Where we go, our foster children go too. Holidays, weddings, christenings, family gatherings, our foster children and us come as part of the same package. We know that, sometimes, this is to expect a lot of our family and friends, but that's the way it is. Fortunately, we are blessed with strong support from those who are closest to us, so the occasions when we have to politely decline an invitation are rare.
But there are times when even foster carers need time and space. We have just spent a long and peaceful weekend in the company of someone precious whose time among us is now counted in terms of weeks, or maybe a few months if we are lucky. While we were away, our three foster children stayed, together, with another fostering family who they know and trust. They returned home happy and rested, with many stories to tell, having enjoyed a short break of their own.
Our long weekend was possible only because of the availability of respite care, arranged through West Sussex County Council, for whom we work as foster carers. Our children were able to stay with approved, experienced foster carers who make their home available to give full-time foster carers like us a break when we need it.
Unlike children who live with their birth families, looked-after children are often unable to stay with relatives or friends, in the way that our children were able to when their mum and dad wanted time away. There are no grandparents, no aunts and uncles and no close family friends who we can call upon for support on these occasions. Some of the reasons are obvious, others less so. Even when trusted friends are keen to help, there may be obstacles in the way, from the nature of the accommodation available to the absence of vetting for safeguarding. It is a reminder that, legally at least, these are children with a corporate parent whose duty of care comes, unavoidably, with a heavy regulatory burden.
For foster carers like us, access to high quality respite care is crucial if we are to fulfil our role as temporary parents to vulnerable children. Yet nationally, respite care is becoming increasingly rare and difficult to organise. This is partly because of budget constraints. Some local authorities can't afford to pay for respite, or their financial priorities are elsewhere. But it is also because there is an acute shortage of respite foster carers.
Respite carers play a crucial role in fostering, but their contribution is undervalued. Respite fostering is required in a number of different circumstances. For example, a full time foster carer may need a holiday or may have urgent family commitments, such as we did last weekend. Sometimes if a fostering placement is particularly challenging a fostering provider may arrange for them to have a short break from the placement. Ideally, respite carers work closely with the full-time carer, nurturing a relationship with the children over a period of weeks and months. It is much easier for foster children to spend time in the care of a family they know, in a house that is already familiar. It replicates, to a degree, the experience of going to stay with a close relative.
I understand how difficult it is for families to make the commitment to becoming full-time foster carers. Yet when I talk to people about foster care, few are aware that it is possible to provide care on a respite basis, nor do they understand the urgent need that exists for more families to provide this support. Giving up a week or two, or even occasional weekends to care for children and young people can be immensely rewarding. It also helps the children build new, positive relationships, and gives full-time foster carers the break they need to be able to carry on the work they do.
Fostering Fortnight, which takes place from May 8 to May 21, is a great opportunity to look into what respite fostering can offer you. We'd love you to be inspired to become a full-time foster carer. But let's begin with a couple of weekends a month, and see where it takes you. Your contribution will enrich the life of a child, and help families like ours continue the work that we do, through good times and hard.