The Children’s Commissioner reports today that : “We estimate that the majority of looked-after children – 74% – experienced some form of change during 2016-17: a placement move, a school move or change of worker. This is equivalent to 53,500 children.” (via BBC article here) Antony Corrigan, now an adult, said of his experience of moving around as a ‘looked after’ child: “You find it difficult to make a friendship group and you become alienated….I had at least 10 placements, including two children’s homes and in terms of social workers, I lost count, but I probably had about 10 in total. I just wish there was more consistency in the care I was given. It’s so easy to get lost in the system, no-one’s pushing you or encouraging you.”
We are cautious about making comparisons between foster care and Shared Lives, despite some obvious similarities in how they are organised, because Shared Lives is not about treating adults like children, and fostering is associated in people’s minds with family breakdown, whereas Shared Lives is something that adults choose when they are looking for the mix of independence and support which most of us look for when we form a family or a household as an adult, and it is very often about two families working together.
But I was struck by the contrast between that high level of instability in children’s lives, at a time when stability is so vital, and the tendency of Shared Lives arrangements to last for years. I recently met a young woman who had had around 30 foster or children’s home placements as a child, but who was thankfully settled in her Shared Lives household as a young adult. I’ve never come across someone using Shared Lives who has had more than a handful of Shared Lives arrangements over a period of years, and I meet many who have lived in the same household for decades.
There is often an emergency, unplanned aspect to fostering, which will be one factor at play, but that cannot explain children who have been moved multiple times. I wonder how much the strong focus on matching – both parties choosing to live together – plays in the relative stability of Shared Lives, and whether there is a debate to be had about matching within fostering, where there is a greater focus on professionalisation and avoiding attachments that might not be maintained. I’d be interested to hear from people much more knowledgeable about children’s support than I am on that.
Ironically, stability in the adult support sector is not always seen as a good thing. Whilst it is recognised that someone whose support arrangements are constantly breaking down is not happy (and that those crises are very difficult and expensive to manage), being ‘too’ settled is also sometimes frowned upon by service managers. I hear regularly that people who are happily settled in a Shared Lives household are constantly being considered for moving on to ‘greater independence’, even if living by themselves is not what they are looking for at that stage of life (how many of us dream of always living alone?) Sometimes that unwanted move uproots them from the support networks they have built up and they wind up in the revolving door of failed support arrangements.
In both children’s and adults’ services, there is constant churn and movement, whether it is children being moved multiple times during an already troubled childhood, or adults getting intimate personal care from a succession of strangers on a staff rota. Whereas in ‘ordinary’ life, most of us crave some kind of attachment, mutual dependency and feeling settled. As in so many things, services could learn a great deal from ordinary family life, if only we had the humility.