By Sara Jane Kirkwood Date Posted: December 18 2013
Sara Kirkwood is a social work student at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen on the BA (hons) course. She is also belongs to the Carbeth hutting community in Scotland. This community is a celebrated one for in 2010 it became the first hutter community to buy out the landowners.
Foster Respite Care within a Traditional Scottish Hutting Community
This article describes the experience of four children in foster respite care provision within a traditional Scottish hutting community. My focus is on one foster family which offers respite care for children who are already in foster care.. Every year the two foster parents I write about provide a fostering service of respite and/or short break holidays for over twenty children each year children. My article is drawn from the records of my observation of these four children and their foster carers which I kept for a research project I carried out for the course I was studying at the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. The article is very much shorter than the full text of my study but it has been my intention to communicate a true essence of my research project.In this article I focus on the living experience of the children and their respite foster carers during the period of the study. In a future article I may write and the issues poverty and social background which impacts strongly on the lives of these children. I am a social work student and also a “hutter” in Carbeth where the foster carers were situated and this influenced my interest learning about the children’s experience of respite foster care in a hutting community. I was unable to find to locate any comparative Scottish or UK studies that focused solely and primarily on short breaks or respite foster care. This added a further pioneering dimension to my research.
Hutting in Scotland and in Carbeth
Hutting in Scotland was inspired by Scandinavian countries who thought all urban based families should have access for some part of their lives in a natural and rural landscape. . Hutting provides a restorative sanctuary from city life (Grant, 2012). Carbeth, where my observations took place and where I have access to a hut myself, is a hutting community not far from Glasgow inspired by similar communities in Scandinavian countries where hutting is central to family life and part of the rural landscape. In 2010 the Hutters of Carbeth bought the land from their huts stood on from the previous owners, thereby assuring the future for this tradition. In a study commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2000, hutting was described as “the last bastion of an individual freedom to nest” (Ross, 2012). Carbeth is a conservation area that sits within ninety acres of countryside, ten miles northwest of Glasgow. The Carbeth hutting community consists of approximately one hundred and fifty huts at accessed by private tracks and roads managed by the hutters. The huts do not have electricity or running water, most have wood burning stoves for heating and/or bottled gas for cooking. Water is collected from standpipes situated across the community. Candles, lanterns or solar/windmill battery lights are the main common sources of lighting. The Scottish principle of common good is at the foundation of the community and culture within Carbeth. It is a culture which encourages social wellbeing. This includes contributions to a a common good fund for social, community events. There is a community tradition of providing fostering and kinship care at Carbeth using various arrangements within hutting family networks. Families and children are pivotal in Carbeth’s evolution and development (See Mitchell, 2010, and (Ross, 2012). Just as the emergence of work-houses, cottage homes, boarding out, child- emigration, residential homes and schools evolved and were responses to child welfare needs, (See Wolmar, 2000, Abrams, 1998 and Magnusson, 2006) so Carbeth became a respite for Glasgow during the Clydebank blitz when many children were evacuated to the community and spent much of the war in the community attending school in the nearby village (Mitchell, 2010, Loose, 2011). The association of childhood trauma following wartime experiences and subsequent recovery at Carbeth is a major theme of Sue Reid Sexton’ novel Mavis’s Shoe.
The Roots of the Carbeth Hutting Community
The Glasgow Socialist Sunday School congregated in tents at Carbeth 115 years ago, followed by the Socialist Clarion Scouts, (Loose, 2011). The scouts organised activities like cycling, arts, drama and botany which are embedded within the culture of the hutting community. Huts began to be built by ex-servicemen returning from the First World War, (Ross, 2012), on the basis of the philanthropic ideals of the landlord. Carbeth continues to influence the arts, John Lowrie Morrison, known as Jolomo, spent his childhood at Carbeth, Alex Neilson, songwriter called his debut album Carbeth, (Ross, 2012).
Fostering in Scotland
In Scotland, fostering was and has always been deemed the preferred option for children rather than institutional or residential care. This view was endorsed in 1946 when the Clyde Committee concluded that “a good foster parent system should be encouraged…, suited to give the child the necessary individual attention and scope for the development of its independence and initiative.” (See Magnusson, 2006,Abrams,1998) Kinship care has also been a tradition in Scotland. Aldgate et al (2006) drew clear comparisons with existing kinship care in Scotland and the philosophy of the Children’s (Scotland) Act 1995,. All across Scotland, thousands of people, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends, care for children because their natural parents are unable to do so. The social organisation of the hutting community has rich potential for offering children healthy experiences of kinship and foster care.
