Why isn’t more done to keep children with their birth families?

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Here at EFS, we get some really encouraging comments from foster carers from all around the country and from people who as children experienced foster care and have positive things to say about their experiences. We also, however, get comments accusing us of taking children away from their families and asking us why more isn’t done to keep children with their birth parents. The idea that foster carers are somehow stealing children is obviously an extreme view deserving little response BUT we did want to take the opportunity to share a little about the hard reality of many children’s experiences and to explain a little about the efforts that are taken to reunite children with birth families or maintain relationships with birth parents.

The first thing to say is that we believe that there is no better place for children to be than with their birth families, with the people they know and love. The reality is, however that sometimes birth parents are unable to keep their children safe and protected from significant harm or they may actively be harming their children. When children come in to foster care, there is undoubtedly a tension between love and loyalty towards their parents and relief at being safe and well cared for. It is a difficult and confusing time for these children and one which carers have to navigate with great skill and sensitivity.

It is true to say that by far the most common reasons for children coming into foster care are domestic violence, neglect due to substance abuse or severe ill mental health and child abuse – more often than not, many children experience a combination of these factors which lead to them being significantly harmed and traumatised. Clearly, we have a significant problem in this country with the way we support people who struggle with ill mental health and addiction problems, often sufferers are criminalised or left to cope alone. Local government services have been stripped of funds and can be overwhelmed by the social problems needing resolution. That said, however difficult it can be for parents trying to cope with these issues, the fact remains that many children are living in untenable situations where their lives and mental well being are at significant risk.

We receive requests from Local Authorities to find homes for all manner of children and we often get to see what efforts have already been made to support these families. We see parents being offered support and we see children being kept with their birth families for long periods of time. We see children coming into foster care to offer parents an opportunity to put in place coping strategies or to give parents space to make decisions about the future. Often our carers are supporting plans for children to move back with their birth parents.

We also see children who have returned to birth families from foster care coming back into foster care time and time again following subsequent breakdown in their relationship with their birth family or a failure on behalf of parents to put the needs of their children first. We see with each breakdown that children are more damaged, feel a greater sense of rejection and struggle with poor self esteem and trauma-related difficulties.

It’s also important to note that many parents are able to turn things around and provide a safe and stable life for their children following a break and some robust support from the Local Authority. This is the outcome all foster carers want because they know that this is where the best interests of the child are served.

We also regularly see children who have been catastrophically damaged. Often because they have remainedfor too long in families where they were neglected or subjected to great harm. This is often not because their parents did not love them but because they had little or no capacity to keep them safe from harm.

Foster carers work within a system that can do very little right! There are many times when good decisions are made concerning children and there are times when poor decisions are made. This is true of any system made by human hand. However, foster carers can testify of the many professionals who care deeply about the families they support and the children they protect and work tirelessly to secure good futures for them. What cannot be denied is that these damaged children exist and without foster carers to take them in and keep them safe, to nurture them and to help them heal, they will simply fall through the gaps and have only one destructive, dark path to follow.

Many foster carers increasingly foster young parents and their babies. This arrangement can be very effective in keeping babies with young, vulnerable parents and in interrupting the cycle of children entering foster care. Foster carers looking after parents and babies will share knowledge, help parents to bond with their babies, provide parents with coping tools or support access to mental health provision. We have seen this work fantastically well for many young mothers and fathers and of course we have seen it fail despite efforts on the part of carers and young parents alike.

The fact is that a lot of great work is put in by foster carers to understand the needs of the children or young people they care for and to facilitate a healthy and positive relationship with their birth families where this is appropriate. This is no easy feat and carers come up against many challenges but all good carers will have the interest of the child firmly and resolutely at the centre of everything they do.

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