Cathy Talks About Fostering

How long have you been fostering?
Twenty-eight years, although I have taken short breaks.

Was it difficult to start fostering?
It wasn’t especially difficult to start fostering, my husband (John) and I met all the criteria for a successful assessment, the difficult bit came when we started fostering. There was no training then and we were just left to get on with it.

What made you go into fostering in the first place?
I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper saying that foster families were desperately needed, and I wondered if I had what it took. I went to an introductory evening and never looked back. This is covered in more detail in my book Cut.

Have you every regretted the decision?
No, never, not for one moment. Although I have doubted my skills as a foster carer and questioned (particularly with very challenging children) if I was getting it right. But no parent or carer gets it right the whole time – we just do our best.

It sounds an incredibly difficult job – but you have fostered 100 children – did you ever feel like giving up on it?
Yes, sometimes, but not because of the children. It is the ‘system’ I have to deal with which causes me most frustration. The time things seem to take and the meetings instead of action. Sometimes I feel I am the only person in the child care system battling for what the child needs. I know many other foster carers feel the same. The whole child protection system needs looking at and revising.

What do you need to be a foster carer?
A desire to work with children and young people
Room in your home – the looked after child must have his or her own bedroom.
Empathy for the child, and an understanding of the circumstances that have brought that child into care.
A calm manner particularity in a crisis
Common sense
A good network of support
Knowing when to voice an opinion and when to stay quiet
Make time for your own family
Try not to be judgemental
Be a good listener
Have a smart outfit for meetings
Be well organised
Keep your sense of humour
Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’, all children need boundaries.
Play together and enjoy looking after the child, you will be part of their life history.

Some of your stories illustrate the problem of child sexual abuse. Why is it so important to talk about it?
Child sexual abuse is far more widespread than people realize. I feel we need to raise public awareness so that parents, carers, teachers and all those working with children are more alert to spot the danger signs. I have been shocked by the large number of emails I have received from adults who were abused as children but never told anyone. Not only is the abuser still at large and able to go on and abuse others, but the victim can never truly move on because justice has not been done.

Can your books be a warning to people to be more alert about what is happening?
I hope so. But it should be remembered that the majority of abuse comes from a person known to the child not a stranger. Understandably people do not want to believe that a member of their family, close friend or neighbour is an abuser. This is one of the reasons why the majority of child abuse goes unreported – people miss the signs as they cannot believe someone they know might be an abuser.

What is the target audience for your books? Can they be used in therapeutic work by the others psychologists?
The main target audience for my books is the ordinary reader – reading for pleasure. However, my books are also used by teachers, trainers, parents, foster carers, social workers, child psychologists, and all those working with children. I wrote Happy Kids, Happy Adults and Happy Mealtimes for Kids because I received so many emails asking for advice on these matters.

Have all the children you’ve fostered come from dysfunctional families?
No. Some children stayed with me on respite, to give their parents or main care giver a short break, or sometimes the parent or care-giver had to go into hospital, and there was no one else to look after the child. It is surprising how little support some parents have from their extended family; especially single parents. Children can be brought into care for many reasons but mainly it is as a result of severe neglect or abuse.

Is your work a learned profession or is it rather a vocation?
A bit of both really. You have to want to work with children to be a foster carer, but foster carers also receive on-going training and have to meet certain standards. Like many professions foster carers learn from doing ‘the job’, so that the more experienced you are the better you are at looking after the children you foster. Because I have been fostering a long time I have developed strategies for helping children, even those with severe behavioural problems. I pass on these strategies to help in Happy Kids.

Not many people decide to devote their lives to abused and unwanted children. Based on your personal experience, could you give some advice to those who would like to foster but still hesitate?
There is always a shortage of foster carers so if you are interested in fostering I suggest you contact your local fostering service and ask for more information. Different countries vary in their procedure for recruiting foster carers, but there will be an introductory evening where you will learn more about fostering and you will be able to ask questions and share your concerns. The application and assessment process to become a foster carer is long and in depth so you will have plenty of time to think about your commitment. Fostering doesn’t suit all families but if you go ahead and foster you will find the rewards – of seeing a child improve and be happy – are never ending.

Do you feel particularly associated, attached to one of the children in particular?
My family and I get very attached to all the children we foster. But each child’s story is different and affects us in a different way. My eyes still fill with tears when I think of little Alice whose story I tell in I Miss Mummy. She just couldn’t understand why she was in foster care and I didn’t understand either! Also Reece, the boy whose story I tell in Mummy Told Me Not To Tell was such a character that he will always have a special place in our hearts.

