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Why is the foster carer assessment process so intrusive?

So, you want to be a foster carer? In which case, you might have already heard some assessment horror stories about personal questions and conversations with your ex - and it’s making you feel a little apprehensive. The application process is a key part of your journey to becoming a foster carer - and it may even help you be a better one.

Although fostering services would like all families to be approved, the application process is far from being a formality. The assessment of foster carers is personal and intimate. Background checks will take place into your health, financial situation and police records. 

Why is the foster care process so intrusive?

Some prospective foster carers find it too intrusive and decide not to continue on their fostering journey. But encouragingly, most understand that it is vital that approved foster carers have the necessary quality and insights to offer excellent care before they can be entrusted with some of society’s most vulnerable children and young people.

What many find most intrusive or uncomfortable are the personal conversations with the designated social worker, who will visit you at home several times. These conversations need to be open and honest. Nothing is off the table: childhood, sexuality, race, relationships with siblings and parents, health. For some, it is a rare and welcome opportunity to reflect in depth on what made us the adults we have become. But for others, the process can reopen old wounds or take us back to dark places we would rather not revisit. 

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    "I knew it would not be easy. But in the end, it felt quite cathartic."
    Kieran, Foster Carer for Bolton Council
    "I was very truthful about my life and who I am. I was open and honest, and I was always treated with respect. "
    Stuart, Foster Carer for Rochdale Council

    "It was more like a conversation about my life."

    Kieran, who has been fostering with Bolton Council for two years, says that he had been warned about the application process and was concerned about how he would cope with revisiting episodes in his past, including separating from his partner.

    “I have had a number of traumatic experiences that I knew I would have to talk about. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. But in the end, it felt quite cathartic. The way we approached it with Hillary, my social worker, was quite therapeutic. She was so empathetic.

    “I didn’t feel it was intrusive. It was more like a conversation about my life. What I found really useful was that everything that I spoke about, Hillary was able to bring that back to how that would affect me as a foster carer. All of the events that have shaped my personality will have an impact on the kind of foster care I will be.”

    Providing a safe and nurturing environment to vulnerable children

    Shirley, a fostering panel advisor with Salford Council, says that the aim of the assessment is to ensure that applicants have the potential to provide a safe and nurturing environment to vulnerable children and young people and the necessary qualities, aptitudes and skills to undertake the demanding and complex tasks that are required. 

    “We work with children and young people with complex needs, who have often experienced a history of neglect, abuse, and trauma,” says Shirley. “Sadly, love alone is not enough to transform the lives of these children. They need carers who are resilient, patient, empathetic and undeniably committed to their growth and development.

    “Through social work visits, checks, references, and training, we’re able to ensure that they have the qualities that can make a life-changing difference to a child.”

    Applicants need to demonstrate an understanding of how their own upbringing and personal past experiences influence their attitudes and their behaviour in respect of bringing up children, Shirley says. Their experiences of previous relationships, whether positive or negative, also help to identify their values and attitudes to family life and relationships.

    "It's about them feeling able to share information with me and to understand why the information is relevant to their role as foster carers."
    Yasmin, Advanced Practitioner for Salford Council

    A two-way process

    Yasmin, an advanced practitioner with the fostering team at Salford Council, says it is vitally important for the assessment to be a two-way process. “It can’t just be about me asking lots of interesting questions,” she says. “It is about them feeling able to share information with me and to understand why the information is relevant to their role as foster carers. It is important to have a good rapport with the people we meet.”

    Yasmin encourages prospective foster carers to share all their experiences and trust her to decide whether it is relevant to fostering or not. Nor should they feel under pressure to talk about their lives in a particular chronological order. “We might start at the beginning; we might start at the end. It doesn’t matter. Whichever emotion or sensation or feeling or memory is touching you right now, when you feel you need to say that. We'll just go with that. We can always come back. It's not a problem.”

    It is important for prospective foster carers to be aware of the nature of the application process and to be prepared. This includes having the support of family and friends during what is likely to be an emotional period, revisiting past experiences that may have been traumatic.

    Kieran says that his social worker was always mindful of the emotional impact of these conversations. “Hillary was very understanding about potential triggers, and explained how we could always come back to things later. She never left me feeling upset.” 

    Yasmin advises couples to always be open and honest about what they are going through during the assessment and to talk about their feelings, particularly around events in their past. “The best thing that people can do is have a conversation with each other. People worry about certain things but the reality is that we all have a history and it won’t necessarily stop you from fostering. What matters is how you have reflected on the experience and how you can use what you learned from it to support a child.”

    Talking to friends and family

    Because fostering involves the whole family, checks will be carried out into the whole household. The fostering service will also want to interview other people who are or have been important in your life, such as former partners or your current employer.

    Kieran felt able to talk things through with family and friends who were supporting his application to be a foster carer. “They were part of the process and going through similar issues, so they could understand what I was feeling. The same people have been there for me once I became a foster carer.” This made a big difference, and Kieran thinks other prospective foster carers should consider who is likely to be part of their support network and involve them as early as possible in the process. 

    Yasmin also advises parents to have open conversation with their own sons and daughters about their intention to foster, whether they are young children or have left home. “Your children are going to be part of your fostering journey, so you need to involve them from an early stage. Understand how they think they are going to be affected or involved and talk about how you can address any concerns they have.”

    What really comes through is that prospective families should understand that they are not being judged for what they have done in the past but are being assessed for their ability to care for a vulnerable child who may be in trauma. 

    “Applicants need to demonstrate an understanding that looking after a child in public care is not the same as looking after their own children, or even a relative or friend’s child, and that they are aware of the tasks required of them,” says Shirley. 

    Yasmin adds: “It is really important that people understand that this is not being done to you. This is being done with you.”

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    Are you interested in fostering in Greater Manchester? Speak to your local authority to find out more.