Friday, 9 April 2010

Fostering with Bristol City Council

My partner and I recently applied to be foster carers through Bristol City Council. In January we were told that our application would not be accepted, and we should wait for a couple of years before reapplying. The reason given for this decision was that my partner had suffered from (at times severe) post-natal depression between January and April last year.

I feel strongly that our experience of applying to be foster carers was deficient on a number of fronts, as I will explain below. This article should not be construed as an attack on individuals working within Bristol Social Services; rather I wish to give some constructive criticism of the systems that are in place for fostering children in Bristol (and possibly elsewhere).

[1] Forms versus interviews

In April 2009 we contacted Bristol Social Services about fostering, and a few weeks later we lodged our application; this was done via a one hour interview, conducted by a social worker in our home. Over subsequent months we filled out a number of different forms, as did several referees, and our doctors. In December 2009 a second interview was conducted by the same social worker (duration roughly thirty minutes) who took some more notes. Then in January we received a phone call telling us that our application had been rejected.

Over the nine months of the application process we were in contact with one social worker for a total of ninety minutes. This period of time was deemed sufficient to assess our ability to foster children. Clearly the application system relies far more heavily on information gathered via forms than it does via the interview process.

This fact was brought into relief when our social worker explained that she would need to write a memo with regard to one aspect of our application (I forget exactly which one) which would then be passed to her boss who would discuss the memo with HER boss, and the pair of them would then decide whether or not the application could proceed. So two people who have never met us discussed a memo written by someone who'd been in our company for an hour, on the basis of which discussion a conclusion about our fostering ability was drawn. Am I alone in thinking this absurd?

Fostering children is a human activity; forms can help but they can't tell the full story. In order to make a proper assessment of our suitability to be foster carers two things are required: the first is time. The managers at Social Services will no doubt protest that their workers don't have the time to conduct lengthy interviews with every John Doe who walks through their door. I don't doubt that; but they'd have a lot more time if they filled in less forms.

The second vital requirement is the good judgment of the social worker conducting the interview; the only person to actually meet us! This worker should be trusted and empowered to use that judgment. In fact it would be better if there were more than one worker involved. This must be an improvement on managers with memos.

[2] Motivation in the system

Perhaps this is a good place for me to reiterate that I am NOT seeking to attack social workers. They have an impossible job; they are no doubt over worked. I have no complaints about the individual worker who oversaw our application.

A social worker's job is impossible because the consequences of anything going wrong are momentous. The damage that may be done to a child placed in a bad home doesn't bear thinking about. The papers are regularly filled with stories of social work gone wrong, and the opinion-makers are ever ready to condemn any hapless social worker who errs in the line of duty; working in Family and Childrens Services must feel like negotiating a mine field.

And this metaphor clearly informs the way the system works: every fostering placement is a potential mine ready to blow a social work team to smithereens. So what then is the motivation for that team to place children in the community? If a child is already in a care home, then a social worker risks a hell of a lot in approving their move to a foster home... and what do they gain?

Far better to pore through those forms in the hope of finding some reason to reject a fostering application. You've been depressed? We can't have that! And the social worker breathes a sigh of relief...

But now here's a question: does this system really operate so as to maximise the well-being of the children involved? In light of the impossible situation that social workers find themselves in, one must recognise that social worker teams are compelled to look after their own well-being too - and this is quite a different thing.

All those forms are the paper trail that will get them out of jail (maybe literally) should anything go wrong. A social worker wants to point to a form and say "look, she was depressed, that's why we rejected them." Compare this to the alternative: "although she'd been depressed, we talked for several hours, and I was convinced that this would not be a significant impediment to them fostering." In the current climate that won't save their skin if the shit hits the fan.

But now think of the child sat mouldering away in a care home wishing for the chance to have a normal family life for a little bit of time. We're told that foster carers are really needed; that there are kids in exactly this situation. How is this system helping them?

[3] Trial by process

Nine months to make an application to be a foster carer (or more precisely to START such an application) is too long. The one positive that came out of our application being rejected is that we were both relieved to put an end to dealing with such a ridiculous bureaucracy.

Those nine months consisted of filling in forms, of ringing up offices and leaving messages asking for updates on what was happening, of generally being mystified and perplexed. One might argue that there needs to be a fairly high threshold for foster carers - they need to show that they're in it for the long haul. I don't disagree with this, but that threshold should not be a bureaucratic one.

