Foster carers needed for children with complex needs

This blog is a shorter version of an article that first appeared in SEN Magazine, and is written by Daniel Sinclair, The Fostering Network's communications manager.

Around seven out of 10 looked after children have a special educational needs compared with almost two in 10 of all children. That’s why this Foster Care Fortnight many fostering services are asking people with the skills and willingness to support a child with special educational needs to consider becoming a foster carer.

It is vital that a child going in to foster care is correctly matched with a suitable foster family, so having a range of families with diverse experience and skills is becoming ever more important. Without this, relationships can become strained causing placements to break down, meaning children are moved and that they suffer even more disruption to their often already traumatic lives. A well matched fostering placement can see a child live and thrive with one foster carer over many years.

One of the main challenges in recruitment of foster carers is finding those who have the skills to specialise in fostering children with ever more complex needs. Those with a background in this area are key to making sure that our most vulnerable children have a home where they can develop with people who are ambitious for them. A wider pool of foster carers with the right skills and qualities would make it more likely that the right homes can be found for children first time, giving them the best chance of a happy childhood and a successful future.

Previous relevant experience

Many foster carers who look after children and young people with special educational needs already had a background of working in this field. For example, Bernadette, a foster carer for almost a decade was the additional needs co-ordinator at a large college: ‘I worked with lots of young people with special needs who were fostered and who didn’t have good placements or were moving out and it made me think I could become a foster carer.”

Other foster carers, like Cheryl and Steve Walker, have experience of looking after their birth children who have special educational needs, and this is what motivates them to explore their own connections to fostering: ‘I have a son with Asperger’s Syndrome so we thought we might have what it takes to look after another child with special needs. We told fostering services that we’d love to have a special needs child as that’s where our skills lie, and we bought a bigger house in readiness to foster. We came into fostering to give a child a normal family life. Whatever normal is! We’ve worked hard for seven years with our little whirlwind now, and love him like he’s our own.  We’ve had other children placed with us over the years, all unique in their own way.’

But for some foster carers, looking after children and young people with special educational needs was never on their horizon, but as they became more experienced carers they become more open to caring for children with more complex needs. Steve and Lynne Greening from Cornwall’s story is not untypical: ‘We have been foster carers for almost 10 years, with a focus on babies to seven-year-olds. When doing our initial assessment, we remember being asked about our thoughts on fostering children with disabilities. We both shook our heads, positive that it was not for us. Neither of us has ever had any experience or training in the care of children with any kind of disability, so without specific training for a specific child then it was out of the question because we could not provide the care that they would need. How wrong we were!’

Moving beyond the horizon

After some years of fostering, Steve and Lynne were asked by the local authority to foster a new-born baby boy: ‘As we had fostered his brother some two years previously and had a good working relationship with the parents, we said yes. We were aware that there were some medical difficulties with the baby, but had no idea of how complex his needs would turn out to be, ranging from brain damage to blindness.

‘We can honestly say that this baby, who we have now fostered for almost three years, has enriched our lives. We have learnt so much. We have learnt body signing with him, endless physio techniques, and first aid techniques to help him in the earlier days with breathing and swallowing difficulties. We have had amazing support from children’s services and always know that there has been someone at the end of a phone whenever we needed it, day or night. We have also had a special needs social worker pointing us in the right direction for safety issues within the home and supplying equipment that was needed.’

Despite the complexities and hard work, Steve and Lynne have benefitted greatly from fostering this little boy: ‘In our house, we win the lottery often!  Every time he smiles or laughs (which is often) or achieves something new. We are so glad to have had the opportunity to have him as part of our life. Even with all the sleepless nights, hospital stays and many worrying times wondering whether he would get through the night, we wouldn't change our time with him.’

Good foster carers can make a real difference to outcomes for children in care. They are highly skilled and use their personal qualities, including a sense of humour and resilience, to bring the security, stability and commitments needed to provide a welcoming home where a child can feel secure and safe. Do you have the skills and willingness to foster and could change a young person’s life for ever? 

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 or to donate £10 text FOST37 £10 to 7007

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