Fostering in the Carbeth Hutting Community
Foster care and kinship care has always played a significant role in the culture of the Carbeth Hutting Community. As part of my study I talked with hutters to hear their views about this the caring traditions of Carbeth. I interviewed eight hutters, four men and four women, ranging from 43 years of age to 75 years. four of the hutters described themselves as working class while the others believed class structures were outdated. Half of the group were employed, two were unemployed and two were retired. All the hutters felt being so exposed to the outdoors was an important part of the hutting experience and most stressed the importance of freedom. Most thought that these were important aspects for foster children who came for a holiday at Carbeth.
Hutter: “Here they have the freedom to walk, play and be in nature in the fresh air it’s healthier for them.”
Hutter “See nature is their real playground and they get a sense of that and they learn about respecting it.”
Four of the hutters believed that the freedom to play, to have friends and to be a part of the community and its culture were important for the children’s learning. Most thought that the lack of traffic and other aspects of urban life contributed to the children’s feeling of safety and freedom. Three of the hutters suggested that there were less worries or anxieties about the children’s freedom, while two thought the children were free of the anxieties of gang culture. Three thought the children benefitted form the lack of media and the lack of distraction from the media, television, computers and gadgets. The benefits described of the experience for foster children:
Hutter: “The culture and the freedom, they learn life skills, they learn about nature and how to set and light fires, maybe you shouldn’t write that, you know what I mean though, for survival.”
Hutter: “They are part of the community and they learn that with helping each other out and they learn about friendship at the same time.” Hutter: “They also learn to do without computers and things. It’s safer here so they get more freedom, there are roads, but we all know the score. They learn to be respectful hutters because of the community and the way hutters are with each other.”
All of the children who participated in the study were of Scottish nationality and white, consisting of three females and one male. Four foster children receiving respite care participated in the study. They ranged in age from four years to twelve years. Their length of with their foster carers ranged from one night to a two week break.
The Foster Carers
I identified the foster carers for my research through my acaquaintance with an elderly retired couple who had been foster carers offering short breaks for children at their hut at Carbeth for 25 years from the 1960s to the 1980s Consequently, two current hutting families who have ‘foster grandchildren’ and other hutting family variations, providing both formal and informal kinship care arrangements were identified . The foster agency supporting the carers gave approval for the study and for the family’s participation and provided the names of social workers linked with foster carers whose children required respite foster care. I established that all the due permissions for the study to take place given on behalf of the children in respite foster care with the foster family during the study.
There is a growing interest in Scotland in the European tradition of Social Pedagogy. A social pedagogue is a life space worker. One who works in the life space of children whether it be in in the child’s family or in a residential group care setting like a children’s home. There is a growing school of thought that foster carers exercise the skills of social pedagogy and I was interested during my observations to consider this also. Moss and Petrie (2002) thought “one of the for pedagogues is to offer a space where new possibilities can be explored and realised.” From my observations the foster carers provide such space and opportunities at their hut and in the community.
A Narrative Account of my Findings
Background and Milieu
The two foster carers have been providing respite foster care for children for a period of four and a half years after an assessment period of eighteen months. They provide respite foster care for more than twenty children each year. Most of the children are from working class backgrounds. The length of respite is different for each child placed with the family. It varies from overnight to two weeks dependent on the needs of the children and full time foster carers. The family provides at times foster care for children on an emergency basis. There is no routine schedule for most of the children placed with the foster family for respite. It is predominantly organised around available resources mainly for when foster families need a break and occasionally for a change of environment for the child.
Foster Parent: “We bring each kid to the hut and not one hasn’t enjoyed the experience they get so much out of it.”
Social Worker: “I am really happy with the foster family and the service they provide at their hut, I wish there was more like them, (child) will tell you that when he speaks with you.”
Placement Link Worker: “It is such a great place for the children.”
The foster carers provide respite care and are not pedagogues although their practice is that of a pedagogic approach in delivering care. There are diverse possibilities as the foster carer explained,
Foster Parent “I can teach them so much here, outside, the learning is different but equally as valuable, for the foster children now and for their future paths as adults”.
The foster carers hut has a large roofed veranda on approach; it’s decked with bunting, love hearts and hanging lanterns. There are seats, a table and chairs and a hobby horse overlooking the garden. It is situated in an area with considerable open space and scenery. The hut is accessed from the veranda. The kitchen and the living room are open plan and impress as a nurturing space. The space gives a message that food and snacks are available and meal times are social times. The bedrooms are light and airy, dressed with bespoke furnishings; the rooms are separated by curtains in the doorframes. These remain open unless anyone requires privacy. A balustrade mezzanine space accessed by a ladder overlooks the living room which the older foster children use as a safe space to retreat to, chat or play games and instruments, alone or with their peers. The space is a distance only in height, it enables the children privacy whilst being open and in view of the living room/kitchen. The environmental and structural influences have a sensory impact. It conveys a welcoming, safe, nurturing and relaxing milieu for foster children from troubled or traumatised backgrounds.
