I am 'care experienced', having grown up in children's homes and foster homes in the eighties in Nottinghamshire. I certainly feel my life experience brings benefits to my work, but I also recognise that it is far from unique. There are currently around 70,000 children in care and I would never assume the right to speak for all of them, which would neither be honest or accurate.
But on the flip-side, I wonder if I would be working today to raise the value of fostering as a profession and with fostering agencies to help them to recruit new carers, had I not had my own individual life experience? It's a question that perhaps has no reliable answer, but my hunch is, probably not.
Certainly, almost all fostering applicants I meet have some pre-existing connection to fostering; I rarely meet an applicant who has no idea at all what fostering is, or how it changes children's lives. I have facilitated many fostering information sessions, and from this I know that many applicants think about fostering for several years, and a significant number of those (my research indicates 75%) have some link with fostering or looked after children already. For example, they:
- knew another foster carer, or;
- were a support foster carer, or;
- currently worked with children (child minding, teaching), or;
- had in the past worked with children, or;
- had themselves grown up in care, or;
- knew someone else who had, or;
- their own family had fostered during their childhood.
When I worked as foster carer recruitment and marketing manager for a London local authority, part of my role was to handle incoming enquiries. That involved discerning an individual’s merits as a prospective foster carer, and sometimes I would be enthusiastically told that their own experience of growing up in care would make them a fantastic foster carer.
That’s just half the picture, though. Experience of growing up in care is certainly of value. But many, I would argue, all of us, pay a very high, and sometimes lifelong, price for such insight. Whether it presents in childhood, later teenage years, or even later in adulthood, the emotional and psychological consequences arising from parental abandonment, neglect and the full spectrum of child abuse, causes behavioural issues and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that requires intensive therapy to manage or overcome.
I worked hard to find the right therapy, and the right therapists, that together worked most definitively for me, but I was also blessed with some luck, and others’ generosity. I am not who I am today without the loving support of others, but I first had to get to a place of accepting such support before the real change could begin. This calls for determination, courage, money, acceptance, and most frighteningly of all, opening up and becoming vulnerable. We cannot pretend to get well. We must work with our authentic selves if we are to attain lasting freedom from our pasts.
So, care experience is not, of itself, qualification enough for fostering. However, an intensive therapeutic journey of recovery from the effects of abandonment neglect and abuse demonstrates deep personal awareness, and that, as a foster carer, is worth its’ weight in gold. For applicants, shared insight of your recovery will add much of advantage to your fostering assessment.
Having resolved our own emotional challenges, we are much less likely to over-empathise with vulnerable youngsters entrusted into our care, and therefore less able to be manipulated by them, as all children and young people try to do, not just those in care! Along with this, we are abler to work within professional boundaries with our supervising social workers, using our time together for the benefit of the child, and not as a personal counselling session – and yes, in the past, this has happened.
I feel that it is only then that we ‘care experienced’ adults are authentically ready to embark upon an assessment towards approval as foster carers. My personal care experience was a story of rough and smooth, but all of it was far better than life before care. I have considered fostering, even adoption, but I am deeply enjoying working closely and successfully with fostering agencies and I feel this is how I prefer to draw upon my own life experience.