We need thousands more foster carers to help keep vulnerable children and young people safe and to give them a brighter future. Our system of child protection relies overwhelmingly on foster families to provide sanctuary to boys and girls who are placed in care. There is an acute shortage of loving homes for these children, particularly for teenagers and those with a disability.
If you feel drawn to reading this blog, hopefully it is because you are thinking of becoming a foster carer. But even if there are reasons why that is not possible for you there are many ways you can support foster carers and help children in need. Here are just a few:
1. Respite care: Respite care is ideal for families, couples or single people who work full-time but still want to make a difference to a child's life. Respite usually takes place at weekends and school holidays to support a child in placement with an existing foster carer. It could also be for a child in a residential school who needs some family life. Respite fostering is required in a number of different circumstances. For example, a full time foster carer may need a holiday or they may have urgent family commitments meaning they need to travel overseas. Sometimes if a fostering placement is particularly challenging a fostering provider may arrange for them to have a short break from the placement. This can also sometimes be the case with birth families, where a child has a disability or a particularly challenging behavioral issue which means the parents are under considerable pressure and would benefit from a break.
2. Contact supervisor: Contact supervisors play a vital role in helping a child in care maintain contact with the birth family. Safe and meaningful contact between parent and child is essential to ensure that children develop mentally, physically and psychologically. Contact, however occasional, will continue to have value for a child even when there is no question of returning to his or her family. These contacts can keep alive a child's sense of his or her origins and will keep open options for family relationships in later life. By helping to provide a secure environment to facilitate these contacts, supervisors promote the relationship between parent and child, or between siblings.
3. Volunteer mentor: Volunteer mentors, also known as independent visitors, guide, advise, listen to and befriend young people in care, sharing their experiences as well as trying new activities and spending quality time together. Typically, this might involve two or three hours a month. To fulfil this role you must be able to listen to children and young people, be available to meet the individuals and show commitment. Applicants must have experience of working face to face with children and young people but no formal qualification is necessary. Training is provided and you will receive accreditation, which could help your future career. And you will make an amazing difference.
4. Support fostering charities: Increasingly children and young people in care are placed with families through fostering charities and not-for-profit organisations. These are social enterprises who work with local authorities to increase the number and range of foster carers. Although they receive funding from local authorities, any money they receive through charitable donations and fund-raising events makes a substantial difference to the quality of training and support they can provide. So next time you raise money for a good cause, get in touch with a local fostering organisation.
5. Support foster families: Based on the number of children and young people in care, there will almost certainly be somebody at your children's school or in your neighbourhood who is living with a foster family. From personal experience we know how difficult it is for a foster carer to stand at the school gate and begin those conversations with parents that will forge friendships to help looked-after children. It is tough to be a temporary mum or dad, particularly when 'your' child is marginalised by other children because of his circumstances. So be the one who steps forward and shakes my hand. Yes, it is going to be a long summer holiday and we would love your family's company from time to time. And please don't forget me when this placement comes to an end.
6. Encourage your children to think of others: A child who suffers neglect or abuse at home often suffers at school too because other children sense the difference. It is natural for parents to discourage relationships with children who misbehave or who are unkempt. There are children like this in every classroom, and they deserve better. I know, because I was one such child, and I remember the extraordinary kindness of the small number of families who provided a refuge when I needed it. Teach your children to be warm and inclusive. There is no better gift.