Foster Care Associations can be the source of great support and encouragement for foster carers. Victoria Lewis and Hayley Sharman, members of Bedfordshire Foster Care Association, share their top tips for a successful association.
We are writing this blog as we have personally experienced the far reaching trauma to the emotional and physical wellbeing of the children, to us and to our families and friends when things don't go right.
This is no picnic, it is not just about having a spare room. When things go wrong it can tear you apart and leave you questioning your role and what differences you can really make. If you are thinking of fostering, or are already involved in fostering in some form, then you know it is a lifestyle choice which can consume all areas of your life. Fostering has a direct impact not only on the future of children in care, but also on your own families, friends, colleagues and more.
Reaching a cross roads
This blog is written because of those experiences. We reached a cross roads, we could either get out or get involved, and try to reduce the chances of people getting it wrong again. We chose to get involved and it took every ounce of courage, perseverance, passion, friendships and a very strong personal relationship and - the focus of this blog - a Foster Care Association to get us through.
A Foster Care Association should be a life line, a network of people with varying expertise and resource…extraordinary people each doing a bit to help. It can be seen both as a social group that supports you, a training group that shares experiences and develops you as a carer, a personal contact when things are tough, as well as a professional body that independently represents you. A Foster Care Association, in our opinion, should be at the core of every fostering service, helping to drive us towards an outstanding service and mutual respect we all earn by our actions every day.
Working as a team and following our own advice
There is a divide often discussed between carers and social workers, and on both sides this divide is often based on individual case studies and bad experiences. We need to be honest, not all carers are great and not all social workers are great and often the conditions we work in are not ideal, but we don’t think this should change how we strive to do our jobs. There are wonderful people doing fantastic work on both sides and that’s what we need to hold onto and demand that others strive to meet those levels too. We are a team, and if one of us gets it wrong, we all fail. We need to listen to each other, learn from our mistakes and strive for best practice at all times. We teach our children to start fresh, to never give up and persevere and yet all too often it is very much more difficult to follow our own advice.
Our Foster Care Association gave us the support, network, information, socials and the voice that helped us keep going and provide the best care we could, as well as keep our families informed and supported. We hope we can give you some ideas of what has made our Foster Carer Association great and in doing so perhaps give a small group of you the incentive to do the same!
Start your association
It only takes two! Just get together, give it a name and meet monthly – the first bit is starting it, the second bit is to look at other associations and take tips on getting easy wins to help you, your carers and your fostering service.
Make a difference – set up a Foster Strategy Group.
These can be two or three foster carers that will meet monthly or bi-monthly and collate opinions, cases issues and experiences (good and bad) from other carers in your area. They then arrange to meet with either the team manager or head of service once every six to eight weeks to review the findings. Raise issues before they become a problem for the service and the child, talk about good findings and review where improvements on both sides could be made. Open channels of communication and keep them open to drive the success of the fostering service, the association and, as a result, the quality of your lives and the children in your care.
Promote social support groups
Run your own, get guest speakers in or simply ask each other to talk about a particular experience you’ve have had recently and how you coped or felt you didn’t! Discuss your ideas and solutions for the future which can then be fed back via your Foster Strategy Group. Bring your own dish and make it fun, try other people’s cooking, there are more ways than one to feel supported and learn from each other!
Training, training, training
Encourage your fostering service to train their social workers and foster carers together. This is a great way to learn best practice, to share learnings and to empathise and understand each other’s roles and jobs better. (This isn’t an easy one but don’t give up!)
Promote informal socials with your carers and children
Create opportunities during the holidays or weekends for your foster carers and children to meet up and play together. It creates a great support unit for your children while allowing carers to chat in a relaxed environment.
Support each other
They say you need to walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand what they are going through – well foster carers are all walking the same mile each day. In difficult times a fellow carer can offer a wealth of experience, a new coping strategy, and most importantly a good dollop of humour! It shouldn’t be just about meeting to complain or moan; it should be about meeting to inspire, support and share.
Communication is king!
Start your own website (ours is www.bedsfostercarers.co.uk), closed Facebook Group or Twitter feed (@Foster4Beds) – it’s easier than you think, and it’s a great way to connect with your fellow carers regularly and also reach out to the wider fostering community to see what’s happening nationally. You’ll be surprised by all the different skills you have collectively – often we have a day job too or run our own businesses, and can bring those professional skills to the fostering table.
What does it take?
So, what does it take to set it all up or to do it? An hour or two a month… The rest of it you are doing every day. You are a mine of information and experience, share it, gain the respect of your fostering service and work with them - as they should commit to working with you. Show that the joined up approach is the only way to really put the child at the centre of it all! No-one ever said it would be easy but if you wanted easy you wouldn’t be a foster carer or in social work. Expect a joined up approach and don’t accept anything less. As Nelson Mandela said: 'It seems impossible until it is done.'
The Fostering Network brings together everyone who is involved in the lives of fostered children and young people to lead, inspire, motivate and support them to make foster care better. To support our work visit www.fostering.net/donate or to donate £10 text FOST37 £10 to 70070.