In conversation with Alyson Rees
[Transcript available in tab below]
Foster families work the well-being of children in their care often with little recognition. In this podcast, Alyson Rees talks about her research with children and their foster families from a strengths perspective.
Alyson Rees has worked in social care in the UK since 1981 when she started working in a night shelter. Having qualified as a social worker in 1986, she worked for 16 years as a probation officer before joining a domestic violence unit running groups for male perpetrators, female survivors and children who had witnessed abuse. She has been at Cardiff University for the past 15 years teaching both social work students and practice educators and completed her PhD in 2009. Alyson is currently responsible for student practice placements, international exchanges and has been the lead on the Gender Equality Mark (GEM) application by the Department of Social Sciences. She sits on the Care Council for Wales as the member for Higher Education and supervises Masters, Professional Doctorate and PhD students. Her research interests centre on foster care, adoption, child neglect, domestic abuse, gender, care social work supervision. Currently she is involved in a foster care research project involving skills groups and mentoring, and a looked after children and education study.
Recommended citation – APA6th
Fronek, P. (Host). (2015, June 24). Foster Families: In conversation with Alyson Rees [Episode 78]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/foster-families/.
Pithouse, A., & Rees, A. (2014). Creating stable foster placements: Learning from foster children and the families who care from them. UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Transcription Podsocs 78: Foster Families: In Conversation with Alyson Rees
Thankyou to Carly Motu for this transcript
[musical intro to 00.10]
Hello and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia. I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Today on Podsocs we’ve got Alyson Rees talking to us from Wales. Welcome to Podsocs Alyson.
Alyson:Thank you very much, I’m pleased to talk to you.
Tricia: Now, your topic today is about foster care and foster families. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and your research in this area?
Alyson:Yeah, I’m a lecturer at Cardiff University teaching in social work and I’ve got a long practice history. I’ve been in practice about 18 years prior to moving into the University and this particular study is looking at a real in-depth view of foster families, the sort of comings and goings, the day to day life of foster families. Really looking at what works, what’s appreciated by young people, something really trying to get away from social work but actually just looking at the working dynamics.
Tricia: Yes, because I sometimes think foster carers get a hard time and a bit of bad press sometimes.
Alyson: Yeah I think we, you know, really, really wanted to take a strengths based perspective. I think they do get a bad press and people are really keen to jump on them at the slightest thing, whereas actually, nobody really understands I think the importance and the amazing things they offer to young people.
Tricia: Tell us a bit about what life is like in foster care.
Tricia: Or in Foster families beg your pardon.
Alyson: In foster families, well, obviously every foster family is different and this is a study of ten foster families, and it’s really aiming to get a sort of worm’s eye view of what goes on. And one of the things that came out of the research is actually how interconnected foster families are and how helpful that is so, quite often there’s a wide extended family of people coming and going and local community coming and going throughout the host household. So, it’s a little bit like in some ways the borders are a bit more permeable and that’s actually very helpful to young people who are entering perhaps for the first time. So, I guess it’s quite a busy household and quite often a flexible household but actually the importance of rules in that kind of context is also quite significant.
Tricia: So how do you work rules into, into a flexible situation like that?
Alyson: Well I think by being, actually sometimes it’s not until you have got and outsider coming into your home that you actually can articulate or realise what your rules are. So, it’s only, yeah if somebody comes into your house and infringes something that you realise actually what was implicit becomes explicit. And it’s the articulation of those rules that’s really helpful, to young people so they can be quite clear about what is acceptable and what isn’t. And I imagined that actually that wouldn’t be a positive thing that would be something that young people would really not like but most of the young people felt that the more explicit those rules were, the easier it was to fit in and you know, one young person said to me “we’ve got rules about the table, rules where we sit, who lays the table, who does this who does that” and actually they found that hugely helpful and were really quite pleased that they’d learnt them and were able to integrate themselves into the family.
Tricia: Hmm, that’s an interesting experience isn’t it?
Alyson: It is interesting, I mean rules was not one of the sort of major findings it’s just a sort of an observation and one that I didn’t expect, I would’ve thought the contrary to be the case prior to talking to young people in foster care.
