This month we chatted with Jag, senior fostering social worker, who joined AFA Fostering almost 11 years ago. Jag talks to us about how she came into a fostering career and offers some good advice for people who are thinking of becoming foster parents.
Hi Jag, thanks for talking to me today. I’d like to start with a bit about your background. When did you qualify as a social worker?
I qualified as a social worker at Coventry University 21 years ago this year. I started studying at the age of 19 – I’m giving away my age! – and I was the youngest student there, everyone else was 35 or older. I made it onto the course because I had a lot of life experience. There were 300-400 applicants and I was one of only 30 that were chosen, so I was very proud of myself.
While I was still at university, I saw a scheme to recruit black and ethnic minority social workers because there was a huge shortage. I applied for that while I was still studying and got it, so as soon as I left uni I went straight into child protection.
At the local authority I literally had to hit the ground running… there wasn’t any settling in time. I found that a lot of the families were older than me and they didn’t have much respect for me because at that time I looked about 16! They’d say to me, well what do you know? Also, because at that time I also didn’t have any children, I had to work hard with a lot of my service users to prove myself, to prove my worth and be taken credibly.
I remember removing one child from his mum, and she wrote me a letter, which I still have, saying thank you for helping me and had you not, my child would have been in a different place. That stood out as a real changing point for me and showed me that I had done something good for this kid.
After my time at the local authority, I went through about three fostering agencies, and at one of those I met Nigel and Graeme, before they had left and set up AFA. I was then a school social worker for a little while, before looking for a new job and asking Graeme and Nigel if they’d give me a job reference. They had set up AFA Fostering a couple of years before and were looking for a fostering social worker to join the team, so instead of giving me a reference, they invited me for an interview, and here I am 11 years later!
Did you come into fostering social work because of your initial background in child protection?
The thing that brought me into fostering was my experience at the local authority. They were understaffed and overworked, and the stress was keeping me awake at night with worry. It became unhealthy and dangerous and the pressure was affecting my health, and the environment was unsafe.
How many families do you look after at the moment Jag?
Here at AFA, I now look after 11 families with 13 kids between them. I manage my own time and I work on my own across a large area that covers Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, and Northampton, all of the East Midlands.
Can you tell me what sort of things your foster families need your support with?
A lot of my foster families need reassurance and emotional support, and that’s not because they’re not capable, it’s just because they want that reassurance. I’ve always told my families that I treat them the way I want to be treated so whatever they need I would want them to contact me and not have a sleepless night!
Some of my families have more complex children than others, so they need a little bit more guidance which is understandable, and they know that’s what I’m here for. Sometimes it’s practical things, I might get a call from a foster parent who is under pressure from a local authority social worker and of course they can’t be in two places at once, so often I am the go-between for foster families and the local authority, since I’ll probably be able to get an answer quicker than them and it saves them any frustration so they can carry on doing an amazing job with the children.
A common issue for a lot of my families has to do with “family time”; the arrangements we make for children to spend time with their birth parents. Often parents don’t stick to the rules, or do what they have agreed to do, or they cancel at the last minute or don’t turn up at all. This is very upsetting for the children and their foster families have to pick up the pieces, so it’s about me supporting them through that because those emotions in the children are going to rub off on the foster families.
Can you think of a specific situation that you’ve helped one of your foster families to overcome?
I think internet safety is a big one. How do you balance allowing children to be teenagers while also making sure that their vulnerability isn’t causing them any harm online? As an example, with teenagers it’s about explaining to them that explicit images of themselves are not allowed even though it’s their own body and doing this in a way that doesn’t lead them to think that you’re trying to control them and their lives.
Can you tell me about a time when one of your foster parents has made a big difference to a child?
Yes, I had a foster child in one of my families and in quite difficult circumstances and she’s really struggled emotionally, probably in one of the worst ways that I’ve seen in a primary age child. But the foster family didn’t give up on her; they put everything aside for themselves personally and worked hard to stabilise this child despite the challenges which were presented to them.
Sometimes there were emotionally and physically demanding challenges that these foster parents had to face with the child, so they needed a lot of emotional support to carry on. The child just couldn’t accept being there, and she was saying one thing to me and something different to her own social worker, and the prospect of an allegation was quite high.
But the foster family worked through the issues, they were consistent, and they looked deeply into what she was wanting and what was underneath her behaviour. They are now a few years down the line, and this child is a fully integrated part of the family.
Some of the people reading this article will be thinking about fostering, so what would you say are some of the important qualities of a good foster parent?
Flexibility… try not to give yourself a hard time if things don’t go as you feel they should. You need to have open and honest communication with your social worker as we can’t support you effectively without this. We aren’t here to judge foster parents, we want them to succeed just as much as they do, so it is always best to ask rather than hold back.
All foster parents need to be open to learning and doing training. This is very important whether they are a couple, where it’s about using your strengths, or if it’s a single foster parent it’s about utilising what’s around them, knowing their support network and being able to ask for help.
Foster parents do well if they have a fun, open and committed personality, and if they are resilient so they don’t give up on the first hurdle. Fostering is going to be hard; it’s not going to be easy, but the rewards are huge, literally huge!
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about fostering?
There’s a lot of information on the internet but having a face-to-face conversation with somebody who’s either fostering, or a fostering social worker, or in an agency, I think is probably the best. When you’re reading something, you can interpret it based on how you’re feeling on the day. If you’re in a happy mood you might read it ‘all flowers’, and if you’re in a sad mood you might read it all doom and gloom.
To be realistic, it helps to have a conversation with us but this doesn’t mean that someone is going to force you into fostering! After all, it must be right for everyone. When you contact us, we can link you with a foster parent even in the initial stages of you just inquiring about fostering so you get first-hand information from a foster parent who is fostering right now.
Have you enjoyed reading this article? If you could help a child or young person to heal by offering a spare bedroom in a secure and loving home, we provide our foster parents with full training and support and a competitive allowance to care for a child. To find out more and start the assessment process, please call our friendly team on 0333 358 3217 or complete our online form.