4th Edition, June 2nd, 2020 Yusuf McCormack

Covid-19 and fostering: Can we learn and take the creative approaches being used to continue doing things differently for our looked after children?

Like the rest of the world Covid-19 has changed our landscape and  the impact has been felt globally. Closer to home paid work for me ceased, schools and  colleges closed, Artifacts, my newly set up business put on hold and as a family we’re no longer able to see our older children or close friends. We’re supporting home schooling for our youngest two whilst also fostering two unrelated children with very different needs. The only thing not to dry up is my art work, and when you’re impatient to crack on, it can be a bit of a tough gig.

However I’d like to speak about fostering during these unusual times. We’re looking after two children, one a toddler who has just accomplished the art of walking and thus is creating merry havoc as he can get into even more mischief. The other is an older child with much more complexity and unknowns, who has little confidence, very low self-esteem, hasn’t engaged or been involved with education and believes everything around them will either kill or poison them. 

All the children’s social workers operate differently, one still comes to see their child, the other speaks via a video link. A positive result of Covid-19, has been that a technical dinosaur like me has learned to set up and operate Zoom, Skype & Microsoft Teams! Our own support social worker operates via text or telephone. Bearing in mind all three social workers operate from the same authority, it sends out conflicting and confusing messages as they all have interpreted ‘social distancing’ differently. As adults we can deal with these frustrations, but imagine how it may feel from a child’s perspective.  

Foster carers, like most parents in the country, are feeling the strain of managing children of varying ages and needs at home every day. We all agree that children, perhaps more so than adults, need structure and routine to their days and weeks and maintaining old routines at this current time feels like a juggling act. For all our children the landscape has changed so that school, breakfast and after-school clubs, sports, parties or simply playing with friends now look very different. As foster carers we are having to take on new roles including managing, overseeing and supporting all schoolwork sent from schools. For many of us and our children this maintains routines and learning, but for some carers it will undoubtedly be a great source of tension and stress in the home. 

The most striking challenge faced by our children, their families and us as foster carers at this time of Covid-19 crisis is the disruption caused to the child’s ability to maintain contact with their family. Many family time arrangements have been severely disrupted or ceased because of the crisis. In the beginning of the crisis, when initial measures such as recommendations for ‘social distancing’ and reducing contact with vulnerable people were made, many foster carers expressed concern about how these measures were incompatible with existing contact arrangements. Some of us raised concerns around having people with underlying health conditions within the family home and how a child maintaining a previously existing contact arrangement put those vulnerable people at increased risk of contracting Covid-19. In some cases, members of the children’s family are working in healthcare settings and we expressed concern around these individuals carrying the virus and transferring it during contact.  We understand that social workers and their managers assess each case individually to assess the reasonableness of the concerns, the potential impact on the child of a disruption in contact and the alternative means of maintaining some form of contact. However, it can feel that in this scenario that while all professionals are equal, and their voices are considered, some professionals are more equal than others!

As foster carers we recognise and support the child’s right to remain connected to their families and we know that this is supported and encouraged by social workers. I think we all ‘get’ the need to help rebuild interrupted relationships between children and their birth family so even for someone like me, a technical dinosaur, we have had to look creatively at how we can remain engaged and support our children. Due to the different needs and ages of our children we have instigated mini-video clips of our younger child, who wouldn’t be able to gain anything meaningful from a video chat. We have also suggested their family videos themselves reading a bedtime story which we could play back. We already know from the messages we receive from their birth family how seeing such footage has reassured them.  

Our older child has weekly video chats and we have encouraged their parents to become involved in reading during these chats. We copy the pages to read and send across to parents and exchange letters and pictures. Again it offers reassurance from the child’s perspective as they can see their parents are okay, it allows the parents to be actively involved too. Our child also gets to speak with their older adult siblings, again this helps to preserve and strengthen that part of a child’s identity. 

The disruption and distress caused by the Covid-19 crisis for children in care, presents both the children and the caring adults in their lives with new opportunities to explore methods of staying connected that may previously have been unexplored. As foster carers we do sometimes have valid reasons and concerns around maintaining appropriate boundaries with birth parents and do not wish to give parents our personal phone details or social media platform details. This shouldn’t be viewed negatively, it presents an opportunity to work more creatively. A free SIM card could be topped up to enable WhatsApp to be deployed and allow texting, small video clips and voice messaging. Social workers could work with foster cares to develop appropriate boundaries, whilst still monitoring and satisfying themselves with regards to the child’s well- being and experience.  

