The new National Minimum Standards for fostering are published! True they are only in ‘draft form’. The draft, however, makes for interesting reading and comment. It seems to be yet another of those documents where the left hand seems to know little of what the right hand doeth in Government. One wonders if the team who wrote it, probably part of the ever-increasing army of expensive consultants, actually know anything about the day-to-day reality of being a foster carer or even the legislation, accepted good practice and policy environment that governs that service.
In reading the N.M.S for Fostering it is important to bear in mind several factors. First the reason why children are in foster care. The Children Act 1989 clearly highlights this reason as being that they have experienced “significant harm” at the hands of those who should be caring for them. Mostly children find themselves in the care system after some emergency, even though the family may be known to Children’s Services. There then follow certain procedures which ensure that roles are clearly defined and that children’s rights are safeguarded. The child’s Social Worker has a key role in planning for the child and the reviewing system ensures that children do not drift and that safeguards are maintained.
The second point to consider is the whole gamut of research around developing resilience and overcoming attachment trauma in children. Gilligan and others highlight that this is best served by developing a normal family life in the foster home. This includes making links and friendships by sharing activities and developing relationships in the foster carers’ world with neighbours, local schools and family and friends. Added to this is the current thinking around moving residential care toward the European model of care based on social pedagogy and a less confrontative approach in the carers’ relationship with the child.
The third area to consider is the demographic of the average foster carer. Foster carers are volunteers. They are recruited from the general population but there is a preponderance of foster carers from working and lower middle class families. They tend to live in the average three-bedroom semi-detached home. They are usually engaged in full-time employment and may have children of their own. It is a 365-day task. It is a round-the-clock task. If the carer is ill, then foster care still goes on. If the foster carer suffers bereavement or the washing machine packs in, then foster carer still goes on. The normal stresses of everyday life have to be coped with in the caring environment.
Confrontation, Risks and Lack of Realism
Bearing all of these things in mind, it would seem odd therefore that the new N.M.S. Standards seem to adopt a very confrontational approach to care, where roles are blurred and expectations are prescribed in such detail. Take, for example 2.26 and 2.27 of N.M.S. This prescribes that, where there has been a “physical intervention”, the child be examined by a Registered Nurse. Does this mean that, if a foster carer with child is crossing a busy road and pulls the child back from an approaching car, the child must be medically examined? I am also quite bemused by 2.31 which seems to require that foster carers involve the police in their normal day-to-day running of their family life. What normal family would also carry out a “risk assessment” before taking a child on a shopping trip as in 3.14?
As with all children, there is a real potential for harm with uncensored internet and mobile phone use. We would expect any good parent to be able to restrict such use at times. Children in care are often more vulnerable than most. It is unbelievable, therefore, that the standards do not recognise this and advocate that the use of these forms of communication is facilitated and that they should not be censored, listened to or read.
Individual plans for contact with family members will be governed by the courts. Why then do the N.M.S. advocate that family members should be able to visit children in the foster carer’s own home unrestricted and in private? This is not only potentially damaging to the abused children but also may place the foster carer at considerable risk. The ignorance about family life is further compounded by the dictum 10.8 that, if a child wishes to change bedrooms, this be given urgent consideration. In a normal family in a three-bedroom or even two-bedroom house such a consideration becomes a major event and the adults need to balance the needs of all family members.
In an emergency the likelihood of having placement choice is extremely rare (Section15), bearing in mind the need to place a child within his own community where school can be maintained and access to his old friends. It is also quite unusual to be able to provide “all background information”; though that be a noble ideal the need to remove a child from his current environment may be paramount.
Confused – and Worrying
In general it seems that the new N.M.S. for fostering are often confused. They put a lot of onus on the foster carer to make arrangements and keep records, some which are clearly the duty of the child’s Social Worker. These regulations do not seem to acknowledge normal family life but rather seek to turn loving families into surrogate institutions. Of course, these are only draft recommendations but the fact that they could have been so conceived is worrying in the extreme.