After your successful completion of the Skills to Foster course, the next stage for everyone applying to become a foster carer will be your formal written assessment.
You might now be thinking about what’s to come, the themes that will be explored together with your assessing social worker and looking for good advice to guide you through the process successfully.
You can easily find a wealth of information online, but your assessment is not so much about formal knowledge, as it is about you as a person. It will be your personal approach that has the biggest influence in your completing your assessment.
While your fostering assessment will sometimes feel intrusive, you can feel reassured that every part of your assessment and each question asked is for a valid reason, and you will be encouraged to ask any questions you may have, even including, “Why are you asking me that?”
It can help to imagine that it is you assessing someone else to look after your children or those that you care for. From this opposite standpoint, you’d naturally want to explore as much as possible about that person’s character, their childcare experience, and their reasons for wanting to become a foster carer!
As a team with your social worker, your shared goal is to make a positive and persuasive case for consideration by the fostering panel, which will soon follow after your assessment.
The fostering panel is usually made up of a panel chair, an ‘agency decision-maker’, as well as others, perhaps even a young person in care, or an adult who is care-experienced. They will understand that you’ll be feeling anxious, and they will appreciate your effort and commitment to the process.
You may have now been asked by your assessing social worker to plan to make yourself available for around eight home visits on dates and times over the coming 12 weeks or so – a typical assessment timescale if there are no holidays to take into account.
In what follows, we’ll identify and explore some of the key parts of the assessment itself. This will help you to think ahead to gather evidence of your potential ability as a foster carer.
Who are you as a person, and what’s brought you to fostering?
At odds with how you may be feeling, I’ve heard some foster carers describe their assessment as self-indulgently enlightening! That’s because you stand to learn much about who you are as a person, through a process of self-exploration that you’re unlikely to have experienced before.
Life races by at such a pace that rarely do any of us take time out to really consider who we are as people, our sense of personal identity, and to really think about our behaviours and reactions to life events, and why all of these are the way they are.
Your fostering assessment will be a journey through your own life, and the events that were significant for you, especially related to your childhood.
Together with your social worker, you’ll explore in-depth what your own approach to life is like, your personal values, how you react to events, how you cope with pain and grief, how you recognise joy in your life, and how you share of yourself with others and how you accept what others share with you.
As well as a journey into the self, your assessment will also explore your other personal and family relationships, and how you’d foster together with your partner if you have one.
Children who have come into care will have learned ways to survive that may well have included exploiting weaknesses in relationships in order to have their needs met in a way that may not have been naturally forthcoming as with healthy parenting.
How will you foster as part of a team?
So, you’ll be thinking about how you work together as a parenting team, and how you support each other to avoid manipulation and to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
References from former partners are always handled very sensitively, and you will be asked for your consent to conduct this. You may feel anxious about this, and fostering agencies understand why. But imagine that children of your own were going to live with strangers you had never met; would you be interested to hear what a former partner might share?
Your energy and fitness and practical ability to look after and care for children placed with you, as well as any previous childcare experience if you don’t have children of your own, will be discussed.
You’ll think of examples that demonstrate situations that you have managed well, including times when you have imposed discipline, and what the outcome was. Did the child understand and accept the rule you were imposing, or did they retreat or sulk in resentment with little effect on their future behaviour?
Coming from all walks of life and cultural backgrounds, foster carers have a wide variety of interests and leisure activities. I recall one of my childhood foster carers loved to go fishing, another was a member of a local community association, yet another became a beekeeper as well as helping out at a local farm, which I took part in – learning to pluck geese for Christmas and muck out horse stables was a memorable part of my own time in foster care!
A foster carer’s experience of assessment
Jo Austin is a foster carer with six years’ experience and a particular interest in caring for sick and disabled children. Jo, from Hampshire, is also approved to care for children with life-limiting conditions, together with the experience of several ‘parent and child’, and teenage placements.
Jo explains how she came into fostering, “I’ve always been a very maternal person; I love to be around children. I worked in a children’s home, then for Mencap, and then a night residential unit, and often with big groups of children. Following my caring maternal instinct, I volunteered in my early teens, and as well as supporting people, we also had a great laugh!”
“A few years later, I trained as a paediatric nurse, and soon after this my son came along, but as I learned that he had autism and ADHD, I chose to be a full-time mum, and had three more children. During this time in my family life, I was inspired to write my first book, Walking with Love and Autism, which was published in 2010.”
As Jo’s children became older teenagers, she went back to work, caring for disabled children, and fondly remembers, “I still had a strong desire to look after children but wasn’t going to have any more of my own, so fostering was the logical thing.”
