Resilience in foster carers

Greg De Smidt is a registered manager for a small independent fostering provider with over 20 years-experience in the UK fostering sector. He has worked across the statutory, independent and charitable sectors and held senior management roles in England and Scotland. He is also a trustee at The Fostering Network.

I have been working in fostering for over 20 years and have spent the last 10 years managing fostering services. I currently manage Mosaic Foster Care,  a leading therapeutic fostering service in Essex. I’m also currently a Trustee for the Fostering Network. Over the years I have had the privilege of working closely with hundreds of fostering families and benefiting from their diverse knowledge and experiences. Not just regarding fostering, but life in general.

One of the common issues shared with me by foster carers over the last 10 years has been the issue of delegated authority and autonomy. Foster carers have shared that they didn’t feel empowered to make day to day decisions or weren’t clear on what decisions they could make. They felt that there were numerous professionals across social services, health, and education that held the decision-making power. Sometimes this was very helpful, at other times it felt intrusive and undermining. Foster carers reported that their foster children wanted to lead “normal” lives and not have the constant interruption from various professionals that were involved due to their care status. They also stated that conversely, when they were wanting support, it seemed difficult to obtain or to receive it in the way that it was requested.

Then in March 2020 we all entered into our first Covid lockdown. This was a time of uncertainty and anxiety. Not just at a professional level, but at a very personal level for so many people. No one was really sure what would happen or how to respond. Government advice seemed slow and reactive as we all waited for our next instructions regarding what we could and couldn’t do. Children stayed home from school, adults stayed home from work, and professionals stopped intruding on foster families. It became quiet. There was a power shift. Suddenly, foster carers had more autonomy. However, autonomy can be scary when left on your own. Our agency (and other services across the country) had to think about how to ensure that children were kept safe and their best interests remain protected and respected. We also had to ensure that foster carers and their household members were also safe and well while we navigated this unfamiliar territory. 

Like many other services, we made the shift to virtual working. For our agency, this meant supporting and supervising foster carers through virtual platforms providing more frequent and intensive therapeutic supervisions from our therapy team, weekly reflective groups for foster carers, virtual supervisions from supervising social workers, and even virtual support sessions with children from our support team. Some children even engaged in virtual sessions with their therapist. The key was to stay in regular, frequent contact with our foster carers and children through whatever means we had available. We also had to ensure that we maintained close working relationships with other professionals, especially local authorities. This was greatly enabled by this new virtual approach to working.

To my great relief, I was impressed with how well other agencies and professionals also adapted to this new virtual approach.  This meant that our ability to work truly systemically was greatly increased, as professional engagement across agencies became more involved and consistent. Ensuring that our foster carers were included as part of these professional virtual networks has been key. They were no longer alone, but the sense of intrusion into their homes hadn’t returned, thanks to this new approach. What this will look like as we come out of lock down remains to be seen, but there are certainly lessons here for us all.

I was amazed by how well foster carers and children adjusted to this “new normal” way of life. It appeared as though the additional time spent together in the home was contributing to stronger relationships between foster carers and children. Also, some of the challenges associated with school such as peer pressure and academic stress were reduced, which I feel was a contributing factor to this increased sense of harmony within the foster families.

I’ve reflected on how foster carers were able to maintain a sense of stability, security, and safety for themselves and their foster children during these incredibly troubling times. Sure, our agency contributed by providing regular support and supervision, and closely monitoring people’s welfare. But there is also something about the nature of people who choose to foster. Their natural or learned ability to overcome adversity, to rise to the challenge, to support each other, and most of all, to put the welfare of their foster children above all other considerations, that makes them such unique human beings. I continue to be impressed and amazed by the foster carers I meet and those people who continue to put themselves forward to become new foster carers.

We are so lucky that these people are out there. When times are tough, they restore my faith in humanity. I feel privileged to know them and proud to be able to provide the support and guidance that they need to continue achieving such incredible outcomes for society’s most vulnerable children. This is the driving force behind my motivation to continue recruiting and supporting foster carers, and why I also wanted to give something back by joining The Fostering Network’s Board of Trustees.