Henrietta Bond is the author of Things Foster Carers Need to Know, Coram BAAF’s new collection of pamphlets on difficult and sensitive issues. She explains her reasons for writing these guides and some of the surprising information she discovered in the process.
We live in a fast-changing society. For foster carers there is a constant challenge – not only to respond to the needs of each child that comes into their home, but also to keep abreast of the multitude of issues affecting young people in today’s world.
When Shaila Shah, publishing director at CoramBAAF, suggested I write a series of pamphlets about some of the most sensitive and difficult issues that foster carers need to be aware of, I jumped at the chance. Over the years I’ve researched and written about the radical changes taking place in the teenage brain. Supporting a young person whose brain is shedding much of what they already know and is driving them away from adult carers and towards becoming part of the ‘tribe’ of peers, is an enormous challenge, especially when that young person has a history of trauma and uncertainty. At the same time carers must safeguard young people from issues which are often shrouded in misinformation and tabloid sensationalism – towards which a teenager may be magnetically drawn.
I knew that researching Things Foster Carers Need to Know would be as much a journey of discovery for me as for the carers and social workers who would eventually read these booklets. When I wrote the Control Freak series of novels for young people in care I explored some of these issues, but that was a while ago, and every day I stumble across some social media discussion that makes me feel as out of touch as the proverbial dinosaur.
Shaila Shah had already identified the topic of Gangs, Radicalisation, Self-Harm and Internet Safety as issues that carers needed down-to-earth, accessible information about. I added in the suggestion of including a booklet on Sexuality as I feel that is an issue that can cause a lot of embarrassment and discomfort but is so important to young people’s wellbeing.
Talking about issues such as sexual identity, safe sex and consent doesn’t come easily for everyone, and I wanted to make sure we provided information that was accessible, non-judgemental and supported carers to have these important conversations, whatever their own values and beliefs.
Over the following two years I worked closely with Shaila, and with Jo Francis, who took over as publications team manager when Shaila retired from Coram BAAF to become a freelance consultant. Their help was invaluable
at every stage of the process and we spent many hours discussing – sometimes arguing – about what foster carers needed to know about some of these thorny issues. We were greatly helped by specialist readers – foster carers and social workers, who gave us feedback from their own experience and pointed out where I’d overlooked or misunderstood the impact of a particular issue. This included invaluable advice from Paul Adams, Coram BAAF’s former fostering consultant.
Even when it was a topic I thought I knew something about, I discovered how much there was to think about from a foster carer’s perspective. For many of the topics we covered there was plenty of information available on the internet but we also knew how long it takes to identify and read all of this. We wanted the pamphlets to act as a time-saving summary and signpost for busy foster carers, while tailoring it to the specific questions relevant to their
role. Each pamphlet was packed with links to helpful websites as well as details of useful organisations and reference materials.
To make the pamphlets as engaging as possible we decided that each would start with a quiz to get readers thinking about what they knew about the topic – and what they didn’t. Many of the questions were eye-openers to me: What’s the average age of a gang member in the UK? What percentage of children say that fear of cyberbullies makes them reluctant to go to school? What’s the most common reason young people give for self-harming?
This last question was the focus of my first pamphlet, Young People and Self-harm. This was something I thought I knew a little bit about because a care leaver had once described to me how she had turned a small cut on her thigh into an open wound by constantly worrying at the skin. She told me how it had helped her to cope at a time when her stepmother was regularly beating her. As a young adult she still bore the scar.
What struck me as I looked into this issue was how little I really knew about why someone does this. As a professional coach I knew the importance of putting things into words in order to make them happen. What I didn’t know was that when a young person cannot find words to communicate difficult feelings they may express them through causing physical pain in their own bodies. By cutting themselves, banging their heads, pulling out their hair, burning or scalding themselves, the young person finds an outlet for those feelings.
I wanted to convey in the pamphlet how carers can create a calm, non-judgemental environment while safeguarding the child from serious harm, and how they can support young people to express their emotions more safely. Using some of my coaching skills, I shared ideas about the type of questions carers might use to help young people do
this. We also covered questions around who carers could turn to for support, how to empower young people to find their own support, and is it helpful or harmful for a young person who is self-harming to look for advice on the internet?
Which brings me very neatly onto the second leaflet – Young People and Internet Safety.
Of all the pamphlets this was the one I approached with most trepidation. In my line of work I use digital technology every day, but I was also aware that I’m not a natural ‘techy’. However, with the support of Shaila, Jo and our other advisors I came to realise that my position of ‘not knowing what I didn’t know’ probably reflected the situation of many busy foster carers.
When I spoke to foster carers about this topic they explained that you can never protect a young person from all the potential harms of the internet. “It’s like driving,” one carer told me. “Cars are wonderful in many ways but they can also be very dangerous. Your role is to help children become ‘safe drivers’ of the internet. The more openly you can talk to them about these things and get them to talk to you about what they are looking at, the more likely you are to achieve this. You need to make sure you’re clued up enough yourself to have these conversations.”
