Podcast Episode: Foster carer recruitment
What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.
MD Michelle Drumm
DN Dorothy Neriah
Dorothy Neriah is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh who is conducting research on rethinking how we understand, evaluate and undertake foster carer recruitment. Michelle from Iriss had a conversation with her about how she came to focus on this topic, current practice in foster care recruitment and the benefits of rethinking the approach.
MD I'm here with Dorothy Neriah, who is a PhD student here at the University of Edinburgh, and your focus is foster care and kinship care and at the moment you're doing a bit of research around rethinking how we understand, evaluate and undertake foster carer recruitment.
MD An interesting subject.
MD So could you just tell me, how did you come to undertake this research?
DN Well, so I come from Kenya and I ran a volunteer fostering programme called 'Safe Families for Children'. So it's originally from the US but they also have a branch here, and actually they've won a number of awards here, but in Kenya this was a first of its kind.
DN We don't have any fostering arrangements right now. It's there legally but it's not in practice.
DN So I opened the first programme of 'Safe Families for Children' in 2015. I ran until 2017.
MD In Kenya?
DN Yeah, but it was hard. It was hard to recruit carers mostly because people just didn't understand fostering, and it just seemed that the country wasn't yet ready to make that giant leap from children's institutions towards fostering. So they are currently moving away from children's institutions. I found that it was a really long and hard process educating, and I found that most of my time was spent in recruitment of foster carers.
MD Right, okay.
MD So that's quite a challenging context to work in then, in Kenya?
DN Yeah, yeah.
MD And there must have been quite a lot of learning from that work you did in Kenya?
MD So you've obviously taken it now to the UK?
MD Yeah. Could you tell me a bit more about that?
DN So actually I first came to the UK with very serious, what can I say, stereotypes and wrong thinking I would say, about what foster care is and how it runs here, because I came with a huge issue that everyone talks about permanence, and I was going to study permanence and this whole issue of permanence and the stereotype of children bouncing back and forth from home to home.
DN And as I continued with my research I realised that one, permanence is heavily researched but everything sort of kept leading me back to foster carers and what a burden that is placed on them and how they're such an integral part of this system, and then that led me to, "Oh, okay, so how are carers recruited? How are these guys doing it right?"
DN And when I looked back I saw that wow, all the research I found was from way back when. I'm talking about research from the 60s and 70s.
DN Nothing quite in the 2000s at all about foster carer recruitment. So I was like okay, so this seems to be the niche that I can put myself into and really work into.
MD Let me just understand your journey a bit more.
MD So you started the programme in Kenya in 2015 and you're here now in Edinburgh, and you moved into London recently doing this research. How did that journey happen?
DN So at the end of 2017, even though we had made a lot of progress in terms of the programme there were a lot of still issues, even with registering the programme itself. So like I said Kenya has relied heavily on children's institutions, and even going up to the National Director of Children's Services, they didn't know how to register a fostering programme.
DN So we had so many issues and we had to work out special permissions, and the people that I was working for, the larger organisation, just felt that the obstacles were too many and they thought that they should move back and change their child interventions towards children's homes, but I felt that that was moving back into the past and moving away from where the country and the continent is moving towards in terms of their policies. They had just released policies about family-based care. So I so strongly believed in fostering and in family-based care that I just couldn't move backwards and start a children's home and operate, given that I know the huge benefits that moving into foster care has.
DN So I stepped down from that position because they shut down the programme to start children's homes.
MD Oh, shame.
DN Yeah, but I also sort of burned out from practicing all that social work and thought that I would come back and still impact the world of foster care, but from a different point of view. So I thought, "Hmm, research is still a place to put into the field and it would probably not be as draining as social work is." So that's how I ended up saying I'll come back, do my research, do my PhD, and possibly move either into teaching or some form of equipping of foster carers and the world of foster care.
MD And how do you think people then currently understand foster care recruitment?
DN So people seem to think that it's this one model, you put in one type of recruitment and out of that you get foster carers. So for example your approach might be, "Let's do bus ads", or, "Let's do Facebook ads", or, "Let's run a television ad", and they think that it's a unitary system, so it's just one input equals the output of foster carers. It doesn't understand the decision making process. I mean some research done in Australia has shown that it can take up to ten years for someone to decide to foster. Someone won't be walking down the street and see a bus ad and see this beautiful thing and say, "Okay, now I will foster."
