed and dedicated to their goal: to provide care for children in need.

And so must we. Whatever the future brings.

Alison Michalska is ADCS president and corporate director, children and adults, Nottingham City Council. This blog first appeared on the ADCS website

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