When I was very young, I spent a couple of years with a foster carer couple who made the other foster child and I eat our meals separately to themselves and their own children. This was a very long time ago and I am confident that most, hopefully, all of you reading this will be pretty appalled. Presumably, because you do not need to be an expert in developmental trauma or attachment theory to recognise, instinctively, that treating a child in this way is harmful.
This is an emotive introduction to an article about what is still most commonly called, respite care in fostering. However, some of the themes are the same: othering, being made to feel different to less than other children, the foster carers, or the foster carers family. Before I alienate those of you who have made use of respite care with your foster children, I should say that I think there are circumstances where it is reasonable, indeed necessary, for foster carers to have a break.
But just because something is necessary, does not mean we should kid ourselves that it is unproblematic - that there won't be unintended consequences. Many care experienced people have written and spoken eloquently of how it felt for them to be sent away on "respite". A word that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as: "A period of) rest or relief from labour, suffering. war, responsibility, etc..." How would you feel if someone told you they needed respite from you? Or they were going on holiday, because they need - or deserve - a break" (implying a break from you), I bet you would not take it as a compliment. In fact, I think that most of us would feel some hurt.
That said, many children living with their birth parents, in ordinary families, might stay with relatives or family friends for an occasional weekend or longer in the school holidays. This won't be thought of as or called, "respite of course. It won't be called anything really beyond "staying with granny and grandad for the weekend" or similar. Nevertheless, often the reason will be to give parents a break from the travails of child care and maybe provide the opportunity for a few days away.
It is not quite the same though, because most of these children will not have experienced the feelings of pain, loss and rejection common to children in foster care, and they are not going to stay with granny and grandad, but often with strangers; whichever random carers the local authority or fostering agency can find for the task.
Let us not be too sentimental though, the need for faster carers to have some time to themselves may be even greater than it is for ordinary parents. Children who have experienced trauma, who have anxious, unhealthy attachment strategies and ways of relating to other people can be very difficult to be alongside for sustained periods of time - even for the most robust, tolerant and understanding carers. I say this not to stigmatise children in care, but to state a self-evident truth.
Needs There are many carers who do not send their foster children on respite, for some of the reasons I have described, and this is admirable, but if the consequence of this is that the carers are burnt out after a couple of years and the child has to move anyway, then it would surely be better if the carers had the occasional planned break?
Similarly, if respite is only used when things have reached a crisis point then it is much more likely the child will experience it as a rejection and that they are being sent away because they are "bad". It's worth remembering that some children will have experienced being taken to new carers only to be told they are not returning to their old carers after the fact, so they may not fully trust that respite is only temporary.
How do we ensure that foster carers get the breaks they need, breaks that should ultimately benefit the child too if they enable the carers to continue providing thoughtful and empathetic care, while mitigating the potentially negative messages and experience of respite care for children?
It is far better for breaks to be planned and routine, the timings known by the child well in advance and with no connection made, either explicitly or implicitly, between the break and the child's behaviour. And, crucially, every effort should be made to use regular carers who the child can build a relationship with over time.
Of course, we also need to stop using the term "respite care" (often abbreviated to just respite"). This is one of many examples of the need for professionals to have shared language and the legalistic language of policy and contracts slipping into use with children (it breaks my heart when I hear a 7-year-old Idl me she has contact with her mum). But let's not replace it with another stock phrase that ends up having exactly the same connotations and emotional resonance. Let's instead use ordinary conversational language with children in care, like "you're going to stay with Sam and Claire next half term..."
John Radoux is a child adolescent psychotherapeutic counsellor in private practice, providing therapy for children in care at a primary school, and a clinical practitioner supporting foster carers as part of a therapeutic wraparound fostering service. Prior to this, he spent 17 years working in children's homes. John spent 14 years in care as a child.