Tricia: Mmm, because you get an impression that they might rebel against rules don’t you.
Alyson: Yeah absolutely but certainly that wasn’t the case, I mean I was interviewing a range of young people, some who were in foster care for the long-term and some who had plans to return back to their birth families. I think some of the one of the major findings was with regard to food and the significance to food in the foster home, and young people really, really valued sitting together eating together and there was a real symbolic value attached to food which I think certainly in social work it’s not something that we really engage with on a day to day basis, or it’s not something we factor into our thinking about relationships. So, but actually if you take yourself out and think about it, most celebrations most daily life activity and most actually doing of family and family practices quite often centres around food. And I think there’s quite a lot of learning about training foster carers about foster carers thinking about the significance of food, rather than it just being a means to sustain your body.
Tricia: Because it’s an opportunity to talk about issues and even rules and what happens during the day and a feeling of belonging, is that the sort of sense that came out for you?
Alyson: Absolutely, so a real opportunity to sit and talk it was an opportunity as well for carers to tailor things for the young people. It was an opportunity for reciprocity where young people could help in the preparation of food and I think your absolutely right a sense of belonging is really, really important and going out for a family meal, going out for a family celebration and feeling a sense of belonging about being a part of that, was hugely significant about feeling integrated into a family.
Tricia: It’s probably a lesson for all families in there.
Alyson: It certainly is. I certainly thought because I’ve got 3 children we don’t always eat together and sometimes don’t even often eat together. And it’s certainly something I need to think about more because when you do you communicate in a very different way than if you all just sat on the sofa or you’re all whizzing past each other.
Tricia: Mmm, so did you interview the children separately to the foster carer. How did you conduct, how did you gather your data?
Alyson: I initially, I just got some demographic data, written data, from the foster carers about the about their experience. Then I did in depth interviews with the foster carers. Then I did some semi structured interviews with the young people in foster care but also interviewed the birth children in those families because I was really conscious that birth children are quite often being ignored, and yet they play a huge role in fostering. I also did a family exercise where everyone worked together looking at a vignette and thinking about how you might deal with a specific type of situation. I got the young people to draw eco maps about who was important in their networks and who was closest to them but probably the most valuable data collection was I asked everyone to do a diary, a recorded diary, a week in the life of. And it really gave me, so young people at the end of the day will just put the tape on and record what had happened in the day and that gave me a really valuable insight in a sort of almost some ways unscripted just become the day to day daily life and hustle and bustle of foster care.
Tricia: That’s a really interesting methodology ‘cause you really get a range and a whole different ways of getting information and understandings.
Alyson: Yes. I can’t, I can’t stress how useful it was getting recordings, lots of other people have said to me they’ve often tried it but no one’s ever got round to actually doing the recordings. But I think because I interviewed, developed rapport, had a good relationship, gave the recording materials and then gave back one week later on a prescribed date. I don’t know it just, the people did do it and it was really, really helpful.
Tricia: Mm, so let’s talk about foster parents, the children, and the foster parents’ own children, and your main findings with each of those.
Alyson: So, in terms of foster carer’s themselves I was looking at motivations, and it was a really strong ethic of care within the families where care was hugely valued. And also it was quite notable and this has been found in lots of other studies that many of the extended family members or the foster caress themselves have worked in other aspects of care previously or extended family members were doing so at the time. So, there was a real sense in which care was valued. Quite often foster carers had been a birth children in their past lives, their own brothers and sisters were foster carers, so there was a whole sense of family caring. And a very strong sense of interdependence between family members as well, so we often in, looked after children looking towards independence and it really struck me that in these lives it was about continued interdependence throughout life, not a sort of severing of a nuclear family and moving away. That was quite interesting for me.
Tricia: So which nuclear family… sorry Alyson.
Alyson: I was just thinking that it quite often we have the notion that you live in a nuclear family and then the children grow up and move out of that nuclear family and become independent, whereas there was something about these families which were much more interdependent and much more seeing each other on a very regular basis throughout the week, even when you had moved out of the family home. So, there’s a much stronger sense of connection, rather than a sense of a juncture, or a separation, perhaps I’m not making myself very clear.
