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Instant Family: the real deal on fostering siblings?

fostering siblings

Released earlier this year, Instant Family is an American comedy which tells the story of married couple Pete and Ellie’s first steps into the world of foster care. 

After Pete (Mark Wahlberg) and Ellie (Rose Byrne) progress through the initial training process, they meet Lizzy, a teenage foster child who tells them that no one wants to foster teenagers.  Pete and Ellie speak with their social workers about the possibility of fostering Lizzy and are told that she also has a younger brother and sister in need of care.  Sibling groups are often separated when placed in foster care – a challenge also faced by the UK, where the need for carers who can foster siblings is rising – and this can cause instability and affect them emotionally.

After feelings of uncertainty and a debate with Ellie’s family, the couple eventually decide to foster the siblings.  In the first few weeks, they experience the ‘honeymoon period’, where foster children seem to settle into their new homes quickly and the process feels much easier than expected.

However, Pete and Ellie soon encounter the first emotional and behavioural challenges of their foster children – Lizzy becomes confrontational, Juan bursts into tears if told off and Lita has an emotional outburst if asked to eat anything other than crisps.  There are more twists and turns along the road, but the film does come to a (spoiler alert) typically-Hollywood happy ending.

Instant Family is undoubtedly thought provoking.  It could perhaps even inspire people to consider fostering a sibling group, but how accurate is its portrayal foster care?

Sheron Barnes has been a foster carer with Five Rivers for close to 12 years.  We asked her thoughts on the film and she said: “Instant Family is a lovely film and does provide a snapshot of what fostering can be like at times, but viewers should think of it as a starting point to go and learn more.  It shouldn’t be a case of watching the film and thinking that’s what it’s like to foster, but it does show how important it is to keep sibling groups together where possible.

“There are moments that really do tug on the heartstrings and feel as if they may have been informed by the director’s [Sean Anders] own experiences of foster care, but I think there are some elements that don’t reflect what it’s really like. For example, the film suggests that foster carers take a ‘shop window’ approach to taking on foster children.  Pete and Ellie are asked to go to a fair to meet and choose their foster children, which is where they meet Lisa.  In our 12 years fostering, however, we have looked after more than 25 children, all of which have been placed with us because we are an appropriate match for their unique and individual needs.

“I know that happens across the board with Five Rivers.  Each child or young person in need of care is matched with a foster family that would be most appropriate for them and best suited to provide what they need.

“The film is a good introduction to fostering, and if it inspires just one person to foster, that is only a good thing.  But, if that person is you, I’d urge you to pick up the phone and speak to someone at Five Rivers who can give you the information you need to make a decision on whether to take up fostering.  Fostering an be a truly rewarding experience, but it’s important that it starts from a place of knowledge and real understanding of what is required to help support children and young people who need it most.”

As part of Siblings Day 2019 (April 10th), we have been raising awareness of the importance of keeping sibling groups together when entering foster care and encourage those who are able, to consider fostering brothers and sisters together rather than just one child.  You can learn more about that here.

If you would like to learn more about fostering with Five Rivers, call 0345 266 0272 or email [email protected].

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