We focused this pamphlet around helping carers to recognise what knowledge and skills they needed themselves and how to obtain these. It also felt important to focus on areas where children are most at risk, such as cyberbullying, viewing pornography, sexting, self harm websites, gaming and losing money online, grooming – for child trafficking, gang recruitment or radicalisation, drug sales, and both the harmful and positive ways the internet can be used for contact with family members.
I’ve always found topics like parental controls and privacy settings confusing so I spent a lot of time carefully writing a summary of safety measures and where carers could find more information about this.
After so much work, it felt wonderful to read a review on the website of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP):
With the plethora of online resources and television advertisements about online safety, you’d be forgiven for asking ‘why write a pamphlet about young people and internet safety?’ Well, Henrietta Bond did just that and a
good job too!
Rather than throw complex technical jargon at the reader, Bond sets out to explore the key risks and impacts that unfettered use of the Internet may have on vulnerable young minds.
Next up was working on Young People and Gangs, and halfway through my research I realised I needed to make a major shift in my approach. I’d been both fascinated and appalled by reading about young people’s experiences in traditional gangs – with their focus on identity and belonging, as well as violence, rivalry and criminal activity. Being in a gang was all about status and gang activities tended to focus on raiding shops and petrol stations as well as fights with rival gangs. If you were arrested or sent to prison this could add to your status in the gang. However the recent growth of ‘County Lines’ has changed gang culture in the UK.
Today’s gangs focus on profit and usually concentrate on drug and arms dealing in previously untapped parts of the country. Senior gang members want to remain below the police radar and so exploit young people to do their dirty work. They use websites and social media to organise their activities and to recruit new members. I was horrified to discover that children, sometimes as young as eight, are ‘groomed’ online and then coerced into carrying drugs. Drugs are often inserted into their bodies and then forcibly removed at the other end. This process is filmed so that the young person can be blackmailed with threats of this material being shared online.
Guns and knives are sadly a common element in today’s gang culture and Shaila encouraged me to research practical questions such as what to do if a young person brings a gun or knife into your home. The answer is
more complex that you would imagine…
The importance of recognising signs that a young person is being groomed was also a key message we were trying to put across with Young People and Radicalisation. Shaila had been particularly concerned that the case of the Parsons Green Bomber – an 18-year old Iraqi refugee who planted a bomb on a train – had put some carers off from fostering asylum seekers, and wanted to address this topic. (This young man in this case was living with foster carers while his asylum claim was being processed. It was later discovered that he in his immigration interview he’d claimed that he’d been trained to kill by ISIS and blamed the UK for his father’s death – information which was never disclosed to his foster carers.)
Over the years I have become a ‘god-parent’ to several young people who have had very tough starts in countries where poverty was rife. While writing a previous series of booklets for CoramBAAF about fostering asylum seekers, my heart went out to children who had lost their homeland because of war, oppression and all the knock-on effects this has in terms of living in constant fear, lacking basic facilities like heating and water, and never knowing when family members might be arrested or murdered and homes bombed or burnt. Watching the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan I wonder again if it is time I revisited my plans to foster young asylum seekers… The likelihood of a child you are fostering having terrorist inclinations is small. They may themselves be fleeing from people who have caused acts of terror in their own country. In fact the largest growing group of ‘radicalised’ young people in this country are those drawn towards extreme right-wing groups.
Along with Shaila, I wanted to present a realistic picture of the situation – debunking some myths while helping foster carers understand the process of radicalisation, the signs to be aware of and the services which can support you in safeguarding young people. We wanted to help foster carers recognise the differences between a young person
showing a keen interest in their cultural and religious heritage or being passionate about social injustice and political situations, and the routes which draw young people into extremism, terrorism and unthinking loyalty to an ideology or cause.
For me the Young People and Sexuality pamphlet was the easiest to write. As a child growing up in an otherwise conservative family, I was very fortunate to have a mother who believed in the importance of being open about matters around sex. When the boys at school dragged a bloody sanitary towel out of the girls’ toilets or a friend told me the shocking fact that people could ‘do it’ with their clothes on, I felt able to go home and talk to my mother about this – unlike most of my friends. As a result I have always felt comfortable about discussing sex and being clear about issues such as consent and my right to enjoy physical pleasure. Through the pamphlets I wanted to convey my belief that foster carers have a very important role to play in helping children to grow up with a healthy sense of their sexuality, while also recognising that this may be difficult for a carer who grew up in a family or culture where such topics were strictly taboo. Talking about issues such as sexual identity, safe sex and consent doesn’t come easily for everyone, and I wanted to make sure we provided information that was accessible, non-judgemental and
supported carers to have these important conversations, whatever their own values and beliefs.
Now the pamphlets are written it is my hope that they bridge the gap between what we believed foster carers would find helpful and the reality of caring for a troubled and traumatised young person. Naturally carers will have many resources and techniques of their own, but it’s my belief that everybody needs a different perspective now and again, some new idea about how to approach a problem, or the website details of a specialist organisation. I hope these pamphlets play some useful part in supporting you to give of your very best to the young people in your care. ◆
These five pamphlets can be purchased online from the Coram BAAF website for £15. You can find details at https://corambaaf.org.uk/books/things-foster-carers-need-know-full-series, as well as my other publications for CoramBAAF. If you have ideas for other topics we should add to this series, then do feel free to contact me at [email protected]