Skills to foster

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My husband Jim and I first met each other at work. He always struck me as a great person to be around: intelligent, insightful and fair but with a wicked sense of humour. As we headed off together last week to attend the Skills to Foster training, I was taken straight back to the days when we used to work together every day. I was thinking how nice it was to be going to the same place at the same time for once. I was thinking that spending two days during the working week together was a rare boon. I was excited that, as a couple; we would be learning more about something we care deeply about and our responses to it.

I asked Jim how he was feeling.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said.

“I don’t really know what to expect but I’m looking forward to finding out.”

Then he cleared his throat, “as long as there isn’t any role play of course…”

Produced by The Fostering Network, The Skills to Foster training is an obligatory part of the assessment process with our agency and is used by virtually all fostering services in the UK. It helps to prepare prospective foster carers for some of the challenges they may face and aims to equip them with some of the skills to overcome these challenges.

We were a small but well matched group of three couples and over the two days we covered a variety of subject areas: the importance for children of identity, how to provide a secure base for children, positive approaches to challenging behaviour, the importance of the birth family, the effect of multiple moves on a child’s psyche, and approaches to safer caring, to name but a few. The group was respectful, open and warm and while many of the subjects we covered were pretty upsetting, there was plenty of opportunity to laugh too.

The role of a lifetime

The course used a variety of materials and exercises, from videos to informal discussions to, yes; you guessed it, role play. If you were to cross the facial expression of a startled rabbit caught in the headlights of a ten-tonne truck with that of someone who thinks they are at the summit of a mountain only to discover they are just half way up – that’s pretty much how Jim was looking at me when the trainers landed that little bomb shell.

But as with everything, (apart from the Cyndi Lauper CD on the car journey there) Jim put his feelings aside, and through the role playing exercises, demonstrated his strong sense of fairness and his non-judgmental approach to other people (well, those who aren’t Cyndi Lauper anyway….). It was interesting to see that each person and each couple brought many different things to the table. Looking at how different Jim and I are, for example, it’s clear we’re both going to bring different things to fostering. Despite our differences, or maybe because of them, Jim and I work pretty well together. I don’t say this smugly; I say this with full recognition that fostering tests every relationship and ours will be no exception. Foster care is complex and emotionally demanding. It involves supporting, and liaising with, a large number of people involved in that child’s life; this can mean some interesting dynamics. We happen to be a couple but I know many carers who foster on their own. Whether you’re a single carer or a couple, old or young, male or female, you need to feel equipped and supported. As foster carers, we’re going to need to use the skills we’ve got and we’re going to have to acquire a whole set of new ones.

A takeaway pint?

On the way home we talked about what we had taken from the training. We felt that the course had a good balance of realism (fostering is hard!) and encouragement (it’s worth doing!). We agreed that it was something that was going to challenge us and we agreed that we would need to invest plenty into our family to ensure our collective wellbeing. Our overriding feeling though was that this is something we still really want to do.

“Oh and I could definitely see myself going for a drink with those guys, you know, for moral support?” Jim added, referring to the other men in the group.

Actually, I’m with him there. Establishing a good support system is going to be critical for both of us. In my experience, female carers are generally very good at seeking out and finding that support, but, and this is only my experience, male carers can find it harder to do so. At EFS (the fostering agency I work for), we’ve been talking a lot about how to support our male carers in a way that they actually want and need. If Jim is advocating moral support over a pint in the pub, that sounds like as good a place to start as any. Imagine a cat that has got the cream and a child who has inadvertently stumbled on Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Put the two together. That’s how Jim is looking now.

The Fostering Network in Wales has produced two reports for men in foster care: