All you need is a spare room

The charity Home For Good working with Bath and North East Somerset Council invited me to speak at a service to mark the work of foster carers, kinship carers, special guardians and adoptive parents at Bath Abbey on 11 February. I’d like to thank them for inviting me. It was wonderful event. This is what I said.

Last year a local authority was forced to issue an apology after it launched a recruitment campaign for foster carers, using the slogan “all you need is a spare room”. You can see what their intention was, but it was rather tone deaf.

That same slogan popped up on my Facebook feed this week. “All you need is a spare room” it declared. There was a jaunty but unconvincing exclamation mark at the end, trying a bit too hard, as exclamation marks so often do.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, that’s abuse, neglect other toxically stressful, traumatic experiences are driving a public health crisis. This one, isn’t the result of a single pathogen, like a coronavirus. It’s causes and transmission routes complicated. The headlines are that across a population, a score of 6 or more ACES increases the risk of heart disease, lung cancer, mental health problems, diabetes and substance abuse and reduces life expectancy. At a population level, toxically stressful childhoods lead to poor outcomes and are costly at a human and a national level.

Just last month a small study in Wales found a link between a high number of ACES and vaccine hesitancy as well as resistance to mask wearing and abiding by lockdown rules. One could also ponder the similarity in the behaviours of the chronically under- and chronically over-privileged. But I promised myself I wouldn’t stray into politics, so I won’t go there. The study concluded and I quote: “better compliance with public health advice is another reason to invest in safe and secure childhoods for all children”.

But what does that mean? Investing in safe and secure childhoods? How do we untangle and address the underlying causes of this public health crisis?

There is one intervention that we know of. According to the World Health Organisation, it is the single most effective intervention for abuse and neglect. It buffers the effect of ACES, dramatically improves mental and physical health and increases earnings.

That intervention is good parenting.

And that’s what all of you here provide, day in and day out, in addition to a spare bedroom.

Through your love, care, commitment and perseverance you make a profound difference, to the lives of children and young people. And collectively you are tackling the roots of a public health crisis.

If you are squirming in your seat, because you find the praise a bit awkward, then buckle up. There’s more to come.

In my day job as the editor of a magazine – Adoption Today – the membership magazine for the charity Adoption UK, I have the privilege of interviewing many special guardians, kinships carers, foster carers and adoptive parents. I zoom into their homes and they share their stories and their advice and they allow me to share these with our readers. They are as are you, an exceptionally generous group of people.

Recently I’ve been interviewing those supporting young people with stacks of ACES, as they negotiate that most difficult life transition – moving into adulthood. Young people with substance abuse problems, severe mental health issues, and involvement in the criminal justice system. Many of these carers and parents manage high risk, life and death situations on a fairly regular basis. And there are those who after years of raising a child are now raising that child’s child – something that they had never planned to be doing in their retirement years. If all that wasn’t enough to contend with, almost all of them describe the battles they fight for services, support and sometimes even understanding. They use the words “battle” and “fight”and I’m sure many of you here today would use similar words. Revealingly, it is the language of war – waged by whom, isn’t entirely clear.

These are stories of heroism. No other word fits. These carers and parents wouldn’t regard the continued, committed, extraordinary care they give as heroic. “It’s what you do”, they would say, “because you care and you love deeply. You never give up hope. You keep doing your best for that young person, because they deserve it. And because usually there is no one else”.

Heroism isn’t only about the strength summoned up in the extreme situations. Heroism is found in the everyday effort required to ensure our children can access what they so desperately need and have a right to – a good and inclusive education, involvement in community, the opportunity to play sports and engage in the arts, opportunities to witness different lives, to travel and to dream. Every day heroism is to be found here, in Bath Abbey today.

The daily and often unnoticed and undervalued heroism that you all show up with, is quite literally changing lives. And it is so much more than a spare room.

Thank you.

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