Everything you need to know about Fostering before you apply
You can visit any Fostering Agency website and it’ll give you a pretty good idea of everything you need to know about becoming a Foster Carer.
At Perpetual Fostering, our approach is a little different.
We believe that you don’t need to hear it from us, the Agency. You need to hear it from someone who’s been there and done that. An actual Foster Carer who’s experienced the amazing highs (and the occasional lows), and who can be best placed to give some real-life advice.
So, this article is entitled ‘Everything you need to know about Fostering before you apply’.
The fact that you’re even reading this at all shows what an absolute superhero of a person you are for even considering fostering as an option for you and your family. What you’re doing is a step above and beyond. This isn’t giving money to a charity or wearing a t-shirt to show your support; this is giving yourself to a great cause, and wearing your heart on your sleeve to show the world that you’re about to play one of the most remarkable roles there is in a child’s life.
Ready to read on?
Let’s begin by forgetting everything you’ve heard in those adverts on the radio.
Whilst many Foster Agencies will turn to the radio to advertise for Foster Carers, be careful of what those adverts are saying to you. More often than not, they’ll state claims along the lines of the fact that “All you need is a spare room and a place in your heart”. As a cynic and as a former English teacher, this line makes me cringe uncontrollably anyway, but it also irritates me because it’s incredibly misleading for anyone expressing an interest becoming a Foster Carer.
Obviously, you need a spare room if you want to foster, and that should really go without saying. But what about the other things you will need? I’m not talking about a ‘kind heart’ and a ‘listening ear’ and all that spiel dreamt up in a marketing department somewhere. I’m talking about the other things that you may not even think about at all before actually finding yourself in the role of a Foster Carer.
My own experience has always swayed more towards talking about life with teenagers, but this is my list of ‘all you need’ as a Foster Carer in general – after you’ve cleared out the spare room, of course.
So, in no particular order, you need…
1. Spare room in all your other rooms.
Going from ‘couple with kitten’ to ‘family with foster child’ overnight means that stuff piles up quickly. Everyone’s stuff is everywhere, yet somehow, no-one can find anything. Make room.
2. The ability to communicate effectively.
Although your role as a Foster Carer is to serve as an advocate and a voice for the child in your care, sometimes you’ll need to think carefully about what to say and who to say it to. This will usually be at times when somebody else in your child’s life does something you personally don’t agree with, and this could happen a lot, because we all have our own subjective best intentions. Talk to your social worker about what you feel and what you think, then trust in them to be the best voice they can be for you.
3. A car (and the ability to drive it).
You’d be surprised how many situations have been sorted and how many pieces of much-needed advice have been administered whilst driving around in the car with pretty much any member of my family who’s needed it. Think about it. In a car, nobody has to make eye contact, nobody can walk out, and if it gets really awkward, you can always just throw on the radio. Pick a station you both like to save any arguments about your almost certain “rubbish taste in music”
4. The ability to resist striking the next person who utters something along the lines of, “Yeah, but they’re not really your kids, are they…”
People’s complete lack of tact will either make you laugh or cry. Try to laugh.
5. A talent for interpretive arts.
Without doubt, you will need to hone your miming skills in order to carry out and understand a full-on argument with your partner about whatever it is that’s caused an issue, without once uttering a full audible sentence for a child in your presence to hear. Your young person will come to learn that you’re a human being (yes really), but in the first instance, be sensitive of the type of environment your child or young person may have just come from, and accept that shouting and arguments – as natural as they can be – can be difficult for a child to process and deal with.
6. The humility to ask for your child’s help.
Children and young people, regardless of background or experience, are innately more tech savvy than you. The best way to make them feel at home in your family is to give them a role, and you should accept that this role will likely be to fix anything that needs a charger or wifi, when said object has caused near divorce or mental breakdown elsewhere in the family.
7. An unwavering resolve to fight (figuratively speaking).
There are many establishments, institutions and organisations who claim to support and advocate for children and young people. It doesn’t always feel like that though, and not everyone’s agenda is child centred. People may claim they are putting your child or young person first, but you may well struggle to believe that’s the case during your time as a Foster Carer. Get ready to build the best case for giving your child the best life possible.
