Keeley Stephenson, ©JR Schwarz

After completing her bachelor’s degree in Youth Studies, Keeley put together a handbook encouraging better relations between foster parents and children in care. The guide draws on her own negative and positive experiences of going through the system, we have published an extract below…

Growing up I was a very troubled child. I hadn’t had the best start in life and had been in foster care for as long as I could remember. Nonetheless, because of the nature of my background I had various issues around forming relationships with foster carers and in most cases, I felt that they could never understand me or even relate to me. As a result of this I visited over 10 different foster homes.

Throughout my experience of foster care, I experienced many foster carers that were only interested in the financial gain of what a foster child could bring them, and as a result of that unknowingly neglected the holistic needs of their foster child. I have witnessed so many passionless carers that perceive their child as a threat. Consequently, they have then failed to see the potential within that child and as a result of this have given up on them.

I do not want to demean the challenges within this line of work, but the challenges should not dictate how we choose to work. After all, the reason why I created this handbook was to provide foster carers with a framework that could act as a basis for them to follow with the intention to positively influence their role as a foster carer.

I want to change the current narrative of a young person in care, and in order to do so must influence the foster carer in order for them to have that ‘domino effect’ upon their foster children. How that first domino is treated and behaves is vital in determining how all the other dominos feel once you’ve touched them. This is why I believe that change starts from the top, gradually working its way down to the bottom.

Questions to Ask Yourself Before Becoming a Foster Carer

It’s not all about finances. Of course it is great to be doing a job that you love and at the same time be getting paid for it. Nevertheless, it is important that your passion influences this decision first. It is vital that even before becoming a foster carer that you ask yourself a number of questions regarding the reason why you are considering becoming one.

The reason for this is so you can find out your ‘WHY?’ so that when the challenges do arise you can continually refer back to the main reason as to WHY you began this job role. Not only will this push you when times get hard and when you feel as though you can no longer cope. This will also instil a strength into you that will continue to ignite your passion as a foster carer.

Listed below are a few questions that can help you consider whether or not becoming a foster carer is really for you:

How well do you manage challenges? Understanding whether or not you have the skills and ability to manage challenges is a BIG ONE. The reason why I have prioritised this question and have put it first place is because it is inevitable! Challenges WILL arise. Finding out how well you can manage a challenge will determine how you will respond to conflict when it does potentially arise in your home.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you’ll take time to address the challenge, making time to address the challenge means that you are willing to find a solution. By doing so, your young person will start to see your willingness to care and resolve the conflict between you both. I’ve been in numerous situations where conflict has arisen amongst myself and previous foster carers. In large part due to their lack of attentiveness and understanding the conflict was never resolved and as a result of this created more of a reason for me to continue to act out.

Can you meet the holistic needs of a young person? The majority of carers that I was placed with thought that if they fed me 3 times a day and gave me somewhere to sleep that that was the meaning of ‘care’. This is where they are wrong. Although this is an aspect of care and a very important part of it to, there are also other imperative attributes that come into play here. Will you speak to your young person daily? Will you find out what their worries and fears are? Will you work with them to ensure they know that they are loved by you? Are you willing to go the extra mile for them or will you only do the bare minimum? If you’ve answered “no” to the majority of the questions asked, then you probably should rethink becoming a foster-carer.

Do you quit easily? In everything that we do, or even aspire to do, there inevitably comes downfalls. At times we may ask ourselves why we even begun a new venture when it feels like it is only going to cause you more pain in the process. But in going through your trials and trying to manage different levels of conflict, this is where it is important for you to remember your ‘Why?’ The reason ‘Why’ you started in the first place. We have also got to remember that in the process of trying to achieve anything, we often get weary and may even regret our choices at times. In these moments it is important to recall “Nothing worth having is going to come easy.”

Do you have a good relationship with children? Having a good relationship with children is key. That alone will set the foundation for becoming a great foster carer. It will also provide a safe haven for young people if they have something that they’d like to disclose but are unsure of who to tell. Building a strong relationship with young people and constantly making yourself available to them is something they will hold very dear to their hearts. This is often because there are not many people they can trust.

If you feel as though you don’t have the greatest relationship with young people, why not begin by studying them. Find out what young people like, find out what the latest songs are and bring that up as a topic of conversation. Ask them what their hobbies and interests are and perhaps offer to do the things that they enjoy together, but most importantly: Build a relationship.

Can you cook? You might ask why I have chosen this as one of the priority questions, but I feel that it’s a necessity. When I was 11 years old I was placed with a foster carer that couldn’t cook and because of this I’d live off of chicken and chips nearly every day. Her kitchen was close to unusable as it was extremely cluttered and had about 8 cats residing in it at the time. This not only effected my mental state because the environment that I was living in wasn’t clean, but this also affected me physically as I had no access to nutritious meals which meant that I had nothing to build up my immune system and keep my body going. To a certain extent I felt that it also affected my levels of concentration in the classroom as I had no vegetables to boost my brain and no iron in me to ensure that I was strong enough to endure the long school day.

With this in mind, as a foster carer I cannot stress the importance of how vital it is to know how to be able to cook. Cooking isn’t just throwing things in the oven, but it is also a meal prepared with love to ensure that a young person gets a nutritious and balanced meal. If you are a foster carer that doesn’t know how to cook, I’d urge you to look online, invest in a cook book or ask for the assistance of a family or friend.

What’s your life like outside of being a foster carer? I believe every foster carer should act as a great role model to the child that they will be fostering, I also believe that they should push them to fulfil their greatest potential and teach them that there are truly no limits or boundaries when it comes to their success. I feel as though the care system has placed so many young people in a box and as a consequence those young people have unfortunately lived up to the self-fulfilling prophecies of society, perpetuating all the statistics. So, with that said it is important that we have foster carers that can be trusted with our young people and provide people with a hope and a future rather than another boundary or obstacle that they have to try and jump over.

Young people in the care system have so many obstacles that they face daily and do not need anymore. I urge you all as foster carers to push your young people to start businesses, to apply for that place in university and to most importantly reach above the stars. There sure isn’t anybody else better placed to do it as great as you can.

A Foster Carers Guide is available online.