What can foster care learn from matching in Shared Lives?

Late last year, Ofsted published a report on matching in foster care, which concluded that

“Matching children to the right foster families is critically important for children’s futures. Good matching decisions can help to ensure that fostered children have a secure base, feel loved and can enjoy their lives. When matches do not work, it leads to further distress and instability for children, many of whom will have already experienced significant previous disruption and trauma. Unsuccessful matches can result in foster carers taking a break from fostering or deciding to stop fostering altogether, contributing further to the longstanding nationwide shortage of foster carers.” Matching in Foster Care

This seems unsurprising. As Ofsted found, “When we asked children what they liked most about their foster home, they said
they valued feeling loved and being treated as part of the family.” The Shared Lives sector has two key processes at its heart: an extensive, in-depth and values-based recruitment process (currently being modernised through an exciting project involving new tech) and matching, to ensure that people who share their lives are compatible, and that they actively choose each other. The recruitment process is needed because the Shared Lives carer role, like the foster carer role, is highly responsible and autonomous. The matching process is because great Shared Lives is as much about love as it is about skill and professionalism, and few of us love who we are told who to love.

It should take research for everyone involved in care of any kind – adults or children – to know that love is central. Caring is an emotion, as much as it is an act. There is an ongoing debate about professionalisation and professionalism in social care and in children’s services. We want and need people in caring roles to be highly skilled, to have the right knowledge and experience and to be able to work within a regulatory framework. But we owe it to those amazing people willing and able to take on that demanding work to create roles in which they also be fully human. And we owe it to everyone who finds themselves relying on strangers for support at their most vulnerable moments to ensure that they choose the people who will do that, wherever possible.

Boundaries are vital to good, safe services. But we need to ensure that the boundaries we put in place are for the benefit of the people involved (on both sides) in the caring relationship, not to make risks to services easier to manage at scale. As Emma shares in this Fostering Network blog, overly rigid interpretations of rules, and a lack of trust in her and her foster family’s decision-making led to her leaving a stable household for increasing chaos, only resolved through her and her foster family fighting to stick with each other against the odds:

“I went through hell until I was 21…I was not allowed to stay at my foster mums as social services said that I left care. My foster parents tried to fight them but they were told they’d have to stop fostering if they took me in… My foster family was meant to leave me when I left there at 16, but they never did. They have always been there for me and they call me their own just like I call them my own family. That is unconditional love, it’s what young people need as they go into adulthood.”

Matching and professionalism can co-exist, and they must, if we are to have any hope of reducing the unacceptable number of children and young people let down by a care system which doesn’t always know what ‘care’ really means to them.

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