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Cold, corporate language has no place in foster care

An agency advert suggesting fosterers can relinquish responsibility for fostered children when they turn 18 caused upset. Here Rebekah Pierre, who spent time in care as a child, explains why

Professional Social Work magazine, November 2020

Almost a decade has passed since I left the care system and, most days, it seems like a distant memory. The two years I spent shifting from placement to placement seem hazy now. If I am honest, it seems like a chapter from someone else’s life.

But when I came across the heavily criticised recruitment advert from Horizon Fostering, which suggested care leavers would be ‘moved out’ to state support at the earliest opportunity, I felt like I was 16 again.

I was suddenly reminded of how it felt to live with the quiet knowledge that you are not in your forever home. At that age, like many of looked after children I later worked with as a social worker, I could not help but feel I was a burden.

I was first placed in semi-independent accommodation, which I was woefully unprepared for – the demands of managing a tight budget, studying for A-levels, and holding down a part-time job were overwhelming.

My tiny bedsit was on the 4th floor. I was homed there, but it was not my home. In fact, in some ways, it felt more like a prison cell (a common feature in unregulated placements, as observed by the children’s commissioner). The metal bars across my windows certainly made me feel incarcerated.

The environment was almost clinical – our rooms were painted in identical off-white, which we were banned from decorating, which spoke of a place designed for temporary, anonymous residents. As did the gentle, but regular reminder that I could stay for a "maximum of two years".

Once, when I asked if I could return over the summer holidays once I started university, my care worker said "can’t you just stay with a friend?". It felt like the end of care was a cliff edge.

Shortly after this, I was placed with a family under a private fostering arrangement. Despite the best intentions of my carers, and their continued love and support, I could not help but feel I was in the way. And I know I am not alone in this – as a social worker, I heard the same sentiments echoed by the children I worked with.

Integrating into a new family system can be complicated. I didn’t understand the ‘in-jokes’ at the dinner table, family traditions, or the expected way to do certain things. I worried that I was taking time and resources away from my foster siblings.

Given that I already lived with so many doubts as to where I belonged and if I was overstaying my welcome, if I saw this advert lying around at that time, it would have confirmed my fears.

Not only was the cold, corporate language offensive, the accompanying image was just as bad. It featured a blithely smiling child waving goodbye to her foster carer at reaching the milestone of 18. From experience, I can truly say that parting with a carer is never that easy – granted, relationships with carers can often be messy and complex, but this photo belies the depth of them.

The reality is that few looked after children experience the carefree transition depicted in the photo. In a study by Coram Voice, nearly a third reported they did not leave at the right time for them.

The notion that a young person no longer requires nurture, guidance and support at the arbitrary age of 18 is completely flawed. Research shows that brain development continues until at least 25 years old. What’s more, a study by Loughborough University found that in the UK, 71 per cent of young single adults were living with their parents during their early 20s, 54 per cent in their late 20s.

It begs the question as to why care leavers are expected to survive, and indeed thrive, almost a decade earlier than half their counterparts?

And the impact of prematurely cut-off support on mental health is devastating, with one in four care leavers having experienced a mental health crisis according to Barnardo’s.

With trials such as these, looked after children who have often experienced trauma, disrupted attachments, and repeated rejection ought to be treated with kindness, warmth, and compassion.

As Wayne Reid, professional officer for BASW England said, the advert "reduces the role of foster carers to that of landlord. Sadly, it does very little to highlight the holistic care provided by some foster carers from private fostering agencies".

Language matters – who amongst us does not carry the scars of insensitive comments made to us in childhood, whether from carers, teachers, or other professionals? 

Looked after children must be consulted in the design of future documents.

As the true experts, they ought to be leading every step of the way – their voice must be central to every page. And this duty not only lies with foster care agencies themselves. Commissioners also have a responsibility to ensure that the messages given out to both looked after children and carers are appropriate, sensitive, and led for and by children.

Rebekah Pierre is a professional officer with BASW England