Dan and Hayley, foster carers in Kent, have no doubt that support from other foster carers and their local National Fostering Group team has helped make fostering “the best job in the world”.
In common with some foster carers, they had family and friends who were experienced foster carers, as well as opportunities to get together with other local carers.
We guarantee every one of our carers received a high level of support. In some areas there is additional provision. People like Dan and Hayley, who are fostering in Kent, can lean on the Mockingbird programme, which is operated from Heath Farm, one of National Fostering Group’s local agencies.
Find out how our support makes the difference when, as Dan said, “fostering families aren’t the same as other families… and only other foster carers really understand that”.
Fostering is in the family
Dan’s parents fostered for 25 years and his sister also went on to become a foster carer. When he first met his wife Hayley, the couple became respite carers for Dan’s sister.
Hayley’s background was in the NHS, caring for adults with severe physical disabilities and learning disabilities. Along with Dan’s experience growing up, it felt like a natural progression for the couple to become foster carers themselves.
They applied to Heath Farm fostering agency and became a designated respite foster house. That was nearly 14 years ago. The couple spent 18 months as respite carers, fostering 55 children in that time. The longest respite placement was for six weeks but most were around two weeks or less.
Dan admits it was a “steep learning curve”. At the end of the 18 months, they became long-term foster carers and have fostered nine children since then, as well as raising two birth children who were both born into their fostering family.
He believes that having been around fostering for most of his life and knowing experienced foster carers who they could consult was an important advantage for them as novice foster carers.
“When you’re first starting out in fostering it’s really helpful to have experienced foster carers around that you can call on,” he said. “My sister had already been fostering for a few years when we were approved, so we could ask her any questions.”
Agency and peer support
In addition to calling on Dan’s sister for advice, Dan and Hayley have benefitted from Heath Farm’s support group, which they attended monthly.
“It was really good to listen to other people’s experiences and how they dealt with things, and the meetings were also a great place to get advice and express our opinions, which was helpful.
“Along with the training from the agency, which was very comprehensive, this helped to give us a really good grounding.”
Sometimes it wasn’t advice they needed but just someone to talk to who had faced similar challenges.
Dan explained: “Fostering can be quite a lonely job. People may not understand why your six year old is swearing and spitting in public and that can be quite isolating. Talking to other foster carers gives you that level of understanding and empathy that you need.
“The fact is that although fostering agencies do whatever they can to make life as normal as possible for foster carers, fostering families aren’t the same as other families. There are different rules and legal requirements that we have to adhere to and only other foster carers really understand that.”
Heath Farm operates the Mockingbird programme for foster carers in Kent, London and Essex. It focuses on improving placement stability by creating an extended family model.
A hub carer sits at the centre, with a satellite group of between six and 10 fostering families around them. The hub carer is an experienced foster carer who is on hand to provide support to other families, in the form of sleepovers, short breaks, peer support and social activities.
As a way of helping experienced foster carers support less experienced foster carers, Dan believes this approach is unrivalled.
“Heath Farm offers a specialist wraparound service for foster children, with its own school, therapy service and mentoring. The Mockingbird programme is a part of this. It gives new carers the chance to meet up with experienced carers at social events and activities run by the satellite.
“It’s a really supportive model, providing a structure for foster carers to meet up and talk, ask advice and help each other with difficult issues. It’s great for the kids, too, as they get to meet up with other foster families nearby.”
Supporting new foster carers
Dan describes fostering as “the best job in world when it goes well” but says when it doesn’t “it’s not great as you are working in your own home so there’s no escape from it”. He said:
“The support at Heath Farm and from the Mockingbird programme in particular is invaluable. We knew carers who were really isolated before they joined the programme and it’s changed their life.
“We have our own WhatsApp group where we can chat to other Mockingbird families and also the foster hub. This year the national Mockingbird event was cancelled, unfortunately, due to Covid but we’ve still be able to keep in touch with each other online which is a real benefit.”
As experienced foster carers, Dan and Hayley are now able to pass on advice and support to new carers in the way that they were helped at the beginning of their own fostering journey. Ultimately, it is the foster children who benefit from these support networks and the sharing of expertise, which has to be a great thing.