Foster child: “I love being on my holidays if I had a hut I would paint it purple!”
Mealtimes for many of the children in foster care can provoke stress and anxiety reactivating unhappy feelings and memories about food and eating as well as times of want or conflict. The foster children on respite are included in food preparation which frequently takes place outdoors and allows the children to be nurtured whilst also learning how to nurture. The children are enabled to experiment with food which may be significant if they are stuck or fixed in poor eating habits and patterns. The children learn in the creative, active process about healthy eating and aspects of the social experience. Most of the foster children’s day is spent outdoors playing in the community and includes hut tasks; finding and chopping wood for the fire, collecting water from the local standpipe. These experiences are promoted as play and understood as meaningful and mindful activities. The children are encouraged to explore these opportunities initially in the garden, then in the close vicinity outside of the hut before venturing eventually further into the locale. The children’s views on these activities are those of adventure. The children, according to their age, stage of development and needs are continuously directly or discretely encouraged, observed or supervised by the foster carers and their activities reflected upon in terms of each child’s learning and development. These activities were observed as advantageous in relation to stimulating a reconnection of the five senses in a form of mindfulness. This appears beneficial for children who experience lack of affect and/or detachment or who are hyperaroused. (www.handsonscotland.co.uk). The activities varied and predominantly tied into play like ‘collecting treasures’ in the form of natural objects, leaves, stones etc. The children were encouraged to verbally ascribe the importance to the self and others, of, for example, a stone,
Foster Child: “a jewel for my mum”.
The children enjoyed cloud surfing with the foster parents, describing what they see in the formation of the sky. The foster children appeared to mirror a growing sense of fun and awareness with with nature, the self and the foster carers through these activities. Children play and are naturally creative and inquiring; these innate abilities in the children in the respite foster provision have often in the past been disrupted, dampened or overstimulated.
Foster parent: “Most of the children we foster need to learn or re-learn how to play”
Bedtime routines for the foster children vary depending on their age, needs and stage. Bedtime routines arouse anxiety and stress for foster children triggered by poor experience of past attachments. The foster parents had various ways of assisting the children to feel soothed and settled. Prior to bed the children are given an allotted free play time till supper which is a social event. All of the children are given their own battery torch by the foster parents that they can take to their beds and use as an individual night light or to read dependent on the child’s age. The children enjoy playing with the torches and it was evident that they view their use as an adventure. The torches are a tool that encourage the children’s participation and gives them a level of control over their bedtime routine, increasing their sense of safety and security. Many of the foster children also had transitional objects in the form of soft toys that they used to project feelings and experiences (see Winnicott,1971). The children spoke at times through their toys,
Foster child, “teddy thinks that…..
The children put their transitional objects to bed as a recognised part of their own bedtime routine. The children soothed their toys, covering them, nursing them, whilst simultaneously self-soothing. Essentially these healthy emotional and social responses in foster children who have suffered from poor attachments need to be experienced, to be re-learned, integrated and realised in the process of healing and development. This may help in re-building the children’s confidence and resilience in a world that they have experienced as unpredictable and unsafe.
Respite versus Holiday
The childen all decided they were on holiday with the respite foster parents at the hut in Carbeth. The term respite was discussed between the children s as one of the children was in foster care explained:
Foster child: “Respite is about the R’s, relaxing, recuperating and recharging that’s respite. It just means that my foster carers get a break and I get a break. My break’s a holiday at the hut. It gives me the time out to think and recharge.”
From my observations it became clear to me that children who have had troubled and traumatised backgrounds value a break to relax, recuperate and recharge. These are significant factors in building resilience in their development leading them on their road to recovery.
Foster child: “I missed a lot of school you know but I’m working hard and catching up so it’s good to get a break”
The feedback from the children about their time at Carbeth was expressed in various forms by discussion, by painting and by taking photographs.
Key themes identified by the children
Significant themes were identified by the children in foster care of their experience respite fostering in Carbeth :
Foster child 1: “You know other kids in care would love a holiday at the hut too.”
Observer: “What do you think they’d love about it?”
Foster child 1: “The freedom and the peace”
Foster child 2: “Being content”
Foster child 1: “I like the animals and the freedom” Foster child 2: “I like the dogs, all the dogs, when they come to play and friends, we have friends at the hut too.”
Foster child 1: “The freedom to play,”
Foster child 2: “She can do cartwheels and handstands too.” (Referring to the outdoor space).
