Foster care is failing some of the most vulnerable children in society and needs urgent reform, concludes an official inquiry. Fostering is a success story, helping thousands of children to fulfil their potential, says another, published a few weeks later.
The first came via the Commons Education Committee, the second was commissioned by the Department for Education and carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers. As we await the government’s response to both inquiries, it is only fair to ask which one is right?
Broadly, the inquiries considered evidence from the same people, including children’s services, fostering providers and foster carers. Commendably, both inquiries also heard the testimonies of children and young people in care and care leavers, which is crucial to understanding what needs to be done to improve the care system.
Yet the reports published by the inquiries are very different, both in tone and in the recommendations they make. Even allowing for differences in their terms of reference, it is not easy to reconcile their contrasting outcomes. Not surprisingly, foster carers are confused.
Take the allowances paid to foster carers, for example. MPs call for a review of minimum fostering allowances, to ensure that they match rises in living costs. In contrast, the Narey/Owers review concluded that allowances paid to foster cares “are not inadequate”, particularly once tax arrangements are accounted for, and are not adversely affecting recruitment of foster carers. Similarly, MPs have asked the government to consider whether self-employment is the appropriate form of employment for foster carers. The Narey/Owers review says that this is an issue for the courts to decide, but urges the Government and local authorities to resist such a fundamental change, warning that employment would have a detrimental impact on the heart of fostering.
It is not easy to judge how important these issues are for foster carers. The Fostering Network’s most recent survey suggested that more than half of foster carers dip into their own pockets to cover the cost of looking after children. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) claims support for its campaign for employment rights for foster carers, including statutory paid holiday. By contrast, the Narey/Owers review says few foster carers raised pay as a primary concern.
The fostering workforce is diverse, ranging from carers who have no other form of income to households with at least one person in full-time employment unrelated to fostering, with many variations in between. To add to a complex picture, not all local authorities pay the minimum fostering allowances set by the Department for Education, while some fostering providers pay significantly more.
On one crucial issue the fostering reviews are in agreement: foster carers are not ‘professionals’, they conclude, although they should be afforded the same respect and professional courtesies extended to all those involved in the care of looked-after children. This will not satisfy the many foster carers who feel undervalued or ignored when decisions are taken about children and young people who have become part of their own families, simply because they do not have professional status like social workers or lawyers.
For what it is worth, I subscribe to the Narey/Owers view, which is that foster care is a success story, largely unappreciated by society. At its best, foster care can achieve outstanding outcomes for children and young people unable to live with their birth families. But that “best” is becoming more difficult to attain, because the support available to them is being eroded at a time when the demands being imposed upon them are greater than ever.
I also applaud their focus on the parenting aspects of fostering. At home, we think of ourselves as a foster family, not as carers, and welcome their recommendations aimed at reinforcing this sense of family, including those that would give us greater discretion over day-to-day parent issues. I don’t care much whether or not we are regarded as professionals, and I’m certain that the children we welcome into our home don’t give a damn. But I do want our expertise and experience to be taken seriously by all those involved in deciding a child’s future.
So, two reviews into fostering, with contrasting outcomes. The big question is, will they make any difference? The reality is that most foster carers, world weary and battle hardened, have little or no expectation that their lives are about to be made easier. If their hopes were raised by this sudden flurry of interest, they surely will have been dashed by the Government’s announcement of a 1.5 per cent increase in fostering allowances, well below the rate of inflation.
Yet, at the very least, these reviews provide a framework for discussion about the future of fostering. They raise issues that merit further debate. This an opportunity for all those committed to achieving better outcomes for children and young people in care to work together for positive change. We must pull together to make sure the opportunity is not lost.