Learning from foster children's experiences of the pandemic

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic the fostering sector was understandably concerned that the pressures and stresses associated with lockdown would lead to the disruption of a number of placements.

This undoubtedly occurred in some cases. Sometimes this was the result of foster children refusing to adhere to social distancing requirements and threatening the health of the foster family. In other cases, it was the result of existing stresses, compounded by adults and children cohabiting 24-hours-a-day with no respite from each other. For families who are living with child-to-parent violence, it is no surprise to hear that many difficult situations have been exacerbated by the pandemic; sometimes to breaking point.

But an aspect of lockdown that had not been foreseen by anyone in the sector was that many children would find themselves more settled, presenting fewer behavioural challenges to their foster carers than would normally be the case. This is what our members tell us they are hearing from both foster carers and their foster children.

While the evidence for this is largely anecdotal, it is a consistent, important and widespread message. It is also a message that has persisted long after the initial few weeks when these experiences were often viewed as reflecting a ‘honeymoon’ period that coincided with the excitement and drama of coronavirus, with the expectation that this would soon come to an end. The same message has emerged from the adoption sector, and it is too strong a message to be ignored.

It is not possible to explain with any certainty why this has happened, but one key difference for most of these children is that they have not attended school over the lockdown period despite their eligibility to do so. As a result, they have been spending each and every day with their foster carers or adoptive family. In some cases, adults who would otherwise be out at work have been working at home. There is the suggestion that reduced stress from school pressures, including academic pressure, and a break from the challenge of peer relationships has made the difference. It is also possible that avoiding the daily separation from care givers is the key element for children who do not feel safe or secure having experienced a series of disrupted relationships. Another argument has emphasised that children in care have said that they are grateful for the absence of numerous professional visits, and are enjoying being left alone to experience normal family life.

Whatever the factors that have led to these reported improvements may be, their significance cannot be ignored. Prior to the pandemic, the fostering sector had been promised another ‘care inquiry’ and if this takes place we should be exploring what has been learned from the period under lockdown.

Some years ago, CoramBAAF began asking questions about the foster care system, and while we acknowledged that fostering brought huge benefits to many, we suggested that for some children it was not working well. This was the case for some children in long-term foster placements where the emphasis was on ‘professional networks and corporate parenting’, as opposed to ‘relationships’ or ‘normal family life’. In addition, parental responsibility was held by a range of often inconsistent and ever-changing professionals - such as the child’s social worker and independent reviewing officer - and not the child’s primary parenting figure who is the foster carer.

We suggested that these issues needed urgent attention and put forward an alternative model – something as close as possible to ‘normal family life’ – that we called ‘Family Life Fostering’. The primary and overriding purpose of this model was to offer the child a stable, enduring and warm relationship with a reliable and loving parenting figure. The foster carer would be empowered to make both day-to-day and longer-term decisions with the child wherever possible, with the social worker working ‘behind the scenes’ to enable this rather than as the ‘decision-maker’. The model emphasised the child as a family member, with all that flows from this in the ways that families form relationships, create routines, celebrate and enjoy, provide links to the wider community and find workable solutions when challenges come along.

Recent events have led us to think again about this model. Consider how good parents would respond if their child suddenly became more settled, better behaved, and was happier as the result of a situation where they were not attending school, were spending more time with them, and getting their education and other key developmental opportunities met in a different way. Consider further the possibility that these children were saying very clearly that they were finding school too stressful. Many parents in this context would at least consider the need for change, including the possibility of home schooling. One survey suggests that this is exactly what a significant number of adopters are doing.

Home schooling is almost unheard of for fostered children, and this presents two big and challenging questions. Is the bureaucracy that is ‘corporate parenting’ flexible and caring enough to make the right decisions for individual children? Is that corporate parent willing to listen to individual children about what they want in their own lives when that clashes with their ideological position? None of this is straightforward, but going forward we need to think very carefully about what has been learned from the coronavirus lockdown and what we can do to support the wellbeing of children in foster care.

Paul Adams, fostering development consultant, CoramBAAF

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