Tricia: No, no that’s fine, I just wasn’t sure which nuclear family you were talking about, whether it was the foster family or their previous family.
Alyson: Yeah, yeah
Tricia: So that makes sense.
Alyson: Yeah so that seemed quite important. In two of the foster families they themselves had experiences of being in care and they really wanted to learn from their own experiences and make some amends and put something back into society. So there really was a really strong ethic of care within families which just came through very strongly and I think the young people in their care really felt that and appreciated that. In terms of birth children, it seemed they played a really significant role in helping the young foster children coming into their homes to settle in. They’d help to decorate the bedrooms for them. They’d talk to them about food. They’d talk to them about the things they like to do. And they played a really significant role within the fostering relationships, almost like a sort of family business in which they had their own roles. But also young people talk to me about sometimes how difficult that can be and its quite difficult when perhaps you’ve always got to put the foster child first, when their needs may seem to be the most pressing within the family. And two young people talked to me about times when they’d had a foster child come into their family, who had been virtually the same age as them and oddly also had the same name.
Alyson: And one story that really sort of sticks with me is the girl who said she was 12 or 13 and she had a foster child come in who was 12 or 13 with the same name, and I think there was just a few months difference so she became the older Sara and the big Sara and the other one became the little Sara. And suddenly she’d sort of lost her positioning within the family and then the foster child became so attached to her that she started to want to dress like her as well. And I just thought, how strange if you thought in your own life if you had someone coming in who had the same name as you and the same age as you and was starting to dress like you; that would be quite challenging wouldn’t it? And I think sometimes we don’t often thing about the impact on birth children and I think that there’s something there about ensuring that we involve birth children in the decision making about children coming into families and also that birth children are possibly involved in training, but most importantly actually supported for the role they are doing, because we don’t always put a lot of resources into the birth children to support them.
Tricia: Mmm, so it’s really brought to the surface a lot of issues that sort of, get forgotten I suppose in the busyness of life and what happens in foster families.
Alyson: Yeah, yeah, I think that’s exactly that, it’s a real sort of worm’s eye view I think and another thing that really came to the fore which is often forgotten is the significance of touch in foster families and young people talked very positively about the positive reinforcement that is gained by hugging, and the importance of that within a foster family. Because certainly here in the UK, I think we have become very risk averse and foster carers are given guidelines about not hugging rather than actually seeing it as an important part and reaffirming part of daily life.
Tricia: Mmm, so that’s a lesson for us, for social workers and child protection workers, in terms of what guidelines we do give foster carers.
Alyson: I think it is, obviously you would need to be cautious but once the relationship has grown and trust has grown, be, it’s really important to feel that you can’t be hugged by someone else because actually if you are in foster care you’re probably not getting a lot of physical reassurance form anywhere or anybody. And outside of this research another looked after young person said to me, that she remembered being in a foster family where the foster cares were hugging their own children but never ever touched her. And I think that, it’s just something to be cognisant about, obviously each situation is different and would need to be tailored, but it came across just very strongly from the young people.
Tricia: How much of that Alyson, is the guidelines basically, or how much is protection from attachment, if children are to move on? Or even from the child’s perspective you know, not getting too close.
Alyson: Well I think that’s a really interesting point actually Patricia, I think it may well be about wanting to protect yourself as a carer, about not getting too close because lots of carers talk to me about sometimes how traumatic it is particularly with very young children when they have to move on and its quite, we want foster carers to really care about and we discuss the notion of love and whether they loved a child. But actually we do very little to support foster carers when a child moves on. You know sure there’s a lot of grief that people hold on to when that person who’s been very significant in your life moves on. I think sometimes, also people think that they don’t want to develop that relationship because it might be damaging to the young person who then moves on but actually any experience of being securely attached to somebody has to be better than not being attached to somebody.
Tricia: And certainly that was the thinking several decades ago, that you don’t encourage that attachment.
