And what does it matter?
Some don’t care.
I really do. I think it matters a lot.
The debate rages on, yet seems to me to be underpinned by everyone wanting the same thing - the argument, both for and against ‘parent’ or ‘carer’ rests, for everyone, on which is most respectful of the skilled, sophisticated work that people who foster do, uniquely in their own homes.
That latter point is significant; of all the people who engage with the challenges that our children face - teachers, social workers, police officers, therapists etc - only the people who foster, do that work in their own homes.
I was recently struck almost speechless by a very nice chap who came to enquire about fostering. He was heading towards early retirement, having been a Clinical Nurse in a CAMHS team for many years. He was thinking of fostering, once retired, and was hoping to have ‘the easy ones’ placed.
Moment, of jaw on chest.
Did he think that all those kids in care he’d seen over the years were living somewhere other than foster homes? Or perhaps that, once back in those foster homes, their life traumas and challenges were put to one side?
Every practitioner, other than fostering folk, sees our kids intermittently, for perhaps an hour or so at a time, and consider that they are doing important work with challenging young people.
How, then, does it happen that the practitioners who spend hour after hour, evening after evening, weekend after weekend alongside those same young people, are perceived to be doing work that is less skilled, less sophisticated and less important?
Which brings me back to the question of parent vs carer....time to declare our position, and to mark a spot in the evolutionary timeline...we’re for foster parent, not because we’re harking back to an old identity, but because the task - the unique task - is one of professional parenting, which is therefore a unique identity - a type of professional practitioner like no other.
To be a foster parent decades ago, pre-1970s - or a ‘house parent’ in residential settings - was to be a low paid, low skilled someone who made beds and cooked meals and washed clothes...you know...the sort of thing women did, that never mattered to anyone (eyebrow raised, polemically) so wasn’t paid well, if at all. Kids, eh, not a proper job, obvs.
Then there was a bit of a revolution, and folk who fostered began to get paid better, and began to gain some traction to be taken seriously.
Part of that campaign, was a distancing, away from that identity of low paid, low skilled ‘just a parent’, with the introduction of ‘carer’, to reflect a greater, more professional status.
But here’s the thing - ‘carer’, these days, is used for someone who pops into the homes of old or disabled folk, in a uniform or tabard, to help with essential tasks that have become difficult, then they leave, after sometimes only a few minutes. Or it describes other family members who care for relatives out of love and duty, helping with those same essential tasks, often informally.
As noble and marvellous as those positions are, neither are parenting, and children who cannot live with their own families, or whose parents cannot perform the parenting task adequately, need new families, and people who can parent them.
And yet, of course, foster parents work within a highly regulated, highly scrutinised environment - they’re not just parents - they are professional parents.
Their challenge, is for the child to feel that they are a new, loving parent - in an ordinary family home - whilst their colleagues feel confident in them as a fellow professional, with all the required vigilance and safeguarding, and thinking on their feet...in their own, ordinary, family homes.
Good ol’ Nadhim got it, passing through as Children’s Minister:
“I like to call them parents because I think what they are actually doing is parenting.... I think what foster parents do is incredible; the ones that I have spoken to see themselves as parents.”
There is a retort that children themselves do not want just another professional in their life. That’s right - they want, they crave, a good parent.
And to be that person - stepping in to do the parenting - means working within a professional framework, meeting professional expectations, and having additional skills and qualities that most parents do not need.
The concept of professional parenting ain’t complicated, if you truly understand and value the work, and we posit, strongly, that proper recognition for foster parents needs to be embedded in proper understanding of what they do. Inadequate understanding leads to unacceptable diminishing and undermining - eroding of confidence and potency - and why would we do that to our children.
'Fosteringmum’ does a lovely job of describing her experience, worth a read beyond these couple of excerpts, and I’m leaving her with the final word:
“No one questions whether my husband as a management consultant and a father can be both professional and parent – nor my father (a civil engineer and a parent and grandparent), nor my brother (a doctor and a father), nor my cousin (a teacher and a mother). Why should it be any different for me as a foster carer? I am both professional and parent – that is who I am, who I choose to be. Who has the right to tell me I am not?
I can tell you that I give just as much attention to my professional development and how I conduct myself in my foster carer role as I did in my previous job – there are standards I must achieve, communications and reports I need to draft clearly and concisely, training I must complete and processes and procedures with which I should comply....
...AND THEN, as a foster mum, I do all those things that I did as a birth parent with my own children – I take my little one to Baby Ballet class and Baby swimming, I hold her close when she has her vaccinations, I potty-train, I teach her to use a knife and fork, recognise colours, count to ten. I sing with her, I take her to the zoo, I stack wooden blocks over and over again so she can delight in pushing them over, I lie on my stomach on the floor and push cars around. I braid her hair and I kiss her tummy when I change her nappy. And yes, I love her.
And I do all these things knowing that one day (possibly soon) I will let her go to her forever family. I do them in the knowledge that I do not have parental responsibility for her. I do them whilst facilitating her contact with her birth family and protecting myself against the possibility of a complaint or allegation....I am me and I am her mum – her FOSTER mum.
I am a professional foster parent.”