And finally, what you certainly need above all…
8. A grasp on reality.
Congratulations! By doing this wonderful thing in becoming a Foster Carer, you’ve just become a full-on parent to somebody else’s child. Therefore, it’s completely okay not to have a clue what you’re doing! It’s almost expected, in fact, so give yourself a break.
Now that’s broken the ice, let’s look at some other practicalities of becoming a Foster Carer.
Let’s start by assessing your ‘full time’ options.
My plan all the way through the fostering application process had always been to keep my career whilst carrying out my role as a Foster Carer. I was certainly always going to follow that plan with my own children so fostering a child seemed no different. In continuing to work, I would feel fulfilled, would contribute financially to our family, and would set a good example of a strong work ethic to my children. That was the idea, anyway…
A good Agency, such as the amazing team at Perpetual Fostering, will be supportive of your decisions, but they’ll also be honest and open with you, and you may have to accept the fact that working full time whilst fostering – certainly in the early days – can be difficult. This isn’t to say it’s not doable, but it’s important to think about how flexible your working (and your boss) can be with/for you. So, for example, if your boss gets funny with you any time you ask if you can switch a shift or finish early to head to a doctor’s appointment, even though you stayed late last night and came in early this morning, you may have problems going forward.
Though countless people work full time and raise their own birth children at the same time, fostering is different, because you don’t know all there is to know and predict about this young person coming into your life, and you’re not just playing the role of mum or dad to that child either, because you’ll have more jobs and career roles than you’d ever imagine possible when a child is in your care.
You’ll be a social worker.
Yes, you’ll have a social worker assigned to you by your Agency, and it’s likely that this will be the same person who guided and supported you through your application process, so you’ll know them well and will most definitely have a great relationship with them. You will still need to take on a similar role yourself though, because that official person cannot be there all the time, and so it will be up to you to discover all you can about your child, seek and offer tailored support for them, and generally advocate their wellbeing in the most objective and fair way you can on a daily basis.
You’ll be a teacher.
As a qualified teacher myself, I’m a big believer in the fact that a good teacher extends their care, support and influence far beyond the classroom, and therefore to teach does not mean to simply get a child through their grades. As a Foster Carer, you will be the prime provider of all sorts of education and learning, including social, emotional and personal aspects. Whether you’re actively aware or not, your children will learn from you. Oh, and if your child cannot attend school for whatever reason, then to some extent you will have to become a teacher as well. Your Agency will of course take the lead on this, so don’t go thinking that you’ll be expected to swot up on science or go mad for maths, but you will need to take an active interest in what and how your child can formally learn. Embrace it – it’s a great way to bond.
You’ll be a lawyer.
Nothing possesses a person quite so much as when somebody crosses their family. In fostering, those children in your new family will at some time in their life in placement be judged, overlooked, ignored, spoken for, treated as a number, and/or used as a commodity by the countless people who are either directly or indirectly involved in their journey through life as a ‘Looked After Child’ (not Perpetual’s choice of phrase, as, like me, they don’t enjoy labelling children at all). Prepare to put some research in as you advocate for your child, and prepare to fight. This is all worst-case scenario of course, but it’s good advice nonetheless, because nobody is in a better position be a voice for that young person than you. Put the background research in, because it’s worth the hard work.
In carrying out each of these roles and more, you won’t be paid a top salary, you’ll unlikely ever get an award to recognise your hard work, and you’ll absolutely never get a day off, but what you will get is reward from knowing that you are making a difference, full time, to a human being’s life.
So, you’re ready to apply? Here are a few more things to have a quick think about.
Not everyone will be supportive of your choice and actions
Whilst I view fostering as kind, brave and ultimately selfless, not everyone shares this positivity. There will always be someone on your radar who does not fully support your choice. In my case, it was my own mum (in the beginning), but whilst this was upsetting, it wasn’t half as annoying as the people I barely knew who were more than happy to seek me out in Tesco and demand, “Why don’t you just have your own kids?”
You’ll hear a lot of misconceptions and some really ill-chosen words to support people’s views
Many people confuse fostering with adoption, so this is a misconception I’ve had to explain frequently. You’ll also be helpfully informed on a regular basis that, “All foster kids are troubled” (usually as you watch your critic’s own precious angel scream blue murder over a lost biscuit), and it will irk you that you have to deal with poorly worded questions such as, “When do you get to give them back?” Of course, it’s encouraging when questions come from those who genuinely take interest, but sadly, there are a lot of people who just want gossip.
