Children are placed into foster care for many reasons, but mainly because of abuse or neglect. Alongside all the usual challenges that come with growing up, foster children might also have emotional or behavioural challenges they need extra support to overcome.
Foster carers (or foster parents, if you prefer) are trained and supported themselves to help the kids in their care. This is how Gareth, a foster carer in Wales, does it.
With experience in a voluntary role with children for six years, including the Scouts and the Cubs, Gareth’s day job was running a successful travel company. After setbacks while trying to adopt, which were wholly out of his control, he realised he might be like to become a foster carer instead.
He had been approved and matched with two children. However, at the last minute the local authority decided the children should remain with their foster carers. Gareth found it frustrating, but it gave him an idea.
“The children were exhibiting some challenging behaviours and it was decided that they needed stability and should stay with their foster carers,” he said.
“It was disappointing, but it made me think ‘I am fine with challenging behaviour, maybe I should become a foster carer’.
“I applied to National Fostering Group and, because of all of my volunteering experience and the fact that I’d been through the adoption applications process, I was approved very quickly.”
Because there are rules around fostering and full-time work, Gareth left the company he had built up over a decade to allow him to focus fully on his role as a foster carer. He set up a digital consultancy company, which would give him the flexibility to work around them.
“The children would be my number one priority and I wanted to focus on them 100%,” he said.
Immediately after approval, Gareth provided respite care for two children for a weekend. Straight after that, three siblings came to live with him – two boys of secondary school age and a girl at primary school. That was in May 2017 and the children have been with him in a long-term placement ever since.
Gareth admits it has been a steep learning curve and a “roller coaster” at times. He is a single parent so there are not many breaks.
“There have been times when I’ve really needed support and the agency has been brilliant and helped to get me what I need. These children have had a traumatic past, their life story has been difficult and the school is not always as understanding as it could be.
“This can make a challenging job even more difficult. At times we’ve needed key people to be in certain meetings. I didn’t always know who to ask for but my supervising social worker did and has been able to make it happen, which has made a big difference.”
When it comes to comforting a foster child, Gareth believes in “connection over correction”.
“Traditional parenting models tend to be about correcting behaviour. The premise is that if the child has done something wrong there needs to be a punishment. Foster children have already had too much taken away from them; they need stability and routine not punishment. If they are having a bad day, they still need to feel loved and cared for.
“If things are going wrong with any of my children, I try to find a way to say ‘this isn’t going well’ and then we both think out loud about how we could make things better.
“Quite often I find myself making notes in the middle of the night. I go to the children and say something like ‘I’m wondering if this is why things didn’t work and whether we could make these changes’. They generally respond really well to that.”
Gareth has undergone training in therapeutic parenting, which is available for free via National Fostering Group, and has read extensively on the subject.
“Therapeutic parenting uses the PACE framework. This stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, empathy and it’s about how you approach a child. The secret is lightness of touch. I might say ‘I don’t really like that behaviour, it’s OK but it’s not great’. And it’s about having curiosity and thinking out loud.
“Sometimes these kids can’t understand themselves why they are behaving in the way they are behaving so I might say ‘I wonder if…’ and explore possible reasons for their behaviour, or alternative ways of doing things.
“I don’t want to put them on the spot but I’m considering, with them, what might be going for them. In expressing empathy, I might say something like ‘I don’t know what that feels like, but I can imagine it feels tough’.
“It’s important to show foster children that you trust them to make decisions. In my experience, when you trust children, they meet that trust on every occasion. You need to be authentic and say let’s work on this together.”
His experience as a foster carer and volunteer with children has taught Gareth that shame is a key factor for children who have suffered trauma.
“A child who has had a traumatic past may be stuck in same and teachers and carers can sometimes unintentionally increase that shame. You need to be aware of that when comforting a foster child. Be curious not critical. Ask them ‘I’m wondering if you did X because of Y’.
“I believe National Fostering Group is leading the way with its therapeutic parenting model, but school has been the biggest challenge for us. Some schools are getting there, particularly a few in Scotland, but schools in Wales, where we live, have a long way to go.”
He thinks there is a misconception that therapeutic parenting is about being easy going and letting children do what they want.
“When I hear that, I want to invite people around to our house. It is quite strict and well-structured because that is what foster children need. Having clear rules and ways of doing things is a comfort to them.
“I am clear that certain behaviour is not acceptable but then we talk about why it might be happening. It is a subtly different approach and this is something that a lot of people can’t get their head around.”
Gareth welcomes recent shifts in thinking about comforting foster children.
“It changed around the time I started as a foster carer. Speaking to other carers, before that foster carers they were almost scared to treat the children as would their own.
“When a child is upset, particularly a young child, you want to give them a hug or pick them up, it’s a natural human reaction. And we know from the science that children need love in bucketloads – it’s unquestionable.”
“With my foster children I have no concerns about giving them a hug or picking them up if they fall off their bike. The buzz word now – and rightly so – is safeguarding.
“First and foremost, this is about risk assessing things to keep the children and yourself safe. It’s about considering what changes can be made and what things can be done to reduce the chances of bad things happening.
“For example, I have no issue about going into a child’s bedroom if they are in bed but I always leave the door open. When I volunteered with the scouts, sometimes you’d need to go into a child’s tent but you’d always take another adult in with you. It’s about meeting the child’s needs in the best way while keeping everyone safe.”
Gareth loves his role as a foster care and, prior to Covid, was working with National Fostering Group to roll out Therapeutic Parenting to more foster carers.
“I wouldn’t be doing that if I didn’t wholeheartedly believe it makes things better. Fostering is life-changing. I am a single parent with three children of varying ages. I have to be able to think on my feet and roll with the times.
“This approach helps me to do that. It is at the heart of everything I do. It is something I can stick into my toolbox so I can use it wherever and whenever I need it.
“Fostering will really challenge you but it’s worth it, even in the dullest of moments. There are so many rewards, many of them seemingly insignificant – your child being invited to their first sleepover, seeing them score a goal in football, their mates coming to ask them to play – but so worthwhile.”