Freedom, peace, play and friends evolved as key themes in the foster children’s experience at Carbeth that made their experience positive and meaningful. Play is integral to the provision of holiday fostering and its value and power are often underestimated. Feelings of belonging are intrinsic to the process of healing from trauma and loss for children in foster care. I saw this in the way the children built relationships with themselves and the foster carers, the hut, the natural environment, their friends and the local community.
Foster child: “My experience of being on holiday at the hut, for me it’s like this photo; the middle of the light and the dark.
The children are encouraged to learn new skills in their play outside and demonstrated these making keepsakes and gifts for themselves, their families, carers or friends. These helped a growing sense of mindfulness and were an expression of the important relationships in the children’s lives. The skills were traditional and ranged from painting, crocheting and knitting to making candle lanterns. Through this the children showed the importance of the relationships they had made during their stays in the Carbeth community.
Foster child 1: “I remember you from the flowers at the gala day. Do you remember me and the bouncy castle and her; she was only three last year?”
Foster child 2: “If we get back to the hut aunt and uncle will be here. Will you still be here, and (the neighbour) and the cat? You will all still be here won’t you if we come back?”
Through activities and play the chidren were building their identities and developing relationships.
Foster child: “That’s me! I am a foster kid in Carbeth; you want to know what it’s like? Com’mon then I will show you!”
Children construct their own worlds based on their own experiences in social interaction and learning within play. The writer observed the children reaching an understanding of their experiences within the shared space of the world around them, their ‘social connectedness’.
Child 1: “I look for shooting stars in my telescope in my hut” laughs, “hmm, mmm, shooting stars for making wishes.” Chuckles rubbing her hands together.
Child 2: “I like castles!”
Child 1: “Castles?” Frowns then smiles. Child 2: “Castles! Black castles!” Nods seriously.
Child 1: “We love princesses!” suddenly clapping her hands once excitedly.
There are tensions within friendships and playing for the children. For example, their peers camping outside in a hut garden or staying with each other overnight in a tree house would not be permitted. The children all gave clear examples of the activities that they regarded specifically in relation to outdoor play in their experience of their holidays in Carbeth:
Foster child: “I like the swings and the trampolines the fire and just being and playing with friends”.
Safety was a predominant component in the findings that the children associated with the themes of freedom, peace, friends and outdoor play. The children related being safe with their active involvement and responsibility in the community. They kept their carers informed, stayed with each other and thought about the lack of metalled roads compared with their longer term home environment.:
Foster child: “I don’t really get out to play, I play on my x box though”
The children were not as animated talking about playing at home. As a child explains:
Foster child “I get more time and freedom to play here. It’s safe, I didn’t know places like this existed till I came here and there’s not a lot of traffic or roads”.
All the children have the desire to share their experience and opportunity together with their families. The children love and miss their families and there are limitations around their family contact arrangements. The children in the study believed that a holiday at Carbeth would have a positive influence and impact on their families as much as it did on their own experience.
Foster child “I’d like to bring my family here too some day so they could have a holiday and relax and recharge. I don’t think they could ever afford it but they could stay at the hut with me and (the foster carers) I think it would be good for them too. I am getting to come back next month.”
The children’s statements reflected the need and value they placed on their active relationships with the foster carers for support and care in comparison with their own needs and the needs of their own family. Respite foster care is mainly deemed a break for full time foster carers which is undoubtedly needed in caring for children as a result of family breakdown. The children had similar views with regards to the needs of their own families.
Foster child 1: “Yes it would have been better if mum was here too.” ”
Foster child 2: “It would have been good if mum could have come and stayed too”.
Observer: “With aunt and uncle?”
Foster child 2: “Yes, all of us, all of us on holiday together and (sibling) too.”
Foster child 1: “I think she’d really like it and aunt and uncle too and our friends, the people (neighbours) and you, I think she’d like it here too.”
Here the children highlight the need for the positive experience of social connections not only for themselves but for their families. This may be indicative of the children’s experiences of isolation which is recognised as a component of family breakdown.
Foster child 1: “I don’t know if we will get back here or to aunt and uncles again on holiday”.
Foster child 2: “If we go home we won’t get back and if we are at the foster carers we might not but we might too we don’t know.”
Respite foster care provides attachments and builds resilience, but this does not mean that uncertainty may not impinge the experience.
A concluding thought
Those who read the full text of my study will see that the picture I have painted here is simpler than the complex canvas of my full study but I do think this sketch is representative of my overall findings. In my study I develop several strands of thought but for the purposes of this article one I hope will be sufficient. I believe the children receiving respite foster care within the Carbeth hutting community, enjoy a have natural, balanced safe physical, social and emotional environment which incorporates play and freedom and is conducive to their overall feeling of wellbeing.
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