American-inspired foster care 'hubs' expand on South Tyneside after success

A pioneering programme founded in America to support foster carers is being hailed a success on South Tyneside.

‘Mockingbird’ was introduced by South Tyneside Council in September 2021, and now - during foster care fortnight - the project is being extended to help other families.

The second 'mockingbird constellation' was launched at an event at South Shields Town Hall on Monday 16 May.

Founded in Seattle, it builds on the concept of the extended family.

One foster home acts as a hub, offering advice, training and to support six satellite households.

The hub home can host children in their constellation for sleepovers, be there in emergencies, and allow their home to be used as a base for social events or sensitive meetings with adoptive parents or birth families.

Richard Rattenbury and his wife Becky Hawdon have looked after more than 17 foster children over the past 12 years and were the first hub carers.

Richard said: “I think this model is a great idea and badly needed. Fostering is the best job I’ve ever done but it can be a rollercoaster at times.

"The more positive relationships foster children have, the better their life chances.

"And the more support foster carers have, the better the chances of successful placements and of keeping siblings together. It’s a win-win all round."

He added: "For children in foster care it’s about making it more normal.

"Where they haven’t got that extended family like aunties and uncles or grandparents it’s allowing them to be around other children and carers.”

In the first constellation there were six satellite households including Emma Munday who has two foster children.

She said: "The Mockingbird has been outstanding, I wish they had had it years ago. The support is second to none. Even if you just want to go for a cup of tea and meet up.”

Emma Munday is a foster carer within one South Tyneside's 'Mockingbird' groupings Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

Deborah Collier cares for three siblings and says Mockingbird has allowed them to stay together.

Richard and Becky have taken the youngest for a sleepover so she can spend time with the others. She also says it’s been great for the children as they regularly meet up.

Deborah said: “The best bit of Mockingbird is the children all go out for days out. To see the love and happiness on their little faces, it’s second to none.”

The next second constellation will have Dawn Hutchison as hub carer who had been about to retire after spending twenty five years as a foster carer.

Dawn said: "I was really reluctant to give it up altogether. This way I can put my 25 years experience to support other carers and still have a bit of life on my own. It’s ideal for me."

South Tyneside Council hope Mockingbird will encourage more people to consider foster caring and say they are needed.

The pandemic has seen a number of older and vulnerable carers unable to continue and there has been an increased demand for placements.

Councillor Adam Ellison Lead Member for Children, Young People and Families, said: "Here in South Tyneside the Mockingbird programme has been a game changer, both for our children and our foster carers.

"Our Mockingbird foster carers feel supported and we are seeing an increase in the retention of foster carers because of it.

"If you are interested in becoming a foster carer with us, please get in touch. We welcome people from all backgrounds, of all different ages, genders, ethnicities, no matter your relationship status or sexual orientation, so if you think you can make a difference children's lives please get in touch.”

The charity, the Fostering Network, says there is a crisis in the retention and recruitment of high-quality foster carers who can meet the needs of children in care.

They say it is the biggest challenge facing the fostering sector today and a lack of foster carers means that children are missing out on vital support and risk experiencing further instability to their lives.

Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, said the pandemic has affected everyone, and while foster carers have worked tirelessly to help children in their care, more are urgently needed.

He told ITV Tyne Tees: "The number of children coming into care is on the rise and we need more foster families to make sure every child can live with the right foster carer for them, close to everything that is familiar to them.

"If you have ever considered fostering, now is the time to get in touch with your local fostering service and find out more.

"The fostering community is open to people from all walks of life and backgrounds: you can become a foster carer no matter your age, gender, relationship status or sexual orientation.

"Community can be built around a variety of aspects of people’s lives, and it is important that different identities are represented within the fostering community."

In the North East there are 5,787 looked after children as of March 2021 and 3,120 fostering households.

It estimates a further 584 fostering households need to be recruited this year in the North East.

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