My name is Martin and I’m a foster carer. There, I’ve said it. It can feel like I am confessing to a dark secret, like alcoholism or drug addiction. You never really know how people are going to respond. Some put their arm around you, as if you have suffered a bereavement. Others respond coldly, as if you might personally be responsible for every failing of children’s services.
It has been a difficult few days for foster carers. It is always is when there are negative headlines about children services and, let’s face it, the headlines are always negative. This time it was “the terrible crisis looming for children in care.” Lemn Sissay, the much-admired author who spent his childhood in care, was moved to write: “Children in care are in danger because they’re being placed with foster carers who are unqualified, unskilled and uninformed.”
The root source of these shocking headlines and claims is Fostering Network’s state of the nation’s foster care survey. As often proves to be the case, the survey itself is more nuanced than the headlines suggest. Those who took part in the survey, which you can read here, call for better support, more pay and to be treated with respect by other professionals across children’s services.
You will struggle to find a foster carer who disagrees with any of this, including me. Too many foster carers feel that they cannot count on the support they need to care for vulnerable children and young people. They are excluded from the most important decisions about the children, when their views and experiences are not taken into account. And the allowances they receive for this vital work do not always cover the costs they incur.
This biannual survey is critically important to foster care, not least because it is the only one. But it has limitations. A record 4,000 foster carers took part, which is encouraging. But this is only seven per cent of those who were eligible, which is frustratingly low for what is, in effect, a membership survey (a typical response is 30 to 40 per cent). This makes it a good starting point for a discussion but shaky ground on which to lay foundations for wholesale change.
The foster care workforce is extraordinarily diverse, from single parents to large families, and including people on high salaries and some on no other income at all. This is both a strength, in that it reflects the society from which children and young people come, and a handicap, for it is mightily complex to create support structures that meet all carers’ needs and aspirations.
Most foster carers (ourselves included) are not paid a salary but receive allowances intended to cover the cost of supporting a child in their home. This is sometimes augmented by a fee, to reflect a carer’s level of training. In England there is a minimum allowance, set by the Government. But this is not legally enforceable and some foster carers receive allowances that are lower, which is unacceptable. Are allowances generally too low? There is significant variation across the country, which makes it difficult to assess. Sir Martin Narey’s review of fostering, published last year, concluded that average allowances were fair. Judge for yourself: we foster for our local authority, whose allowances are not untypical. We currently receive £680 a week to care for three siblings, the equivalent of just over £35,000.
But it isn’t a salary. This is money that must be spent on the children. This means that we must find other income to support ourselves. This makes it almost impossible for a single parent or someone living alone to foster. Some fostering providers also impose restrictions on other work full- or part-time. So the fostering allowance becomes the only source of income. No surprise, then, that the typical foster carer is female and is fostering with their partner, with no birth children living at home, according to Fostering Network.
This is an arrangement that has served foster care well enough in previous years but is being challenged by the pressures of modern living, including high housing costs, a decline in real incomes and an ageing population. There are those who feel the time has come for foster carers to be full-time employees, effectively paid to care for children in their homes as part of their families. A foster carers’ union has been formed, partly to make this case. The point is often made that fees rarely equate to the National Living Wage.
It is difficult to know how much support there is for this among carers. It is certainly vocal. But other sources point to a workforce that is more settled than Fostering Network, or the union, suggest. Latest Ofsted data shows a fall of just one per cent in the number of carers, year-on-year.
Undeniably, fostering faces many challenges but it also true that many children and young people thrive in foster care and take big steps towards fulfilling their potential.
Fostering holds a mirror to society, and reflects deep-rooted problems that exist in our communities. Fixing foster care, in so far as it needs fixing, also requires action in our neighbourhoods, our schools, our health system and our courts. Foster care works best when everyone is pulling in the same direction, rather than pointing fingers at us.