For some children using video contact could be a positive safe form of ‘family time’ as it may provide an experience which is not n as emotionally charged, or as intense an experience for the child, as a face to face meeting can be. It may be a method which potentially serves towards building a structure that works better for the child.

As foster carers I would expect us to be best placed to judge how the child reacts and responds to this form of communication. We should monitor our children’s baseline behaviour and presentation against their behaviour in the lead up, during and after the video contact. We have had to recognise that, for our older child, their anxiety levels and certainly the number of questions increase as does the level of ‘fidgeting’. We know the signs when the restlessness means time for the call to end and we have to step in, allowing our child to leave the room and we will finish off the conversations, usually filling in some of the gaps that they haven’t mentioned. Fortunately the rapport we have built with our children’s parents is positive and we can share concerns and alleviate some of their worries. Success will always look different due to the uniqueness of our children and will depend on several factors. Different children have differing interests and temperaments and engage to varying degrees. Trying to understand the nature of the relationship and attachment the child had with their parent/family prior to coming into care is crucial especially if the child is having to adapt to a previously unexplored or used method of communication. Just talking face to face for any length of time may be a whole new experience. 

Our youngest is blissfully unaware what all the fuss is about. Every day they get to eat, play, experience and explore the world around them and deservingly relish being spoilt with lots of cuddles and hugs, plus they still get to see their birth family twice a week…what is there not to like about that. 

On the other hand, Covid-19 has increased our older child’s anxieties and worries. This means an increase in questions. They are conscious of the current situation and struggle with their anxieties even more, as it has increased their additional worries about their birth family, teachers, us, even our cat. Maintaining routines, wherever possible, has been the way forward. School hours have been reduced. They continue to attend, so as to maintain a level of structure, which is important as they had been out of school since 2019.

Typically each day is full of questions. They start first thing in the morning and can be quite random such as “If I use body wash will that kill off bacteria?” “Can the cat catch it?” “Will the virus land on my curtains if I leave the window open?” to “I heard more children in care will die, will I be dying soon?”, and “Can it land on tyres and live on roads and pavements?” 

We don’t have all the answers but try to offer reassurance by talking through each scenario to try and get understanding of where they are coming from. It can be tiresome but it’s clearly important. Every morning they insist on watching the news (national, as local news would be too close to home) which means we can discuss and address some of their concerns, and that’s even before they start the school journey.

“Will they have wiped the taxi down when it comes to collect me?” “Will the driver be wearing a mask?” “Will the teachers pass the disease to me?” We try and talk through each one getting the young person to draw out the most rational response. It satisfies them until the next day and we play out the same ritual again. Fresh towel and bacterial soap is packed so they don’t have to share with anyone else, and off they go. 

On return, clothes are put for washing, a shower or good wash is taken and we have a hot drink discussing how the day has been. Conversation then centres around family, why can’t I go back and when can I see them again?  Due to the current situation physical contact with birth family is every three weeks. In between as I’ve already highlighted we’ve arranged video weekly chats. For this particular child they struggle with the idea that the younger child still gets family time twice a week and they can only see their family for two hours every three weeks.  We agree that it doesn’t feel fair, especially when both children are under the same Local Authority. Naturally we have raised these concerns and issues, seeking a degree of reassurance, whilst trying to be supportive of our children. 

I think we all have learned to do things differently and creatively. I feel it has meant a much more child-centred approach. That has to be a good thing! The Covid-19 crisis continues to be an unprecedented event in our lifetime. Social workers haven’t had time to prepare strategies around keeping children safe to the greatest degree possible, whilst minimising the upset and disruption caused to the children we all work with. What I believe is it highlights the importance of relationships. It is important that social workers become a significant person in the child’s life. Recognising that this may have been a frightening and confusing time for many children in care, means acknowledging they will be ever-more reliant on the safe, familiar and consistent people in their lives to guide them through it. 

Decisions made in relation to the child’s lived experience of this time may have effects that will last well beyond Covid-19. The type of communication and relationship the child is able to have with the most significant people in their lives is therefore of crucial importance. Social workers need to proactively and creatively protect the relationships the child has and incorporate the maintenance of these relationships in to the strategies for guiding and supporting the child through this crisis. As always, the child’s welfare must be placed at the centre of all we do, and the role of the social worker is to manage, support and encourage all to work towards what is best for the child. These principles apply generally to all aspects of the life of a child in care, but are acutely highlighted at this time of unprecedented and unpredictable challenges.

Yusuf P McCormack