Foster Parent Training

Training for Foster Parents: a visit to the project

Training for Foster Parents is a new project which Friends House Moscow is able to fund as a consequence of a grant from the Radley Trust. This is a path-finding project because fostering did not happen in Soviet times, and so its practice is at an early stage of development.  The project commenced in October 2010 and will run through to mid 2011. It emerges from the My New Family project, now ended, which brought a group of foster carers together who continue to meet and support one another, and helped the organisers to a better understanding of needs and how best to meet them.

In October 2010 several representatives from Friends House Moscow travelled due east of Moscow, a five- or six-hour train ride, to Dzerzhinsk, to meet with Nina Kamina, the project coordinator, who has been responsible for a succession of innovative projects funded by FHM.  She is a retired head of the local police department dealing with youth crime and child protection. I was much drawn by the notion that she had spent many years working in a system, and after retirement had found ways to make life better for the children caught up in it: that seems to me to embody FHM’s aspiration to support the development of civil society.

In the days of the Soviet Union, Dzerzhinsk was a closed city as chemical weapons were manufactured there.  The consequence is severe environmental pollution and a life expectancy of approximately 48 years, according to Wikipedia.  None of this was visible to us, however: we saw a shabby, pleasant enough city with wide streets lined with birch trees.  We were told there was full employment, indeed migrant workers were coming from Korea and Vietnam.

Nina welcomed us with great warmth.  She took us first to the Centre for Psychological and Pedagogical Support, a service within the Education Department. It is unique in the region, and accommodated (spaciously by British standards) in a typical Soviet-era building. They proudly showed us two rooms that had been newly fitted out with child-friendly décor and equipment.  Nina employs some of the staff on a sessional basis in her projects. All the staff are women because the salaries are regarded as too modest for men.  We were impressed by their evident professionalism, and by their motivation to help children.  They are fully aware of the challenges which face foster carers.  Irina Lagunaia, the Director, and some of her colleagues told us about their work.  They were established in 1993 on the initiative of psychologists and now have eight educational psychologists and seven social teachers, who work with the foster children and their families, individually and in groups.  The child population of Dzerzhinsk is about 48,000 and referral rates are very high. Most children are referred by their schools, but they accept self-referrals as well. The Centre also does preventative work with teenagers on alcohol and gender attitudes.

At the local council (mayor’s office) we met with Svetlana Vershinina, Head of the Depart  ment of Fostering and Adoption. Her staff consists of eight child protection workers, all of them graduates with additional training.  Every 2 years they have to be recertified professionally.  They  are all women because the salaries are modest.  Before I retired I managed services for children, and I sympathised with Svetlana when she said they had far too much work but they were completely dedicated and worked long hours to do their best for the children.  I did a quick calculation based on my experience and worked out that Svetlana would have had 80 social workers to do the same job in Britain. The service not only deals with fostering and adoption but also identifies children who may need care, registers them, and if needs be removes them from their families.  They look after 2,000 ‘orphans’, although only about 220 have no parent; the rest have one or both.  Of the 2,000 approximately 645 children are in foster care, and the rest are in children’s homes.  They also monitor 600 other families where the the situation is ‘not good’.  Attempts are made to rehabilitate children with parents, and in the past year 5 families have managed this.

Svetlana, a former head teacher, and Nina have known one another for many years, partly because they both served on the commission which authorises the removal of children from their parents. I felt I recognized these two women, who were passionate about serving children, highly competent and authorititive,like many I have known in the public sector in Britain.  I felt some envy that in their 60s they were still working together and utilising the fruits of years of experience in serving a community.  In Britain, by contrast, the addiction to restructuring public services has meant that we have thrown away much social capital in our communities.

We next met with two foster-mothers who had taken part in Nina’s last project, My New Family.  Children fostered with relatives often presented with behaviour which foster-carers found hard to manage, and relationships in the whole family were adversely affected, with the threat of additional family breakdown.  My New Family invited carers and children to take part in group work  which helped them have insight into their experiences and learn how to handle them; they  also provided emotional support.  Tatiana and Tina told us their stories, expressing gratitude for the help they had received, and their particular warmth towards Nina, who had phoned them and invited them, overcoming their anxieties about doing something so unusual as mentioning their worries outside the family.

That evening the second meeting of the new group in the Training for Foster Parents project took place, and we met the group members briefly.  We were pleased to note that couples were attending, not simply mothers.  This project is working with foster-carers who are at the application stage, so preparing them in advance of a child being placed, and also giving them the opportunity to find out if fostering is really for them.

I once used the term ‘talking therapies’ to Natasha and Sergei, Friends House Moscow staff members.  They laughed and said: did I mean sitting round the kitchen table with your friends, as that was the only talking therapy in Russia.  I think this helps to explain the enthusiasm we encountered in Dzerzhinsk: the people running this project are doing something new, something potent, something with a great force for good in children’s lives.  Talking to professional helpers about emotional problems is new, and feels risky.  It only begins to happen where there is trust.  Nina Kamina evidently inspires trust.

Daphne Sanders

Clerk to the Board of Friends House Moscow