Alyson: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. One other thing, just while I was thinking about it was the importance of pets in family homes and all of the foster families I think, bar one, so nine out of the ten had pets in the family home. It’s just struck me they often featured in the eco maps of the young people and that pets were also a way that young people could develop attachments to living things and actually you get a lot of physical reassurance form stroking a cat or a dog, particularly if touch was not something that was very, happening very often in their lives. And again, I think that’s an area that we very rarely reflect on in terms of social work and social care.
Tricia: As a child, animals always understand you (laughter).
Alyson: Mmm, well yeah, well maybe I found that because I’m a huge animal fan and have dogs but certainly I’m just observing the families and the pets coming in and out and some had horses etc. and it just seemed something that again we only think of in terms of risk rather than in terms of strengths and possibilities and opportunities.
Tricia: I think that’s very true I mean whether you’re talking about older people or children I mean it is often dismissed but I can imagine it does have importance.
Alyson: Mm, also I mean some carers strategically used animals to help young people develop, so first of all they’d have a fish and if they could look after the fish then they might get a hamster and if they cared for the hamster etc. That was just quite an interesting concept.
Tricia: What motivates foster parents to do such a hard job, and I think generally foster care across the board is under resourced and not as well supported as it could be. So it’s a difficult job, so what motivates people to do this?
Alyson: I literally think that is just a very strong ethic of care and feeling well, my life, someone said to me, well my life is turned out quite nicely so why wouldn’t I and I’ve got some capacity, why wouldn’t I want to extend that and help young people who haven’t had the opportunities I’ve had or are currently experiencing difficulties in my life previously. So there was just a real sense of wanting, I didn’t feel that foster carers were motivated by money at all and in fact they only receive very small allowances anyway and many of the carers were spending a lot of money on the young people, developing their resilience, trying to get them involved in a range of extra-curricular activities to try and build the young people’s esteem. And I guess that was another thing that came out, with regards to resilience, how important it was for the young people to try out a range of different hobbies, activities, skills-based opportunities, so that they could develop their own resilience and have an understanding of their own skills. Our foster carers seemed to very good at finding what it was in that young person that they could do well and building on that. And one particularly young person said to me, not only is it important that those opportunities were afforded to her but actually that the foster carers were very good role models about being active, about going out and doing things themselves and sometimes sharing in those activities with the young people.
Tricia: What was some of your other major findings?
Alyson: Well I guess it was about the importance, the book has been put into I think, five chapters, so there’s one about sense of belonging, feeling part of the family, about developing resilience, food, the body, significance about caring about how you look. Actually, physically looking after the body was important and I suppose also within that was gender, so one particular family had three young women in it. There was a birth child, an adopted child and a foster child. And actually sometimes they spent days having baths, doing face packs all of those kind of beauty treatments that young people would want to do and that was with the female foster carer as well. And yet they also talked to me in that family about a time when they had a young man in there who had been attracted, or I don’t quite know whether it was attracted to their own daughter, and in fact they found him watching them etc.; and it felt that we really need to listen to families about the gender of the child that they feel they are most able to accommodate within a family. And also, actually how you look is very important particularly as you go through puberty and you’re developing your sense of self, and foster carers that thought about clothes. I’m not just talking about labels but actually cared about how young people looked and took some care and gave time to helping a young person develop their identity was quite important with regards to physical grooming looking after.
Tricia: Because there’s two parts to that isn’t it? Its building a sense of self-esteem in a vulnerable teenage time and whatever went on before. But it’s building self-esteem but it’s also a caring act isn’t it?
Alyson: Absolutely. In the same way as cooking for, it is a demonstration of caring isn’t it, it’s quite symbolic as well. Yeah, and you know a young person said to me that one particular carer who’d she spent a long time with was the only person that ever cared about how she looked and no one else throughout her care history had ever cared about how she looked, but this particular carer used to say, look in the mirror, you’re a beautiful young woman etc. etc. So, again the kind of things that you can’t really have policy or legislation about but are very significant in the lives of young people.
Tricia: How important do you think it is to integrate? Obviously it’s difficult to generalise but it seems to me there is a lot here to inform social workers in how they work with foster carers but also training and support of foster carers.
Alyson: Yea, I think absolutely, I think these, probably most of the things that came out of the research are not covered in training with foster carers and some senses they aren’t things that you can train specifically about.