DN So the current system doesn't understand the decision making process and all the benefits and all the things that go into fostering and the decision to foster.
MD Because at the moment I mean there are quite a lot of public advertising campaigns around foster carers, they're required.
MD Would you say that that is a bit short-sighted in terms of what is maybe required, or is it a legitimate way in?
DN It's a legitimate way in actually. It's a great way in because that builds. It attracts people. It puts foster care in the forefront of people's minds. So it's a very good way in but there are other steps, and I think that is almost like an introductory step and it just brings foster care into people's minds, but there's another step that people often take when it comes to foster care, or thinking about foster care, and that's what I call the exploration phase, and that's when people might go through websites, come for workshops, go for one-on-one meetings, and that is actually the thing that takes several years. So if for example your bus ad, which is really nice, it's really beautiful, all the market research has gone into it, if the ask that you give people is, "Become a foster carer now", it might be too much, but if you lead people into a better next step, aka the exploration phase, you're leading them into a space where they can get all the information and gather it in different ways, in different formats, whether it's from helplines or websites, podcasts. If you build enough material for that exploration, then you actually also help them to self-evaluate and decide whether or not fostering is for them. So by the time they go into application and by the time they go into assessment they're people who are better informed, and it also reduces the number of people that you have to assess and it just helps you with your resource management.
MD That works probably well for the people who are becoming foster carers, but what about the demand for foster carers and if people are taking more time and time to reflect, and give it more time then there's probably less foster carers available maybe at any given time? In a way the system wants to be quite slick, whereby people come in, they soon understand what it is to be a foster carer, go, "Yes, I'm interested", they apply and then it happens.
DN Well there's a few things that could go wrong in that situation. So yes, you could get lots of people through the process very quickly, but are they the right people? So one of the issues that is coming across is there are certain skills or certain diversity in carers that is missing. So for example in certain situations, like for example right now in Scotland there's a high number of refugees who have just been taken in, and so there's less diversity in the carer. So are you getting the right carers to match the needs of the organisation? There's a shortage of carers who have specialised skills for special needs children. If for example you are in let's say Skye for example, probably less diverse places there. So if you understand what are the motivations that will motivate people to care in Skye and what are the certain issues that are happening there? In a place like Skye, if there's a shortage of foster carers children will cross boundaries. So better recruitment would probably hone in on that sense of care and community that people have in Northern Scotland and say, "Let's take care of our children in our boundaries", or, "Let's take care of our children within our communities." Having that need and using that type of motivation for that specific need would probably bring the right type of carer for that area. People don't quite understand why there's a shortage in carers. We actually lose a number of foster carers for different reasons. So right now there's an increase in the number of long-term placements. So that means that more carers are being taken up within those positions and they're not being freed up for other things. Then we also have carers who are, given that most carers are above the age of fifty, then a lot of them end up resigning due to things like health issues or unfortunately they might die or they might retire from fostering within a short number of years. So the fostering career isn't your average career, for example, a normal working career.
DN Yeah. So there's that loss but there's also the increase. Each year the number of children coming into foster care is increasing by a lot, by the thousands.
MD Is this across the UK?
DN Across the UK, yeah. So this means there's definitely a need to increase the foster carers to match. I think I've mentioned previously about some of the issues in matching, and what happens when a child isn't properly matched with a foster carer then they are more likely to break down or they might be taken across council boundaries just to find a better match for them, and then when a different match comes up then they are taken away again. So there's a lot of instability that's created when you can't find the right match for foster carers. So it's not for example a situation of we have a thousand more children so we need x number of carers. We need a wide range and a wide variety of carers so that when a child comes in need you're able to look at all that is available and say, "Oh, we have just the right person for you. They have the right skills for this child's needs. They have the right social cultural background and they are in the right local geography for the child." So the current need is a lot more complex than it's known, and there's also a need for local authorities to understand what their needs are. Right now they're not, from the number of people that I've spoken to, so not yet researched but from just speaking to people on the ground there's not a lot of work being done to actually assess what their needs are and what recruitment approaches are working. It's sort of like just getting on with it and never really having any sort of formal assessment of what is working, what isn't working and what do we need.
DN So that's one of the vital reasons why I'm doing this research.