Your family planning will be questioned
When you’ve had enough of everyone else questioning your fertility and your plans to have your ‘own’ children, unfortunately in the case of your social worker and your Agency’s assessment panel, whether or not you are planning to have your ‘own’ family is a legitimate topic of conversation. Don’t even get me started on how much I take offence to the phrase “childlessness” (spoken by a so-called friend), but overall, I understand the conversation. This can be uncomfortable to go through, but then again, so is childbirth! Seriously though, consider how things could change for a child in your care if 9 months later you gave birth, and your whole world suddenly changed?
You’ll get upset/annoyed at least once during the application process
Getting upset/annoyed is pretty much a regular occurrence for me anyway, but this was heightened during the fostering assessment process. You’ll become frustrated with people’s attitudes (see previous point), you’ll disagree with your loved ones’ viewpoints (see next point), and you’ll have to answer questions/talk about issues that ordinarily you’d save to offload on your best mate after a glass of wine and a bucketful of tears. There are even some things you’d rather not talk about at all, but this doesn’t help your case, so prepare to toughen up and open up. It’s absolutely vital for matching you to your role and to your future family.
Disagreements will happen
My husband and I are incredibly different in our parenting styles. He deals with conflict calmly, whereas I am a little more intense, shall we say! On several occasions during our assessment process, we found ourselves disagreeing over responses to our social worker’s questions. These interviews are not the best time to rip apart the issues and delve into your differences, but that’s what you’ll feel like doing, and certainly the team at Perpetual Fostering would never leave you to deal with that should something arise. I stand by disagreements being a perfectly natural thing to experience though, as I just do not believe couples who say they never argue – especially when talking about family!
Your home will need to be adapted in some way
I would like to think that I have a warm, welcoming and safe home, but I still tortured myself for a week after I’d realised I’d left the top off a bottle of antiseptic in the bathroom when our social worker had visited. She probably didn’t even see it, but part of her job was indeed to (sensitively) highlight issues that may need addressing prior to us welcoming a child into our home. Amid the changes that are helpfully suggested to you (a sturdy lock on the bathroom door, a key rack by the front door, CO3 monitors on each floor), you’ll unreasonably start believing that everything in your home needs changing and is a death trap. (It’s really not).
You’ll be faced with some truths
A really great Agency, like Perpetual Fostering, will support and encourage you as one of their valued Foster Carers, but they’ll also give the honest answers and key information regarding things you may not really want to think about – placement breakdown, allegations, paperwork, and the stress of dealing with agencies who you may find more hindrance than help. You may not want to hear this kind of stuff, but for the sake of being prepared and resilient as a Foster Carer, you really need to face it.
You’ll find out exactly what people think of you
Once you’ve been approved by the assessment panel, your social worker may give you access to the references they collected on your behalf. My husband and I enjoyed reading over these as we celebrated our acceptance, as it was lovely to read about the faith that all those who knew us best had in us. It’s a little cringe-worthy too, though, when you collate the fact that nearly all of them have spectacularly hit upon your ‘quirks’. So, if you’re known to speak your mind, your nearest and dearest will mention it!
The process is worth taking time
Our assessment process took a good few months. Where others may view this as lengthy, I was glad of the timeframe. It gave me confidence that our Agency was being thorough in their assessment and were investing proper time and resource to prepare us for this life-changing event. There are so many Agencies looking for Foster Carers, and those worth their salt know that for the benefit and stability of the children in their care, fast-tracking is never an option.
You’ll be surprised how many people out there are fostering!
For every one person who doesn’t give you the encouragement for your choice that you’d like or expect, there will be countless people who are delighted for you, bestow praise and offer support. Some of these people will even tell you that they know someone else who is also fostering! Not only is this lovely to hear, but it will remind you that your access to a support network is getting bigger by the day. Personally, I know I’ll benefit greatly from this future support, as well as from the support at Perpetual Fostering, of course.
Some summary advice if you’re still reading?
Embrace the challenges of the application process, because resilience is a fantastic quality in any Foster Carer, and one of the most important traits you can pass on to any child in your care. That very first child who comes into your home… you will play a role in their life for sure, but whether you know it or not, you’ll also be playing a role in the lives of their children, should they go on to have any. What you’re choosing to sign up to won’t just change a life; it’ll help change the future.