24 July 2017

Modern Day Superheroes

Otto Sestak2

Otto Sestak is Head of Learning and Engagement for Hope and Homes for Children.

Welcoming a new child into your life is always a challenge, whether you are a biological parent or a foster carer, because all children are beautiful human beings with unique personalities from the day that they are born.

But I believe that foster parents should be recognised as modern day superheroes. These are people who knowingly, willingly step up to the challenge of taking a child who is likely to come with a huge baggage of suffering and guiding them towards normality.

Although the priority of Hope and Homes for Children is always to try to reunite children from orphanages with their birth parents or wider biological family, it’s important to recognise that for some children this is not a safe option. For these children, foster care may be the best way for them to grow up in a family environment where they can experience the love and affection they need to flourish and grow.

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That’s why foster care is an important part of the mix of high-quality, alternative care services that we help to develop in order to end the “one-size-fits-all” solution of orphanages. By establishing good foster care networks at the same time as closing institutions we are better able to meet the individual needs of each and every child.

Foster care has been part of our model ever since we first began to close orphanages and we have succeeded in introducing this option for children in places where we were told it would be impossible. In much of Eastern Europe for example, in the wake of Soviet rule, institutions were the norm and fostering was an alien concept.

Many people in this part of the world still find it really hard to understand why anyone would take responsibility for a child who was not related to them and make them a part of their family. Aren’t they just doing it for the money, they ask? But we are confident that with  robust selection and training processes, it’s possible to weed out anyone who is not right for the role. And although the payment that foster carers receive differs from country to country, it is never more than a token amount to cover some of the expense of having another child in the family and so money is not the reason.

It’s also important to recognise that there is a strong professional element to the role of a foster carer – there is a job description, a training programme and a standard of minimum care. This encourages the right people to come forward who can cope in the extremely tough situations in which they are likely to find themselves, working with children who have had a very difficult start in life.

We also make sure that the whole process of placing children with foster families is very structured and controlled. The professionals that we train help children and families to plan and navigate the different stages, beginning with the first meeting. They are on hand to help with the inevitable difficulties that will come as children and foster families get used to living together. And we insist on thorough post-placement monitoring for a minimum of three months which can be extended as necessary until everyone is confident that the placement is working successfully.

The role of Hope and Homes for Children is to develop services, rather than to provide them, and so we work in partnership with the authorities and other organisations in every country where we operate or have influence, in order to establish high-quality foster care services for vulnerable children.

Sometimes, we find that introducing foster care opens a door into a system that is resistant to reform. For example, in 2016, Hope and Homes for Children began a programme to prepare child care professionals to recruit and train foster parents in Tabasco State in Mexico.  This acted as a first step for those taking part in understanding the harm caused by orphanages and gave us the chance to demonstrate that there is a better way to protect children.

Hope and Homes for Children also plays an important role in advocating for the development of high-quality foster care around the world. In January, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina adopted new legislation which ensures that for the first time foster care there is subject to detailed regulation. Our team in Bosnia advocated tirelessly for years for this change and they were instrumental in framing the new regulations.

With your support, we can do even more to ensure that high-quality foster care becomes a viable alternative for the millions of children who are still confined to institutions around the world. Extra resources are needed to extend emergency foster care services and to make sure that  existing foster parents continue to be well trained, supported and monitored so that the service they offer to children is the best that it can be.

Foster carers take on the task of showing children what it’s like to live in a family and experience affection, love and attention. Their contribution is to turn an abandoned child, someone who was seen as a lost cause by an orphanage, into a beautifully functioning human being.

To me, those who choose to embark on this hard journey and who succeed so admirably are wonderful, brave and courageous people and they deserve our support.