By Rebecca Curley, Local Democracy Reporter, 29 October
They are vulnerable children carrying physical and emotional scars and tales of abuse, neglect, sadness, trauma or loss.
So when a fostering placement breaks down it can have devastating effects on those brought up in the care system and knock the confidence of both them and the carer.
Surrey County Council is the latest local authority in England to adopt a programme of support for fostering families to ensure carers and children have the help they need to stop placements falling apart.
The Mockingbird model will allow foster carers to set up Home Hubs of around six to eight families providing a network of support to each other.
Husband and wife Esther and Liam Dowds have been fostering since 2011 and are the first carers in the county to step forward and create a hub of carers in Redhill.
“It’s like the whole extended family thing they are missing out on. The more people around them who care about them and want the best – that’s got to be a good thing,” explains Esther.
With her husband Liam, both 57, the couple has been looking after children of all ages up to 18 including many refugees and children seeking asylum.
They have four children of their own and originally from Scotland say they know what it is like to not always have a network of family support around them.
Esther adds: “Sometimes it is lonely being a foster carer. When things happen with your birth family or elderly relatives you are trying to juggle and keep life as normal as possible.
“You cannot always just pick up the phone or have that network of support behind you.”
But she hopes that by starting the hub of carers that will provided the extended family the carers and the children need.
Esther and Liam will be able to provide sleepovers, short breaks, peer support, social activities and training for the other families in their “constellation” – the network of families they will help through their hub.
The next one on the cards is in Farnham with SCC hoping more will be set up over the next few months.
An American-inspired concept, The Fostering Network’s Mockingbird programme was designed to ensure both the children in care and the carers had other families to turn to in times of crisis or just for general everyday help.
The scheme is based around building relationships which SCC director of children services Dave Hill says is vital to keep fostering families together.
“We do everything we do for the children of Surrey. They are the centre of our world and we are here to make their lives better,” he told a room full of carers at the launch of the Mockingbird programme on Monday.
“If we want to make our children’s lives better we have got to support our foster carers to help them do the best jobs they can do.”
Surrey joins 34 other local authorities and trusts to adopt the Mockingbird system.
It is hoped the scheme will support carers and help with recruitment and retention as well as provide the extended family network for the children in care and the fostering families.
The Fostering Network says it has prevented placements falling apart which leads to vulnerable children having to be moved onto another home.
Mr Hill added: “We have been told that Mockingbird prevents breakdowns and that placement stability goes up – that’s got to be a good thing.
“It’s relationships that make the world go round. Because they are built on trust. And if you have got that trust then you are really on to something.”
SCC’s children’s services is still being monitored by government-appointed commissioners after an inadequate Ofsted rating in 2018. Inspectors said there needed to be improvements around permanence planning for children in care finding that some were arriving in long-term homes “later than they should”.
There are around 980 children being looked after by SCC with 697 of those children in foster care either with local authority carers or through independent agencies. SCC has around 300 foster carers providing homes in the county.
Cllr Mary Lewis, cabinet member for children, young people and families, said: “The priority is getting stable homes for children growing up in our care and Mockingbird is a way to make that stability better for the children and ensure everyone is supported.”