There has been a national recruitment drive to increase the number of foster carers in the UK for a few years as the need for carers still outstrips the number of available places.
However, there is also a huge demand for specialised foster carers. Particularly those able to foster teenagers and take on Parent & Child (sometimes called mother & baby or P&C) placements. Due to lack of funds over the last decade, specialised residential referral units dedicated to taking vulnerable mums and babies have slowly reduced in number, meaning that mums in need of support have been separated from their young baby and limited only to prearranged contact.
The aim of these residential units had been to keep baby and parent together whilst having trained staff to observe, guide, and establish a routine while being available 24 hours a day. With these units disappearing, the need for specialised Parent & Child (P&C) foster carers is even more apparent.
Not all children and babies are placed into foster care because of neglect, abuse, or a bereavement. Sometimes Mum may be very young, not have experienced a normal family environment herself, or has additional needs, but is still capable of looking after her baby in a supported environment. With training and guidance, she could go on to live independently with her child, keeping the family together. P&C placements can offer a lifeline to a Mum (sometimes Dad, or both parents even).
The aim of the placement is not only to provide a safe environment for both mum and baby, but also to observe.
The foster carer has a crucial role in guiding mum on how best to care for her baby, but not necessarily to do it for them. Occasionally it may just be a nudge in the right direction and, at other times, full training and guidance in learning how to care for a newborn is necessary.
No two placements are the same. In all cases the foster carer’s unbiased support is essential. In my research into P&C placements I’ve discovered that many of the mums are barely out of their teens and often come from care themselves, or from very difficult personal circumstances where they are unable to keep themselves safe, let alone a newborn baby.
However, with the right family environment and guidance they flourish meaning the bond and attachment between parent and child strengthens.
Sometimes the P&C Foster Carer simply guides and encourages the new mum, helping her confidence to grow. This might be by showing them how to change a nappy, through to bathing and laundry or maybe helping them to budget effectively.
They can also support and help the new parent to engage with other services available in the community and as their self-confidence grows, can allow them to take on more of the full parental role.
In all cases it’s important that the foster carer keeps meticulous notes of what they have observed in order to see how mum is progressing or in some cases, sadly not.
P&C allows the parent to learn the skills necessary to keep their baby safe and to keep their family unit together in a supportive encouraging environment, but more importantly in a real-life family situation.
Placements have no fixed timescale, but they normally last between 3 to 6 months. Some can last much longer, especially if it means that mum can return to school or college, do an apprenticeship or benefit from work experience.
This is a challenging role for us Foster Carers but it’s immensely rewarding. Not only are you ensuring the safety of the child, but you’re changing the lives of that young parent and keeping the family together and potentially breaking a cycle of social services involvement.
All foster carers need to have a particular skill set of being patient, a basic understanding of attachment theory, a willingness to learn and continue to train, be sensitive, discreet and keep the confidentiality of the child in care.
In P&C placements they must also have a suitable spare room large enough for the parent and child and the ability to make accurate observations (in some cases they may be used in court). It’s more about supervision, guidance, and encouragement than caring directly for the baby.
When I’ve spoken to P&C Foster Carers and asked them what they consider the hardest thing about this particular type of placement, the answer is nearly always the same: knowing when not to interfere.
If we hear a crying baby, instinctively we want to investigate or offer comfort and it can be very difficult to hang back and allow the mother to do that, particularly if you feel she is not reacting quickly enough.
Almost all foster carers I’ve spoken to have said they are still in contact with the parent and baby, if they successfully moved on, and their relationship has grown and developed to more of a surrogate parent or grandparent role.
One young lady, in a P&C placement with her baby, said she was worried that moving on from the placement would leave her back on her own. ‘Now’ she says, ‘it’s like having a favourite (experienced) aunty at the end of a telephone that I can call and ask for advice whenever I need it.’