DN To also help people to focus and see, "Okay, what exactly do we need and how can we get that done in the best way possible?", and we've also found out that there was some research done in both Belgium and the States that showed that even just the type of motivation that people have to care can lead to different outcomes in terms of the placements. So they found that for example people who are motivated by wanting to help children, so people who are a bit more altruistic and were about the child, their placements lasted longer, they were more stable, and some of them were even more open to more diverse and multi-racial placements. So if you understand that then you'll be better targeting and doing the assessment when you see the motivations. You'd understand, this is how this plays into who will come through at the end of the process.
DN Who I bring through.
MD 'Cause I guess it's made a bit more complex as well by the fact that foster carers are usually paid?
DN Yeah. Mmmhmm.
MD So potentially sort of makes the recruitment process a little bit complex or tentative?
DN It does, and it's very interesting. So the payment internally, the foster carers understand what the payment is and most of the research shows that the payment will never really cover for what they're doing, and very few carers are motivated by pay, but externally to the outside world there's this whole stereotype that always runs about foster carers, that they're just in it for the money. So when it comes to advertising, let's say you do put the amount that people are being paid, or you try to phrase it as a career. What that ends up doing is it might end up deterring people from actually fostering, because they are scared to be seen as in it for the money.
DN Because you're playing on a stereotype, yet it is important that they are compensated, and it's never going to be enough. Often it just basically cares for the children's needs, but sometimes that sort of advertising plays into the fears of potential carers and it plays into the negative stereotypes of the public. So that would be probably something that you'd be doing later on in the recruitment process and not directly, 'cause you don't want to say, "We want people for their money". We want people for their passion. We want people for the hearts, for their care, for their parenting skills, and then later on maybe we can discuss the money.
MD Yeah. Are there any other countries who are doing this really well?
DN Mmmhmm. Australia seems to be doing it quite well. A lot of the research I've found is by a lady called Melanie Randle, who's been working I think for about a decade now. Her background is in marketing interestingly enough, and it's merged marketing theory and social marketing with foster care recruitment, and that gives a better understanding because recruitment is a marketing issue and it does fall a bit under marketing, but it's actually a very special niche. So it's not the type of marketing because you're not selling goods or wares and you're not recruiting volunteers. So the closest people that have come to foster care recruitment is borrowing from NGOs, who use certain styles for their recruitment of volunteers, but recruitment of foster carers requires, they say it requires a higher level of thinking. So it's called high elaborate decision making. So for example NGOs can probably get lots of cash donations by that negative image of that child who's starving and everything, and it has been shown to elicit more responses in terms of cash, but when it comes to the type of decision making that is used for becoming a foster carer that sort of positive imaging is actually much better, and the research has found that positive images, vivid imagery and positive comments, so talking about, "We can help these children in need", that sort of thing rather than that guilt factor actually is better at recruiting people.
DN Basically it's not about guilt. Yeah, and it has been used a lot by NGOs because it works for charities and for donations of money because it's an instant thing, but because this is a long-term commitment that you're asking of people, they tend to take a bit more time and they're more motivated by positive factors than by negative factors. They're more motivated by compassion than fear.
DN Yeah, and there's been a couple of studies and a couple of campaigns in Australia that really worked well.
MD And have any of them been applied to UK at all?
DN Not to my knowledge, no.
DN Yeah, like I said there's been very little research specific to foster carer recruitment. Yeah. A lot of the research in the UK is being based around permanence, yet recruitment is a solution to permanence because if you have more of the right carers then you're better able to match children. That increases permanence, it increases stability and it increases the quality of the experience for both the carers and for the children. Yeah.
MD And you're still undertaking this research?
DN Yes, I am.
DN Yeah, but I am in the process of now actually going around and conducting research with fostering organisations to see what it is, you know, it's exploratory research to understand what the ground actually looks like.
DN And that way we'll be able to pin a best way forward, because right now there's not research that's been done to even show what exactly is happening on the ground for us to start the discussions.
MD Okay. I suppose going forward you'll be working on sort of how we rethink our approach to foster care recruitment in the UK?
MD And you've already mentioned that you'll be hoping to work with organisations involved. Is that the way forward at the moment then for you?
