A new initiative is about to launch in the North West that will help foster carers support children in their care as they discover who they are, understand their past, and begin to heal.
Run by Linda Sylvester at our Alpha Plus Fostering agency, it will build on a programme – Therapeutic Life Story – that has already had a significant impact on the recovery, relationships and behaviours of foster children.
Currently, every child who arrives at their new foster home is given a welcome box by their Alpha Plus social worker. This box contains a range of gifts, including sensory toys.
From July 2023, the box for every new foster child at Alpha Plus will include a booklet called All About Me. Its aim is to help them explore who they are, where they came from, and how they are changing – and healing.
This is a case of ‘let’s look at the wider picture’… All About Me will help us fill this gap.
Therapeutic fostering responds to the needs of a foster child or young person who is suffering from the effects of trauma. As well as focusing on specialist training for foster parents, it provides additional therapies to foster children. This wraparound approach helps children feel safe so they can begin to recover.
Alpha Plus, our team supporting fostering in Oldham and the surrounding areas, has built its agency around this philosophy, as have many of our local agency teams.
Linda, who is a qualified Therapeutic Life Story Worker (TLSW), is rolling out All About Me to foster children in Alpha Plus’ care. She has seen how foster children and their carers who collaborate on this kind of work experience many benefits including bonding and improved behaviours.
“Therapeutic Life Story is a collaborative programme where we work face-to-face with the foster child and their foster carer,” Linda explained. “It’s a 9-12 month intervention where we meet twice a week. Outside this time, there’s a lot going on in the background – like research and interviews. This is a case of ‘let’s look at the wider picture’. The culmination of it is a Life Story Book for the child.”
“A foster carer told me she had 4 sisters and every sister tells a different story of their shared childhood. So, we need to talk to as many people as we can to get a complete picture, helping the child find answers and make choices about their experiences and themselves.
“It takes a long time. We go at the child’s pace and it’s time-intensive. I can only work with 3 children at a time. There are other aspects to my job, which means this intervention isn’t available to every foster child. All About Me will help us fill this gap.”
Therapeutic Life Story is a collaborative programme where we work face-to-face with the foster child and their primary foster carer.
The booklet is divided into sections that help the foster child explore different themes. The first page asks how they see themselves.
Linda explained: “This can be a drawing or a photo and foster carers can help with any technical aspects like printing it out. It’s lovely to have a photo from this time to look back on. Some children like to draw around their hands, sometimes write in each finger what they enjoy doing.
“The booklet is used across all age groups and abilities, so a foster carer can offer help with writing and capturing what it is the child wants to say.
“We also write about birth families and foster families and what family means. This theme is an emotional anchor, showing the child who loves and cares about them.”
This kind of therapeutic fostering work often brings up specific unanswered questions for the children. “We can work with the foster carers, birth parents, schools and so on to get answers. This process improves trust and gives us a good idea of where we need to focus,” Linda said.
“A lot of foster children experience ‘shame and blame’ and we can help them reframe this. It’s not their fault they’re in care. They get to talk about their feelings. They can reflect how they’ve changed over time, what has changed for them, and about the future.
“This might be the first time they’ve been able to tell their stories and been listened to,” she added. “It’s on their terms, nobody saying it’s wrong or right. The books remain private within their own circle of support and if we want to share anything in it, we always ask permission.”
While it’s not compulsory to take part, eventually all foster children at Alpha Plus (not just new arrivals) will receive an All About Me booklet, with a fresh one delivered each year and a box to keep them.
This might be the first time they’ve been able to tell their stories and been listened to. It’s on their terms, nobody saying it’s wrong or right.
The Rose Model of Therapeutic Life Story Work, which Linda is using, is gaining traction around the UK and the world. It was recently evaluated in a study by Deakin University, which found it helped children on several levels:
“It’s no surprise that local authorities are taking up this approach with all foster carers and the children they look after,” said Linda, who completed her Professional Diploma in TLSW with Professor Richard Rose, founder and author of Therapeutic Life Story Work international.
“TLSW helps with behaviours. We’ve seen that, when we include foster carers in this process, there’s a massive difference – it becomes a shared experience of joy,” said Linda. “They bond more quickly.”
Like all therapeutic work, the All About Me booklet is rooted in creativity. Linda is certified to incorporate Theraplay (an attachment, play-based intervention) into her sessions and has worked with the Alpha Plus psychotherapist to design and deliver Therapeutic Art Groups.
“Doodling, movement, taking and editing photos, playing games – we use creativity to build foster child and carer connection,” she explained.
“Trauma affects development, but play gives permission to be silly – and we can see the change in connection. There’s a balance – dealing with developmental trauma, addressing the need at the time, reflecting, validating, reframing the story, doing a grounding activity.”
TLSW helps with behaviours. We’ve seen that, when we include foster carers in this process, there’s a massive difference – it becomes a shared experience of joy. They bond more quickly.
Most children coming into foster care have had a rough start to life. For many, the experiences that brought them into foster care can have a lasting impact on their developmental milestones, behaviours, attachment and health. This is where the right care and support is invaluable to healing and better futures.
Our foster carers are committed to helping their foster children reach their full potential. Often, this means supporting them as they come to terms with their past so they can move ahead. Our foster carers are offered all the training and team support they need to do this important work.
All National Fostering Group carers have access to therapeutic parenting training through Shine, its learning portal. “This is a really good course!” said Linda.
At Alpha Plus, as with several of our fostering agencies, foster carers have additional support via a clinical hub and the agency’s Healing Hearts service. Healing Hearts provides wraparound support to foster children and young people with additional needs who require enhanced foster placements.
“We have Reflect & Renew groups operating in 3 regions and several peer support groups,” Linda added. “There’s a lot to be said for the peer support among our foster carers. Support is invaluable.”
There’s a lot to be said for the peer support among our foster carers. Support is invaluable.
Alpha Plus Fostering, based in Oldham, supports foster parents in Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire and Merseyside. They are recruiting foster carers who are interested in therapeutic fostering. You can hear more about how Linda works with foster carers and foster children in our Focus on Fostering Podcast.
In fact, the UK as a whole has a chronic shortage of foster carers, including for children who require an enhanced fostering placement (where the foster carer has had specialist training). It’s worth noting that an enhanced fostering placement can attract a higher rate of fostering allowance. Can you help?
If you’re unsure whether you’re eligible to become a foster carer, try our Can I Foster? tool, which answers common questions about suitability to foster, based on a personalised Q and A style format. The outcome might surprise you!
If Linda’s story has resonated with you, and you’re ready to chat with one of our fostering advisors, contact your local team.