The first 24hrs in foster care: A child's perspective

A quick google search of what ‘a child’s first day in foster care’ may look like and the results are the same, all from the perspective of the carer. The voice of the child lost in the system, in the chaos and upheaval, through the paperwork and the need for physical safety. 

As a child in care (CIC), too often do we have questions related directly to our personal situation or feelings, with only a constant revolving door of caseworkers and social care professionals alike to turn too. Another face of the system, a foreign object, around for a few fleeting weeks then gone, on to the next. We ask what to expect and the adults answer. We can tell sometimes even they don’t know, but they’re the adults, they’re supposed to have answers, so they offer them anyway.

I am here to illustrate the perspective of the child; to provide an insight into the feelings, emotions and understanding that we have when the system takes over and we are ‘removed’ from family, ultimately leading to some of the do’s and don’t for foster parents in these first critical hours. One in four CIC suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the removal process, let alone the details/events leading up to and beyond this. By putting the child at the forefront of this process, we can work towards avoiding any unnecessary trauma from the removal process. You may be questioning what exactly I mean by the ‘removal process’. This is used to describe when the Local Authority has to get involved in separating a child/children from their parent/guardian, placing them in temporary or permanent foster care; the term itself feeling cold and detached. 

There are, of course, various paths that may lead to a child ending up within the care system, but for the purpose of this article we are talking about an ‘Emergency Care Order’ or ‘Emergency Protective Order’. These orders are issued with the intention of immediate removal of the child where social services have deemed the child at risk of ongoing/imminent physical, mental or emotional harm. The very nature of the ‘Emergency’ intervention means that no one in the scenario is aware of what is happening until it actually takes place, despite whether or not there has been previous support from social services.  

Here, I am going to outline my first 24hrs in permanent foster care after such removal via an Emergency Protection Order – for myself much like many others, this isn’t the first time in care, but unlike before, this time we won’t be going home again. 

So, what happens?

I was out picking blackberries with friends, when my friend’s Mum drives past, she sees me and has this pale, concerned look on her face. “They’re looking for you, out by yours’”. I nod and my stomach sinks. I know something is wrong, so we take my friend’s Mum car and as we walk up the hill and around the corner we see 2 ambulances and several police cars. I run towards the house and am stopped in my tracks by a policeman- ‘you can’t go that way you don’t want to see that’… but I am looking for Dad. ‘He’s gone’ I am told. Gone where, with whom and why? “He’s in an ambulance, he’s ok but your neighbour isn’t”.

This is often where people start talking over you, literally above you, my head moving back and forth, like watching a tennis game but instead, it’s the adults, discussing the next steps in your life. All plans to get you sorted, find out what’s happened and what happens next, decided without you in the conversation and as if you’re not even on the scene. 

The social worker does her best, but she too has questions, so many questions and the chaos brings no answers. At this stage, where we will live from now on is usually a mystery. The social worker will be told an address, likely to be temporary foster carers, until you get moved on to a permanent home. Otherwise, if you’re lucky I guess, like myself and my brother, you get moved straight to your new foster parents, where you’ll live for good. Maybe.

The car journey is silent, just you, the social worker and the black bag of clothes that has been collected for you. Before leaving, I tried to get into my house, I remember screaming for Dad and trying to get down the steps and into my home, before being stopped by the police. I’m not allowed in, the house is a mess and I’m told I don’t want to see it. Besides, it’s now a crime scene. So, the social worker collects what belongings she feels suitable, they are loaded into the car, my brother and I are loaded into the back seat and off we go. To the unknown, away from the life you know and are used to; it feels like a kidnapping. 

It’s important to consider that in this situation, when the child comes from an unstable home environment, where their life is likely to have been filled with neglect or abuse, they are often met with the assumption that they’d be pleased to get out. Thankful and grateful to be rescued and taken to a safe space. This isn’t the reality, our parents are our parents and our home is just that, our home. We will still crave their love and approval, as dysfunctional as this may seem, we are used to the home life environment and will therefore probably want to stay. The reality for many children in care is that we are used to an uncertain and temperamental home life, often balancing between the mental state and emotions of our parents. We’re used to things being a bit ‘on edge’ or having to change our behaviours depending on those around us. For us, it’s safer than the unknown of a new family or home; maybe what’s coming will be worse than before. 

During the upheaval of removing children and with new placements there’s so much to do, often in such little time, under extraordinary circumstances, that it can feel like we are being taken through this ‘checklist’ style handover and that the child’s basic concerns, thoughts or feelings are missed.

One of the first things foster carers are guided to do is to set house rules. Totally understandable, let the child know they have a routine and expectations and start giving them some set guidelines to life; something they probably haven’t had before. The guidelines are sometimes delivered casually, sometimes more formally, but always with consequences. If these rules are not delivered properly it can often feel as if we don’t do what they say, they’ll move us on. Whether that’s said or not, that’s how it feels, ‘Behave or you won’t be welcome’ which in itself can be very damaging to a child.

The reality, for many foster parents, is that they get a child who is suffering trauma and the system assumes having this stable home, that the physical safety is enough at this time and that we’ll work from there. The trouble is, it’s unlikely the foster parents will have any idea of any underlying issues with the child; they have not had the relevant training and are expected, by the system, to work it out along the way. It’s not easy, some children will take weeks, months even for some trauma to show, the journey can be long and tiring- patience is key! The only thing I can say is that the first 24hrs can make a big difference to life moving forward in care. 

If you’re a foster parent looking into this, there are a few fundamental things you can do to help ease the process, but the main thing to always remember is to put yourself in the child’s shoes. Yes, set house rules, but don’t let these be the first thing the child hears. Give them a tour of the house, verbally let them know they are safe and that you’re the person to come to if they have any questions, fears or feelings they want to share; if they need anything at all. Let them know you’ll feed them and give them an idea of what day to day life looks like with you (I always think it’s a good idea to have some biscuits or similar available for when they first come into the home). 

Don’t make promises you can’t keep; for example, when the child is comfortable enough, they’ll ask what is happening with their parent/s, when they can go home or if they’ll be with you forever. Be honest in your answers, don’t give us an answer because we think that’s what we need to hear. If you don’t know, explain you don’t know but you’ll do your best to find out and will keep us involved in the conversation. 

As mentioned above, don’t talk about us as if we aren’t in the room; we’re always listening. Try not to set expectations on how you’d think we’d behave; each child has been through a unique set of circumstances, so each will respond and show behaviours in different ways. And finally, don’t take things personally, we may not be grateful, but remember we didn’t ask for this. None of our behaviours are to do with you, they are a product of our upbringing and prior experience.

One thing I can guarantee is with patience, communication and most importantly honesty and understanding, there will be a far greater chance of connecting with the foster child; put them first and set the foundations for a successful placement in those first vital hours. 

Going back to my own experience, all in all, I was very lucky, my brother and I got to stay together, living with the same foster parents for 9+ years, until we flew the nest, giving ourselves a go at this ‘adulting’ life. It hasn’t been the easiest of journeys, but it has led me to where I am today. Of course, there are many more elements to a successful placement than those outlined here, which is something I’ll explore in a separate piece; for now, the main aim is to see the power in putting the child’s perspective first. 


Written by Mary-Anne Hodd

Mary-Anne, a proud Foster Care Leaver, Psychology and PGCE graduate. With a passion for all things mental health, I’m working on taking my opinion and experience to the page, with the hope of providing a new understanding of ‘kids in care’. From Devon, then Bristol, currently in Canada, I am taking some years out to travel, snowboard and write.



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