Parents' Perspective 1
We spoke to the foster parents of 55 children, the adoptive parents of 51 children, and the birth parents of nine children who had returned home.
Involvement in care planning: What helped?
While children are in care, their care plan arrangements become crucial issues for both foster and birth parents, as well as an important part of their relationship with Social Services.
What the foster parents said:
Most foster parents felt involved in the decisions taken around the care plan. Some of them were still awaiting final decisions, and were hoping that the child’s placement would eventually be formalised as permanent. However, a few said that they did not feel sufficiently involved, or had little knowledge about how decisions on the care plans were made, and felt like they were ‘at the bottom end of the brush’ in this process.
“I suppose that is one of the good things about social services: they are there to speak for you if you need [them]” (Foster parent)
“I think Social Services try to push in things that we find maybe aren’t important ... we consider ourselves as the long term carers … we are the ones that know them best and sometimes they come in and you feel as if they are disrupting things rather than trying to make them better.” (Foster parent)
What the birth parents said:
Some birth parents did not feel involved in the decisions taken around the care plan, felt unwelcome, powerless and threatened at Looked After Children (LAC) meetings, and found court processes stressful and lengthy. On the other hand, a few birth parents felt confident in expressing their views, believed that they were listened to, and even felt that Social Services had been ‘very supportive’ and ‘very accommodating’. That was the case of one mother who had LAC review meetings held in her own home.
“No matter what I said at them reviews, they never seemed to listen. … you were there to voice your concerns but they only wanted you there so that they could dictate to you and tell you what to do.” (Birth parent)
“then a couple of times, they [LAC meetings] actually came out to the house because it was easier for, handier for me … They [Social Services] were very, very accommodating, they were very good ...” (Birth parent)
Relationships with social workers
For adoptive parents, birth parents, and foster parents, experiences of the care system often appeared to depend on the relationship they had with social workers. While there were positive examples of good working relationships, there were also references to more negative experiences.
“Our social worker used to come and baby-sit for us ... that was very practical and great, because in the early stages you don’t know who you can trust to look after your adopted child.” (Adoptive parent)
“They’re there definitely if you need [them] ...” (Foster parent)
“The social workers … are trying to tell you something out of the book that is not practical, there was a couple of them and I said look I prefer you not to come back again … sometimes they are hard to listen to.” (Foster parent)
“The social worker always wanted the Court Order and she always got it … It was her actually got the police and it was actually her that came out to the door with the police and took the kids out of the house” (Birth parent).
“The social worker’s the one person in my life that never, ever judged me, she always seen me as individual, as a person, not just as a mum.” (Birth parent)
Foster parents’ descriptions of social workers went from ‘a disaster’ and ‘too nosey’, to ‘brilliant and great’, ‘helpful’, ‘fantastic’, ‘second to none’ and ‘very supportive’. Similarly, while some birth parents had very bad relationships with some social workers, some also had extremely positive relationships, above all when they felt the social worker did not ‘judge them’ and treated them ‘with respect’.
Foster and birth parents reported constant changes of social workers.
Birth parents said that frequent changes of social workers caused them considerable disruption and stress. This is concerning given that most of these parents were already living in already volatile circumstances. Foster parents felt that a change in social worker could unduly complicate arrangements that were already in place, and could negatively impact upon the general outcomes of the foster placement.
“Then one particular social worker came one day and said ‘look, you know, I wouldn’t do that’ ... and that’s the way it is now.” (Foster parent)
Helping children settle into the placement
The interruption of a relationship with a primary attachment figure can be a difficult experience for a child. Children in care are often faced with abrupt changes: new routines, having to learn to trust a new family, and to adapt to a new way of living. It was not surprising, therefore, that settling in was rarely described as an easy process.
Most adoptive parents and foster parents believed that their children had eventually settled in well in their placements. Similarly, birth parents said that it took time for the family to settle down when a child returned home from a period in care. However, most report difficulties that both they and the children had experienced, particularly early on.
Interviews also suggested that a successful settling in was very much helped by the children’s ability to say where they belonged, and where their home was.
What the foster parents said:
“She banged her head against the walls, she slapped herself round the face, she bit, she couldn’t eat off a spoon, anything at all ....” (Foster parent)
Despite some difficulties, most of the foster parents had successfully worked through this initial period. ‘Making a new life’, ‘coming on nicely’, ‘making progress’, ‘starting to smile’, and ‘responds to kindness’ are examples of expressions that foster parents used in the interviews to express how the children had settled in.
“[Our foster child] is ‘part and parcel’ of the household and that’s it, and that way he’ll remain until either he or powers beyond our control decide otherwise.” (Foster parent)
“The biggest issue was where she was going to be and we could never honestly say to her: you will stay here ... So, the fact that you could come to her and say to her you will stay here; she has settled so much better, she has fewer problems with access [to her birth family] as she knows she is going for a visit and not staying.” (Foster parent)
What the birth parents said:
Although most birth parents interviewed also claimed that their children had settled back home very well, some difficulties were described. For instance, a mother explained how her child was fostered by his grandmother, though the two women did not have a good relationship at the time. According to the birth mother, when her son returned home, it took him ‘a long time to accept that I was the boss’, and she felt that it took her mother some time to ‘back off’.
“She didn’t understand whether she was going to be here full-time or whether somebody was going to come and take her away again. So, she was worried about this until we actually sat down and talked to her and said, ‘No, you’re here for good now.’” (Birth parent)
What the adoptive parents said:
Adoptive parents described the challenges that they faced at the start of the placement, such as adapting to the demands of parenthood; and learning to understand and manage their child’s particular characteristics, issues and needs, including a range of often serious conditions (e.g. Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, ADHD, Chronic Asthma, Failure to Thrive, Anxiety).
“I found … the first few months very difficult ... particularly when he was first placed, he was insecure and unsure of himself, and basically didn’t like to let you out of his sight ... I found adapting to that very difficult.” (Adoptive parent)
Adoptive parents also identified a range of factors that helped them ease the settling-in process, which included:
- gradually relaxing;
- feeling accepted as ‘mum’ or ‘dad’;
- having a sense of working towards a new life together;
- creating and building on ‘a shared history’; and
- establishing a family routine.
“she’d always been brought up to know that a ‘forever mummy and daddy’ were being looked for, for her, that was always in her mind, and … in that week that we were getting to know her she did start to call us ‘mum and dad’ … so that sort of made it easier because you sort of felt you were accepted.” (Adoptive parent)
“Now he has a life with us that he can talk about and share, and he’s got all his wee friends at school ...” (Adoptive parent)