Tricia: But you can have awareness can’t you?
Alyson: Yea exactly that’s what I was thinking. It’s about actually, just don’t think that food is something that you provide to people to sustain them, think of the importance of it, think about how you work with food, think about clothes, think about how young people look. Yeah and absolutely, so a lot of that is, would be helped through training and certainly foster carers here in Wales have been very receptive when I’ve done training to those ideas, and it’s been really thought provoking for them to think about that and take it away, and operate some of those ideas more consciously within their own families. I think, I was just going to say that in terms of training, it certainly struck me that very experienced foster carers should really be utilised in providing training for new foster carers and that often doesn’t happen here in Wales or in the UK. And I think they’re a real resource that could help to support foster carers who are new to the role.
Tricia: And people will hear the message more I imagine if it comes from someone who’s doing it.
Alyson: Yea, absolutely, because as a social worker we’d only be talking hypothetically about how it might be, rather than the actual realities and the day to day running of family life.
Tricia: Alyson, I’m curious to know what else is in the children’s, I forgot what you call the diagram, the circles?
Alyson: In the ecograms.
Tricia: In the ecograms yes.
Alyson: Well yeah, well perhaps were quite close, I mean interestingly even when for some children, even when they didn’t have contact with the birth families, the birth parent was still fairly significant in the diagram. I suppose in some ways you’d expect that, in some ways you wouldn’t. But the sibling relationships were also still quite significant, but no more significant than the birth children within the foster families were seen as very significant in young people.
Tricia: Because it’s sort of a here and now thing isn’t it?
Alyson: It is, this is how it is now. But even, but still the birth parent was here and now, even if they weren’t here and now which...
Tricia: And I think that’s really important to hear because there’s a lot of public misconceptions that if a child’s been mistreated, that the child doesn’t necessarily have that emotional connection, when in fact it’s still their parent.
Alyson: I think that’s right, having said that, you know, for other children there is one young person who had been very physical and emotionally abused and he described it was only at the point that he completely severed contact that he could start to build his own life.
Tricia: Yeah, yeah
Alyson: So you know that’s ah…
Tricia: It varies,
Alyson: Yes it does, it does
Tricia: Now we’re actually out of time would you believe Alyson
Alyson: Oh right
Tricia: So, important last messages about your research, that we haven’t touched on, I feel like we’ve missed out on lots.
Alyson: I think we probably have, it’s quite difficult to talk about the whole thing in such a short space of time. I think listening to children, seeing these strengths in young people and strengths in foster carers and actually think about foster care also as being a reciprocal relationship. Where young people have a lot to offer the families they go into, that they’re not just the recipients of care but they can also become the reciprocal recipient of the relationship.
Tricia: That’s an important point I think.
Alyson: Yeah, yeah
Tricia: Because that changes the power expectations doesn’t it, and it’s very empowering for the child.
Alyson: Yes, absolutely, some carers would say, we’ve been so lucky, this child was really interested in fishing and so we developed that interest, and then another child was interested in this and we developed that and they saw everything that came along as an opportunity, rather than just something that they were always having to give to other people.
Tricia: And maybe that’s the sort of person that goes into foster care, the one that does see opportunities and is optimistic perhaps.
Tricia: I know that’s a generalisation, I probably shouldn’t say that but it’s interesting.
Alyson: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know I really, I did feel like I had taken a strengths-based perspective and found huge strengths within the families who I was privileged to go in and talk to.
Tricia: Mm and yeah, I think strengths are something that is overlooked in this area.
Alyson: It is, I think it is yeah. I was just going to say because it was such an in-depth study it’s difficult in some ways to talk about in a short space of time but I think I’ve probably given you the main sort of themes of the sort of, inner exploration that I undertook.
Tricia: Well people might just have to buy your book Alyson.
Alyson: They might, they might (laughter).
Tricia: So I’ll make sure that goes up on the website.
Alyson: Okay great
Tricia: So. thank you so much for being on Podsocs
Alyson: Okay thank you Patricia, thanks
[Musical outro 32.20 to END]
Interview ENDS: 32.48