Safer caring is the means by which foster carers can ensure the safety and well-being of children and young people. Because the business of foster caring happens in the home of the carer, safer caring also aims to protect the well being of carers and their families. It covers a broad range of themes, such as forming healthy attachments, dealing with difficult behaviour appropriately, ensuring the protection of each member of the household and minimising the risk of allegations made against carers.
‘But what does that mean in practise?’ Jim and I ask our assessor, Stef.
The Safer Caring guidance is provided by The Fostering Network but each agency will have their own plan template. The plan we’re being asked to think about and complete is divided into 18 subject headings. Under each heading you state what you will do to minimise the risk of harm for the child, yourselves as carers and your family.
A rose by any other name?
‘For instance,’ says Stef. ‘Under the section “Names” you will want to be clear about all the names you use for each other. Do any of you have nicknames, for example? This helps a child to make sense of who everyone is and who you’re referring to. Also, you need to ensure that you’re using the right name for the child who comes into your family.’
This may sound like a bizarrely obvious thing to say but you’d be surprised. In the case of asylum seeking children, quite often names are misspelt, mispronounced or misinterpreted. In my work at Eastern Fostering Services (EFS), I’ve seen the same child be referred to using three differently spelt names. Sometimes also the child is known by their middle name and not their first name. The obvious is not always obvious.
Benedict (usually known as Ben) chooses this moment to rush into the room and make an announcement.
‘Mu-um Theo just called me a Dumbass!’
I kid you not. I sometimes wonder whether this isn’t just some big conspiracy the kids have cooked up, a bit like the time a few years ago when I’d told them both off for something. Half an hour later I’d found them working beautifully together on a new “project”. This collaboration turned out to involve a surprising amount of tripwire and one common enemy: me.
‘Dumbass probably won’t be one of the recognised names on our safer carer policy.’ I add, settling Benedict/Ben back to his homework.
Back to the safer caring plan.
Time for a cover up
‘You’ll also need to think about bedrooms. What are the rules about entering other people’s bedrooms? What about using the bathroom? Is the door going to be closed? Do you emerge fully dressed etc. You’ll need to think about masturbation…’
I see Jim visibly relax when he realises Stef is referring to the masturbatory habits of the young person and not him. Although Stef makes the point that our privacy and intimacy needs to be taken into consideration in the plan. Who said romance is dead?
We discuss the importance of showing affection to children but that this affection must be consensual and appropriate. We talk about leaving some doors open and making sure other doors are closed. We talk about the importance of cultivating an open and honest environment.
It is at this point that the second half of “Plan: Undermine The Parents” is implemented, this time by Theo. He enters the room in his pyjamas, sits himself down on the sofa and nods regally at us. For a moment, I am so struck by his majestic poise that I fail to notice the pair of pants on his head.
Little does he know that I could actually hug him right now for not coming in stark naked. I am not going to tell him this though. That would be suicide. Instead Theodore/Theo/Captain Underpants is dispatched with a book and the conversation continues.
My view is that the plan is common sense. It makes sense that you can limit the possibility of an allegation being made against you by a child if you can ensure that interaction happens out in the open rather than behind closed doors. It makes sense that you would be intentional about who is allowed in whose bedroom. It also makes sense that you would be intentional about noticing, hearing and understanding the child or young person and the things that occupy them. Being able to have conversations about sex, sexuality, drugs, self harm, bullying, relationships, faith, privacy, family is important because it potentially affords the carer the ability to safeguard more effectively. Equally, setting clear family rules and practical boundaries helps everybody understand what is expected and with that comes confidence for every member of the household.
And none of this is lost on Jim/Jimbo/James I discover later that evening as he summarises things with the sort of smugness that surrounds someone who has grasped something both complex and critical.
‘So basically, I need to get a dressing gown?’
And I need to have a word with two small fiends who shall remain nameless…