All children need the same thing: a loving and secure family who can commit to caring for them on a permanent basis, up until or into adulthood.
This is most likely to be achieved through adoption, permanent fostering, or with special guardianship. The main difference between all three is in who holds the legal rights and responsibilities for the child. Once the adoption order has been finalised, all legal responsibilities for the child are permanently transferred to his or her new adoptive family.
Special guardians share these rights and responsibilities with the child’s birth parents. In the case of permanent fostering, they are shared between the birth parents and the local authority.
There are many reasons why an agency might look for permanent foster families. Perhaps the child still has strong links with their birth family and needs regular direct contact, which many adoptive families would not feel comfortable with. He or she may have special or complex needs and would benefit from greater agency support, whether emotional or financial. Maybe this is an older child who still has a meaningful relationship with his or her birth parents, and is happier about permanent fostering than adoption.
Permanent fostering may also be more suitable for certain types of families. Families from particular ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds may not want to adopt, but are still looking to extend their family. Older families, who have birth children of their own, may consider permanent fostering because they understand that their previous parenting experience might be helpful when dealing with, for example, an older child who remembers traumatic early events. These families may also be more relaxed about looking after someone else’s child, and less concerned about ‘claiming’ them. They have space in their lives and home, and are confident in their parenting.
However, you do not need to have birth children, nor be an older carer, to permanently foster. As with adoption, you can be assessed to permanently foster whether you are gay, straight, married, single, white or black. What you really do need is the time, energy and patience to support your foster child as much as possible. It will therefore be important to have strong support networks and a good relationship with your agency, though the amount of input from them will depend on the child, and may change over time.
As Eleanor and Ivor talk about in ‘Supporting you to support the child’, your agency should be there to provide any training you might need, and be at hand to support you. If you are interested in permanent fostering but do not yet have an agency, your very first step should be to approach one!
Remember that when a child is permanently fostered it is because they need to be part of a family for a long, long time – perhaps forever. Although your agency is an important part of this process, and although you do not have legal responsibility, you are the child’s emotional and practical ‘parents’. That child is a permanent member of your family: someone who will be part of your everyday life, share in family celebrations, and need your care and support. As Ben says of the family who permanently fostered him when he was nine, in ‘A success story’: “We haven’t lost our link, and I know we’ll always keep our relationship going.”
Sophie Offord, Deputy Editor
Originally published in the Be My Parent newspaper in January 2008.
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