DN Yes, it is. Yeah. For me the way forward is to actually understand what is on the ground. Some of the things that I have seen and some of the benefits that I hope would come out of the research is to show that the recruitment is an important part of the whole fostering programme and that there are many advantages to rethinking. So for example if recruitment is done better it can help rebrand foster care, and that would help fight some of the negative stereotypes which play into building stigma for both foster carers and foster children. It's everywhere. It's in TV shows. It's in the media. If there's anything that comes up with the media about foster care it's usually when something has gone wrong, and in every other movie or show you find that the permanent storyline is, "Oh, I was fostered as a child and this is why I'm damaged in this way."
DN And those sorts of stories build a stigma around and people end up having a very negative opinion of the care system, and my hope is that people can understand that the recruitment has a place to play in building into the conversation about what foster care is and how and what a positive impact it's making. If they understand that every time you put a bus ad you're helping to shape the conversation around foster care and help to shape what people understand about foster care, then they might be a bit more responsible in what you choose to say, and understand that certain stereotypes might drive certain things but they might also work against you.
MD Mmm. How the media frames issues as well I suppose is something that needs to be addressed?
DN Yeah. Yeah. It is.
MD In terms of that stigma.
DN Yeah, it is.
MD That doesn't help anything either in terms of public perceptions of foster care.
DN No. No it doesn't, but if we play into those stigmas and use them as part of the advertising to just drive that guilt then we are being part of the problem, but if every time I walk and see an advertisement about foster care it's talking about all the positive changes, it's talking about the impact that it's made, I mean this is a system that cares for over seventy percent of children who are vulnerable and in need of protection and it's been working for them. If people understand that foster carers are basically paid volunteers who have committed their services and their hearts and their entire lives to changing children's lives, then that helps remove that stigma from them and helps them be more effective. They probably are able to get more understanding from the community around them. When you say you're being a foster carer people sort of have a better understanding of you. So I'm hoping that that would help just shape the conversation for recruiters and for marketing and for foster care in general. I'll be running a number of workshops about just understanding the three-phase model for foster carer recruiters so we can just shape our field and make it better.
MD What's the three-phase model?
DN So the three-phase model is just my way of understanding how foster care works. So the first phase is the introduction phase. So that's the phase where we're talking about ads. Marketing material basically. Your basic marketing material is the introductory phase and it's the first thing that people see. It gets foster care in people's minds. The second phase is exploration, and this is where people have different avenues to understand more about foster care. So it's your workshops, it's your helplines, it's your websites. It's any source that they can turn to in order to really delve into it, and the aim here is that they are deciding, "Is foster care for me?", and the final phase is the formal assessment phase, and that's the phase where they have actually applied to be a foster carer, and this is all about equipping and ensuring that the right people end up being assessed for foster care.
MD Okay. Do you think what's happening currently in the UK and in Scotland is working?
DN Not completely. So some of the issues that I've found is there's a lot of competition, and that tends to create noise. If people don't understand what fostering is, everyone is busy saying, "Foster with me", "Foster with me", "Foster with me." I mean I've talked to a couple of people even within Edinburgh where people advertise in each other's authorities, which really shouldn't happen.
DN So there seems to be a very competitive edge around foster carer recruitment. It would be better to have, so like for example there's a fostering fortnight, which is one of the national strategies that's used by The Fostering Network, and that's where all these organisations come around and all spread awareness about fostering. That sort of thing helps to build awareness without that competitive drive.
DN And without stealing from each other's people. So I've seen a number of independent agencies advertising to foster carers from other agencies saying, "Come switch with us", and so it's not just recruitment, it's sort of like stealing, and there's these underhanded golden handshakes that are happening where you're paid to switch to a different fostering agency. Yeah. There's a need to understand that there's a lot to be gained by unity. So there's about six local authorities in Northern England who ran a joint campaign, and that was successful. To me I think that would be the best approach.
DN It's definitely worked in places like the US, having a national strategy, and even in Australia. I think foster carer recruitment does have the potential to benefit a lot of people, and if done right, it approached right, then it will produce the right type of carers. Mmmhmm.
MD Well, Dorothy, thank you so much for speaking with me today about this issue and best of luck with your research going forward.
DN Thank you for having me. It's been nice to have this conversation and I hope it helps someone out there. Yeah.
MD Lovely. Okay. Thank you.
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