Do you find it difficult to see the children you have cared for leave for other homes when you have become so close?
Yes. The foster carer and her family bond with the child. It’s natural, and although you know the child is going to a good and loving home you still miss the child. It’s like a small bereavement.

Do you maintain a contact with the children you fostered? How do they cope after leaving your home?
Many of the children I have fostered stay in contact with us but not all. Social care policy in the UK advises foster carers that it has to be left up to the child (and their permanent family) if they wish to stay in contact, so that I can’t phone the child once he or she has left. I think more should be done to keep children in touch with their foster carers and I campaign for this in the UK. Recent research has shown that the majority of foster children would have liked to have stayed in touch with their carers and I know the carers would certainly like this. Most of the children I am in contact with are doing well and I post updates about them on my website as my readers like to know too.

Contact with the painful stories of children is not so easy. How do you cope with these emotions?
My family and I talk about our feelings, which helps. Foster carers are offered counselling if they need it. We also talk to our link worker, Jill, who is a great source of strength. But you’re right; knowing what these children have been through is painful and shocking. We take comfort from the thought that we have helped them in some small way.

Are you a critic or a fan of social workers (and why?!)
Neither and both, like most foster carers. I have worked with excellent social workers who were so conscientious that they were regularly up until midnight catching up on report writing. I have also worked with social workers who didn’t even meet the basic statutory requirements regarding the children in their care. The social worker is clearly crucial to the well-being and safety of the child and we need to get it right.

If you were a director of children’s services what changes would you make to the system?
The following are some points that spring to mind from a foster carer’s point of view:
Use a software system that reduces rather than increases work (yes, it happens) – listen to what the social workers and admin staff recommend, they use it most. Make sure all files are accessible to social workers.
Retain and increase admin staff – a lot of a social worker’s time it taken up with ‘paperwork’ that could easily be done by a clerical worker on half the salary.
Use a stakeholder panel when interviewing for senior management posts, and listen to what they say – they know the questions to ask and will know if the answers gel.
Real accountability – if someone isn’t doing their job they need to be told so – inefficiency isn’t tolerated in commercial institutions, it shouldn’t be ignored in Social Services.
Keep foster carers informed, and take their concerns and opinions seriously – they are working at ‘grass roots’ level and are usually the best people to consult for the child’s best interest.
Pressurise the powers that be for more funding.
If concerns are raised about a child, and the parents aren’t in when the social worker visits or the child isn’t there, make a return visit ASAP. Talk to the child alone. I have been appalled by the number of emails and letters I’ve received from adults who were abused as children and couldn’t understand why help never arrived, or why they weren’t listened to. A child in care always spends time alone with their social worker when they visit – the foster carer leaves the room. It is absolutely essential when concerns are raised and the child is still at home that the social worker speaks to the child alone. Obvious, but it doesn’t always happen.
Ensure that all foster carers have access to email at home and use it to update professionals on the child (ren) in their care.
Educate social workers (particularly men) on dress code – it is not OK to arrive at a meeting in washed-out jeans, open-toed sandals, and a creased shirt, looking as though you’ve just fallen out of bed.

If you were a frontline social worker how would you challenge the system and make a difference?
Write a book, exposing the ridiculously heavy work load and lack of funding. It seems to me that most of the problems stem from too many cases and too little time. The government is very generous with its new initiatives but unless there is funding to increase the number of social workers it is like a dog without teeth.

Do you feel social services give enough of the right support out to both child and family?
There should be more but that won’t happen until there is more funding available for support. The social services budget is permanently stretched to the limit.

You foster through an agency, was this your own choice? If so why through an agency instead of local authorities?
I fostered through an independent fostering agency which was a registered charity. I initially responded to an advertisement they placed in the local paper when they were recruiting foster carers. I enjoyed a very good working relationship with all their staff, especially my support social worker who was very supportive.  Later, for reasons I explain in The Child Bride, I changed to foster for my Local Authority.

If you hadn’t gone into fostering, what else might you have done? (or how would your life have been different?)
This is a difficult one because my life revolves around fostering and all it entails. Fostering is all-encompassing and life-changing. It would certainly have been a different life without fostering, and I suspect a far less rewarding one.