Fostering misrepresented by negative media coverage

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We have been disappointed with the negative portrayal of care and the experience of looked after children in some media over the last few days, surrounding the new documentary series by Lemn Sissay. While The Fostering Network always welcomes a focus on looked after children and the care system we feel that the coverage was not reflective of the reality of the vast majority of fostered children and young people.

While we recognise that too many children are moved too often within the care system and lack stability of relationships, and that there is much more to be done to ensure that care is the very best it can be for all looked after children, we would have liked to have seen more recognition of the positive impact care is having on thousands of children every year. The coverage fails to recognise the trauma that children have been through when they come into care, often as a result of neglect, abuse and witnessing domestic violence or substance misuse. In other words, the coverage does not address the fact that the care system requires significant investment if it is to be able to repair the damage done to children prior to coming into care. The challenges that many care experienced young people face do not arise as a result of being in care but because of their experiences prior to coming into care. Without investment in foster carers, without recognising that foster carers are a vital part of the professional team around the child, without acknowledging the circumstances from which children come into care, we cannot expect the outcomes of looked after children to change substantially.
 
This is why we were so disappointed in the Westminster Government’s fostering stocktake’s lack of vision and ambition for fostering. It is essential the Government sets out a clear vision for the purpose of the care system before focusing on individual elements of the system such as fostering, residential care and so on. We believe that the care system exists to protect the child from harm, to offer a safe, nurturing home for the child to achieve recovery and healing from past harm and to promote resilience and emotional wellbeing in order for the child to realise their full potential. Currently, because of a lack of funding and vision, the care system is increasingly struggling to help children heal from past harm. That must change.
 
When it works well and is properly invested in, foster care can and does transform lives and that it is, indeed, often a protective factor. This is backed up within the conclusions of research by the Rees Centre and the University of Bristol in 2015 The Educational Progress of Looked After Children in England: Linking Care and Educational Data – which states that ‘the earlier the young person enters foster or kinship care the better their progress, provided that they do not experience many short care periods interspersed with reunifications with their birth families or many placement and/or school changes.’ And within the main findings reaffirms that ‘a key conclusion therefore, which contradicts a general perception, is that the care system – notably foster care – acts as a protective factor educationally.’
 
In addition, most children in care (83 per cent) report that their lives are improving (Our Lives, Our Care, Coram Voice, 2017), but this has been ignored by recent media coverage. Instead we saw phrases such as ‘Why do we hate young people in care?’ or ‘Britain’s lost children and the battle to overcome an adolescence in care,’ which not only paint a damaging picture of the care system but fail to challenge any of the key decision-making groups associated with the topic. Instead they put the emphasis squarely at the feet of care experienced young people.
 
The irony of much of the coverage is that it is in danger of reinforcing the very stigma that it is seeking to challenge. Rather than creating more stigma for care experienced young people, it would be good to see the media and all sectors of society working to encourage more people with the right skills and experience to come forward to become foster carers and offer the secure, stable and loving environment that looked after children need. Just last month The Fostering Network held our annual Fostering Excellence Awards in which we recognised six young care leavers who have all achieved something extraordinary. Why were voices like theirs not reflected in the coverage?
 
We were also interested to hear the Westminster Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, on BBC Radio 5 Live reinforcing his view that foster carers should be called foster parents because ‘that is what they are doing, they are parenting these children.’ We disagree.
 
Foster carers are fulfilling the parenting role that all children need – including offering the warmth, love and hugs that children thrive on – but the role of a foster carer is much more complex and professional. To be clear, being called a foster carer and showing love and compassion are not mutually exclusive.
 
The Minister’s continued insistence on referring to foster carers as foster parents is a continued insistence on diminishing the importance of the therapeutic nature of caring for children and young people who have been subject to abuse and neglect; a continued insistence on diminishing the importance of foster carers’ professional relationships with members of the team around the child, and a continued insistence on diminishing the importance of foster carers fulfilling their regular obligations such as supervision and training.
 
In the same Radio 5 interview, Mr Zahawi talked about looked after young people ‘falling off a cliff edge’ when they reach the age of 18. This cliff edge is why we campaigned so long and hard for the introduction of Staying Put in England and why we are now campaigning for Staying Put to be properly funded and implemented. Mr Zahawi is the very person with the responsibility to ensure care leavers avoid “falling off the cliff edge”. He is in the privileged position to put an end to successive Westminster Governments failing the fostered children of England. The number of young people benefiting from Staying Put is simply not good enough and the Government, as the corporate parent of all looked after children, must bend over backwards to improve this as a matter of urgency. We have recently published a report Staying Put: An Unfulfilled Promise which outlines what we think needs to be done and are calling on everyone to email their MP to ask them to help turn the promise of Staying Put into a reality.
 
As the UK’s leading fostering charity we campaign for changes that are needed within the care system and welcome any media coverage that shines a spotlight on the challenges facing foster care. However, one-sided, unremittingly negative coverage such as we have seen this week does nothing to create positive change and ignores the hard work and dedication of tens of thousands of foster families and social workers. It only serves to reinforce the stigma and stereotypes that everyone within the care system is desperately seeing to change and overlooks the daily achievements of children and young people in care.