“But it wasn’t a spur of the moment decision. I’d been considering fostering for a long while. For me, the time had to be right, and yes, I feel that as a vocation, it’s got to be something that’s ‘within you”
When it came to Jo’s fostering assessment, her personal experience was sanguine. Jo has heard many new carers say that they feel it’s a very intrusive process, but she recalls, “Certainly I was anxious about telling my life story, I did think that the person might think negatively – I had quite an extreme background. But bad things happen to good people.”
“What the social worker is most interested in is how you handled life events, how you coped, what you learned, and how you do things differently now. For me, I’d started writing books by then, so there were no skeletons in my closet! Overall I found my assessment to be cathartic.”
For people who are thinking about fostering, or about to begin their assessment, Jo encourages prospective carers to be honest and don’t hide anything. She advises, “just make sure you’ve dealt with everything before you apply and that you’re comfortable in your own skin.”
What are the reasons you are applying to foster?
Before your assessment, you’ll benefit from giving thought to why you want to foster, as it’s a key focus of your application. Why is now a good time to foster? What experiences of caring for children have prepared you to become a foster carer? In what ways are those experiences indicative of how you might parent a fostered child?
A question that almost every prospective foster carer I have met never asks but would like to understand is about financial support. Often, people are afraid of being judged to be fostering for ‘the wrong reasons’, but as my sister, herself an experienced foster carer of 15 years in the Midlands, puts it, “I don’t do it for the money, but I couldn’t do it without the money.”
I have used her words many times over the years, and it’s important to know that as a foster carer you will receive financial support to care for children and young people who come to live with you in your home. The amounts paid vary from one fostering agency to another, but all meet or exceed an amount that is determined each year by the Department for Education. For detailed information about help with the cost of fostering, click here.
Foster carers sometimes work in order to supplement their fee and allowance income from fostering, and in these cases, you’ll discuss what kind of work you’re doing, as well as your regular working hours and the level of flexibility you may be given to deal with unforeseen situations that can be encountered for any parent.
A reference from your employer may be taken up, and they must be made aware of your decision to apply to become a foster carer.
What are your expectations about fostering children and are these realistic?
Jo tells from her own assessment, “They did ask me this and I shared what I thought fostering would be like, but actually I think we have a wonderful rosy idea about fostering to start with, and then you quickly realise at the Skills to Foster course, before the assessment, that fostering someone else’s child is not the same as parenting your own child at all.”
“You quite quickly build up a much bigger picture about fostering, even down to things like politics and funding for looked after children. In my experience, no matter what training we do, you can never be 100% prepared for every type of situation.”
That’s why your assessment will focus a lot on your personal qualities, to get an understanding of how you react to, cope with, and successfully manage unpredictable events or situations.
Jo learned, in her early months as a new foster carer where her strengths lay, “I just love to work with and care for young, sick, or disabled children, using my nurturing side. But I am not so good with teenagers, so I follow my intuition more now than I used to. I feel it’s important to tell people early on that it’s ok to say no because, in the early days of fostering, new carers can feel like they have to say yes to everything.”
How will fostering change your life?
Jo shared a little about how her life changed as a foster carer and was emphatic that, “it was the biggest change, just massive… it was like when my children were born. The addition of another person in your life and your home turns your world upside down, it is phenomenal, but in good ways! Through fostering, I have met so many more people, so many diverse people.”
“For the first few days when a new child comes to live with us, I blank everything out of my diary so I can get them feeling comfortable at home and show them around the neighbourhood.”
“Every child is so unique and different, most placements are well planned, but sometimes children arrive in the middle of the night. I once took in a sibling group of three as an emergency placement, and they came with literally nothing but the clothes on their back. Fostering can be unpredictable, so there’s no one fixed plan for welcoming a child, but I always keep a stock of biscuits and formula milk ready!”
“At the time I started fostering, I was living in my father’s house, which was very old, and needed some modifications to meet health and safety requirements, mostly to make the stairs safer. Nowadays, I live in a different home, and my little one has made his room his own, with dinosaur bedding and a dinosaur lamp that shines his name on the ceiling!”
“Fostering is fantastic, but you have to rethink your whole life, routine, sometimes your whole house! I like to think that a fostered child experience my family and home as calm and peaceful but also very friendly and welcoming. When kids move in, they’re sometimes shy, but not for long! I have to say that none of my friends and family was surprised when I told them I wanted to foster, and they’ve all been brilliantly supportive.”
Jo’s final words for anyone – perhaps you – who is thinking of fostering, or is already some way into their fostering assessment, is ‘not to be afraid of opening up.’ As you’d expect during an evaluation of a person who will look after another person’s child, it is a rigorous process, that is best approached with openness and integrity.