May marks Foster Care Fortnight (10 – 23 May), a UK based awareness raising campaign, led by The Fostering Network, to celebrate the work of foster carers and the fostering services set up to support them.
To honour the event and in line with this year’s #WhyWeCare theme, we spoke to the Fostering Team at Durham County Council. With a combined career length of 45 years, Julie Armstrong, John Ellison, and Amy Kelly share what it means to be a foster care social worker.
What does your role as a social worker in the Fostering Team entail day-to-day?
Amy: My day-to-day role includes supporting the foster families that I supervise to ensure that everyone living in the household receives the support they need. These homes need to provide a loving family environment where foster children can have their needs met and reach their individual potential. My role involves regular supervision with foster carers and as part of this, it is vital that foster carer's own children are supported and spoken to so that their views and feelings are also heard and acted upon.
As well as supporting foster families, I work as part of the care team around the foster child/children to ensure the very best outcomes are achieved for looked after children and that everyone is working towards achieving these outcomes.
Julie: I currently hold a caseload of 19 foster carers, both mainstream and kinship carers and in my role, I undertake face-to-face supervision (currently virtually) with carers every four to six weeks. This provides carers with the opportunity to discuss not only any concerns they may have but also what is going well, identify goals and plan how these may be achieved.
I also complete reports for foster care reviews which are carried out annually. Foster care policies also need to be updated as part of this process and up-to-date certificates verified. We also gather children’s views and we have recently started using an app called Mind of My Own, which will hopefully make this a better and more engaging experience for children and young people. I also attend Children Looked After Reviews and Care Team Meetings for the children/young people being cared for by my carers.
I have recently been approved as a panel member to sit on a kinship fostering panel that considers whether approval of kinship carers is appropriate. The service also runs a support group for foster carers which is facilitated by fostering social workers and provides the opportunity to get feedback on the service from foster carers.
John: As a team manager, my day-to-day role is to support and advise my social workers. I chair meetings where there are worries about carers or young people perhaps needing some extra help or support, and we always make sure we find a way forward. I supervise all of my social workers monthly and this involves personal supervision – discussing what is working well for them as well as anything they’re worried about and identifying good practice.
We also complete case supervision using the Signs of Safety approach. I have responsibility for quality assurance in terms of foster care review reports, assessments for court, and also case auditing. As with all team manager roles, there’s a need to monitor performance and data – whilst this may not always come naturally to social workers, it’s important to remember that the data tells a story in terms of the work we’re doing and how we could improve it.
Can you share insight into the journey you have with a foster family and the children and young people being cared for?
Amy: As a fostering social worker, it is really important that I develop a good working relationship with the foster families that I supervise. These relationships are based on open and honest discussions, where any difficulties or issues are addressed as a team and worked through together. The journey that I have with the foster families I support is a very personal one for them as I become a vital support for their family.
Julie: I can share an example to give you an insight. Baby E was placed with a foster carer on Christmas Day 2019, aged just three days old. E’s Mother received no antenatal care and it is unknown if she was aware that she was pregnant until giving birth in the bathroom of her home. As part of the care planning and prior to the fostering restructure, I carried out an initial viability assessment of E’s maternal uncle and his wife, with a recommendation for a full assessment to be undertaken.
After lengthy care proceedings, E went to live with her Aunt and Uncle in February 2021 who were positively assessed as Special Guardians. This is considered to be the best possible outcome for Baby E who has remained within her family. I was able to gather insight into the foster carer's journey through this process. Within supervision sessions, it was clear that foster carers were forming a close bond with Baby E who continued to thrive in their care and met all of her developmental milestones.
As the placement was coming to an end, the carer shared that she was ‘dreading’ when it was time for E to move on. It was clear through subsequent discussion that the carer was really struggling to come to terms with the process and any discussion led the carer to shed tears. I spent time highlighting to her that this is the most positive outcome for Baby E and that she and her husband have been the key factors in this whole process. I suggested that she speak to other carers who have experienced this and that I would do all I could to support her when the time comes.
How do you feel about making an impact on a family’s life?
Amy: As a fostering social worker, I would say I gain a huge amount of satisfaction from supporting foster families, foster children and their birth family. I am able to see the difference foster families can make in foster children’s lives and as a result, the massive benefits for children who are unable to live with their birth families.
I am very privileged in the role that I do and the families and children that I work with. Due to my role, I am able to contribute to making the lives of foster children better and do feel that I make a positive difference for both foster families and the foster children they care for.
Julie: I can’t begin to imagine how hard some experiences are for carers. I have the utmost respect for them and feel privileged to work alongside them doing what I consider to be the most important job in the world - improving opportunities for children in care.
John: Every day in my job I read about the impact that love, guidance, care, and consistency can have on children’s lives. I also see the effect my social workers can have when things are difficult, providing a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. There are challenges – as there are in all areas of social work, but we always try to focus on the positives and make sure whatever we do, we do the best we can.
To see how foster care can have a transformative effect on the relationships that children have, the paths they take, and the lives they build, is inspirational. I was recently in the park with my children when I bumped into some carers who I haven’t seen for 10 years. I had been their fostering social worker when they were newly approved and remember this shy little 10-year-old coming to live with them as the first child to be placed in their care. This 10-year-old is now in his twenties, has a child of his own, and has moved into the house next door to his former carers!
Would you recommend a career in foster care social work?
Amy: Absolutely, I love my job and the families, children, and professionals I work with. Supporting foster families is an extremely rewarding role. When children come into foster care, the aim is to provide them with safety, security, stability, and a base to make sense of their past experiences. My job is to help our amazing foster carers support the children and I am lucky to be part of this rewarding and positive time.
Julie: Although the job can be hard and frustrating at times, it is also immensely rewarding and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
John: Without a doubt. Fostering has been part of my career for many years now, and I hope that will continue to be the case in the future. I get huge satisfaction from supporting our foster carers. Fostering is a ‘job’ like no other, and I am always honest with our carers that I couldn’t do what they do – they are heroes without capes!