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 hear from Helen Milliken, a Fostering Team Manager at Durham County Council, and Caitlyn, a member of the Durham Children in Care Council Group (CiCC).
The CiCC group, led by the charity Investing in Children, is funded by Durham County Council to give children and young people the opportunity to access independent support. The CiCC meets monthly and is for children and young people with shared experiences to get together and support one another. They work closely with Durham to improve the experiences of children in care and support the training of future foster carers.
Helen: I’ve been in social work 21 years! Eeek – that long! My career started as a nursery nurse in a primary school. Little did I know at the time that this job would cement my career in social work.
During the years I was there, I was lucky to meet lots of wonderful children and parents; I worked with a little girl who was in foster care. Her foster carers were amazing and really helped this little girl to feel like she was loved and could reach her potential. I learned how social workers supported foster carers and I saw first-hand how important foster carers were in a child’s life. I recognised I too wanted to make a difference and be part of this rewarding experience. So, I embarked on a journey to become a social worker.
I've now been working with foster families directly for the last 19 years. Part of my role has included supporting young people like Caitlyn, who I first met 10 years ago when I visited her first foster carers. At the time I remember she was a quiet, little 7-year-old. I hadn’t quite imagined years later she would be a confident chatterbox!
Caitlyn: Helen and I have an amazing relationship that we have developed over the years. I first met her when I came into care when I was 7. She visited my foster carers and always asked how I was doing. She was lovely to talk to and easygoing. She was just always there.
I lost contact with her when I moved for a bit but then when I was 14, we came into contact again. Helen organised foster care training and came along to the CiCC to ask if we would like to help. It was so lovely to see her. I am so glad Helen has not only been able to watch me grow up but grow as a person also.
Care experience-led training
Helen: At Durham County Council, we have over 900 children who are in care with a significant proportion of those living with foster carers. It is always agonising when you’re sitting at your desk worrying where a child and their brother or sister are going to sleep that night. Trying to find the right foster family can be difficult, so it’s crucial we continue to recruit new foster families!
I manage and motivate a team of dedicated social workers who are responsible for the recruitment and assessment of foster carers for Durham. I would like to think that I lead by example and understand I have a role in developing the fostering service.
An exciting and thought-provoking part of the foster carer training programme is, without doubt, the session led by care-experienced children and young people. The aim of the session is to help young people, like Caitlyn, not only share positive stories of the support they have received in foster care but to highlight the changes they feel might help children in the future. I always feel inspired when listening to Caitlyn talk about her views, feelings, and experiences.
Caitlyn has also been a very big advocate of helping children see their brothers and sisters regularly, as she really does know what it is like to be in the shoes of a child who has not always had this experience. It is evident her confidence in being part of the training has grown and it is quite remarkable to look back on the little, somewhat shy girl I first visited, to now observing a confident, bright presenter and chatty young adult.
I believe the opportunities for young people to be involved in supporting us with training new carers helps them as much as it strengthens us. It is much more than building their self-confidence. It provides opportunities to learn how to present, which can help with college interviews, applying for university, competing at job interviews and public speaking.
Caitlyn: I’ve attended the CiCC on and off since I first came into the care system. I started to fully get involved when I was 14 years old, mainly because it offered me something to do in my free time.
We also get paid for attending as well, so that was an added bonus. Learning how to manage your own money, whilst making decisions that are not only going to benefit yourself but others too is really beneficial as a teenager.
Within the CiCC, I help professionals who work with looked after children like me to understand what it’s like to be a looked after child growing up.
I have loved learning from others who have been in similar situations to me and sharing my experience over the years. When delivering training with new foster carers we get nothing but great feedback. I feel that it is important before they start the job that they are able to hear our advice and what we have learnt from being a looked after child ourselves.
Over the years I have trained and interviewed social workers, foster carers, Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), and even the Head of Education. I have also helped to change the language that professionals use because some of the words that were routinely used didn’t resonate with children and young people.
Helen: I feel lucky I get to see the start of the process for people who want to become foster carers. The CiCC session seems to really ignite the discussions we need prospective families to have, providing a valuable opportunity to directly meet our care-experienced young people. I think it dispels a lot of the myths that continue to be out there about children and young people who are in care, instead of shining a light and a focus on how sad and upsetting it must be to not be able to live at home.
Like many local authorities, Durham always has a number of teenagers who need a loving, stable family. I think people who consider becoming foster carers discount this age range as they’re naturally drawn to thinking about challenges and behaviours, rather than the mountain of success stories I see. The reality is that children and young people can and do thrive with the right type of caring, stable foster carer.
Caitlyn and her friends have really made my team complete. Together we prepare a foster carer's journey with fun but real activities. For example, the CiCC group might be asked a question about education, and they will talk about some children’s experiences of not always feeling their background and worries are understood. The CiCC makes us all reflect on the fact everyone can have an off day and that might not be anything to do with being in care.
I have seen Caitlyn remind people to think about a time they might have felt frightened or worried about a loved one. Then they relate that to how a child might be feeling that day at school and therefore, how a child might not be concentrating on the task at hand. She will then offer her advice about how important foster carers and social workers are in helping explain a child’s background to teachers, so there is better knowledge and sensitivity.
Caitlyn: The CiCC has provided me with some amazing opportunities that young people my age probably wouldn’t have even dreamed of. One of the most memorable is being lucky enough to go on BBC Newcastle radio with some other young people to help raise awareness about Care Day 2020. I shared a poem I wrote about my experiences of being in foster care, ‘I Dream’. The feedback I had was phenomenal.
I hope to become a looked after children’s social worker, working with children aged 0-15 years old, because this was the time in my life where I struggled the most and had a lot of challenges thrown my way. I am hoping to give back to others and give children and young people a new start to life. I want to be a social worker they can relate to and have a positive relationship with.
Helen: It never ceases to amaze me how open young people are in talking about some of their own experiences and how they have overcome adversity.
Caitlyn is now 17 years old. It’s wonderful knowing I was a little part of her journey in her becoming confident, determined, and successful.
We need more empathetic and resilient people to consider becoming foster carers or having a career in social work. I would recommend to anyone to take that first step and make a leap of faith. Working with children and young people is so rewarding and knowing you have made a little difference is important, isn’t it?
To find out more about the Durham Fostering Team, read their blog: Helping amazing foster families to reach their potential.