The application process as it stands does not test one's ability to parent children, it tests one's ability to interact with a lumbering bureaucracy. To cope with rules and regulations imposed from on high. To cope with not knowing who is responsible for what, and what decisions are being made by whom, and when. And, of course, to cope with forms.

It is worth noting that over the nine months we spent applying to be foster carers we received absolutely no encouragement from Family & Children's Services to persevere through the process. Outside of the two interviews, there was virtually no human communication beyond a couple of answering machine messages and a single email.

What is more all interaction (via message and in the interview) was based on what official information was missing, and on those aspects of our domestic situation that were perceived to be potential problems. The idea that we might have had something positive to offer was never explicitly recognised.

[4] Depression

Some background: my partner suffered post-natal depression from January until April 2009. The depression was mainly triggered by severe and prolonged sleep deprivation (our baby was waking us sometimes six or seven times a night). The depression ended when our baby started to sleep through until 5am, and as a result of medication and therapy that my partner sought out when she realised she was becoming depressed.

It was a horrible depression. It was also a very reasonable response to a fairly hellish situation. My partner identified that she was depressed for herself, and she sought help quickly. But it's interesting to see where that label got us. If she'd stayed at home, cried a lot, neglected the baby, and shouted at me, then Family and Children's Services would probably never have heard of what had happened.

But, although she cried plenty, she didn't neglect the baby or shout at me, instead she did her best to face up what was happening to her. Calling her experience "depression" helped her to deal with it. It helped her to get the attention that she needed from doctors. It gave her (us) a framework within which she could process her emotions, and her distress, and find some healing.

The problem is of course that, in the eyes of many, depression is a pathology. It's a box that can be ticked on a form; a reason that can be given for a rejected application. Never mind that it's just a word that describes - very inadequately - a vast range of human experience.

To be fair to the social services, they did delve into what my partner experienced. The motivation for the second interview was for the worker to explore past episodes of depression that my partner had experienced (and that had surfaced in a doctor's report). In the interview our worker asked questions about what happened, and asked us how we thought we would cope with the stress that fostering might inflict on us... And then a memo was written, and "no" was the deafening reply. One can't help but think that the writing was on the wall as soon as the box was ticked.

[5] The ideal carer

The depression issue was just one area where somehow our family situation didn't conform to the model that the system has in mind. (For instance, the social worker expressed some bemusement when we explained that we lived with a friend.)

If you live in Bristol you may well have seen posters and adverts across town (on the side of buses and bus shelters especially) encouraging people to adopt. They make a point of saying that ANYONE can adopt - you might be a single black Jewish lesbian pensioner... it's all the same.

But if you've been depressed any time recently, then don't apply. And who hasn't? If, as I suggest above, the system is geared towards finding a reason to reject somebody's application, then who will pass? Clearly the system very much has a certain type of person in mind when they envisage a foster carer.

For instance I would contest that the experience of being depressed may well be an advantage when it comes to being a foster carer. It is part of the range of human experience; it may well be the experience of a child in care. Being able to understand what is happening to you when you are depressed, and figuring out how to respond is a skill of immense value.

But how do you quantify such a thing? Certainly not through a form. The system as it stands wants matchstick men for carers; human experience is an aberration, a pathology...

[6] Some suggestions

It seems to me that the system of fostering children needs improvement. Here are some specific suggestions:
  • people who want to be foster carers should be interviewed properly, and fully, and by more than one person.
  • the application process should not require nine months of bureaucracy.
  • social workers at the coal face should be given full and proper training so that they feel confident and empowered to make decisions. Using memos to pass decisions to management should be eliminated.
  • social workers should be supported and encouraged to give children the opportunities they need. They should not be stretched so thinly that they spend all their time covering their own back.
  • the box-ticking approach that results in a pathologizing of life experience should be eliminated.
Undoubtedly these suggestions require funding. I take it to be a self-evident truth that providing children with good, safe homes is an absolute priority for any civilized society. If the government needs to sack some bankers, or cancel some wars in order to make enough money available, then they should get on with it.

These suggestions also suggest a change of attitude from the wider public (and, in particular, the media) to the job of social work. We should not be so eager to stick in the knife (via media witch hunts, or lawsuits) in the event of something going wrong; rather serious consideration should be given as to how the system can be materially improved. That, at least, is the aim of this essay.