Imagine if, after many years of caring for a child, that child - or someone associated with them - accuses you of abuse or neglect. This could be a child you love dearly, a child you have been advocating for and supporting wholeheartedly for month after month. Such a situation is likely to be difficult enough without extra stress, so imagine the prospect of also facing a lack of support or communication or even losing other children in the household, regardless of whether the allegation is true or false. And, you might not even know what the accusation is or who is making it. This is a situation many foster carers find themselves in during their fostering career.
An outrageous lack of support
There's no other profession involving children where the threshold for an allegation to be investigated is so low or where the support given is so minimal. It's no wonder that foster carers tell us that facing an allegation, or the thought of it, is one of the most stressful things about being a foster carer. At a time when foster carer recruitment and retention is increasingly difficult, the fact that the processes and procedures are not consistently in place to support foster carers who are facing an allegation is outrageous and must be addressed urgently throughout the UK.
In our recent State of the Nation survey of over 2,000 foster carers, 33% of respondents had experienced an allegation yet only 2% of these allegations were substantiated. Most foster carers accept that allegations are an occupational risk - and, of course, it is vitally important that serious allegations are investigated and that children are listened to - but the uncertainty and lack of support that many experience is something that can be avoided.
Our survey highlights the need for improvement - of those who faced an allegation 42% were not supported financially and 55% were unclear on timescales. At what can be one of the most distressing times in a foster carer's life, why are we denying them the most basic knowledge and support? This would not happen to any other child care professional (social work colleagues would be afforded HR, legal and emotional support should an allegation be made against them) and reflects a lack of understanding of the place of foster carers as co-professionals in the team around the child.
A sense of abandonment
The worrying part of this is that there doesn't seem to be just one major issue here. Our members tell us of poor written and verbal communication and a sense of abandonment, including often from their supervising social worker who has, until that point, been a source of support. Foster carers often receive no details of the allegation and are given no timescales or updates of the investigation. Foster carers should receive a summary of the investigation, but this happens rarely. They should be offered independent support, but all too often aren't. Many will never find out what the allegation was, let alone get the opportunity to provide context or their version of events. It isn't surprising that some feel completely abandoned in their time of need. And, at the end of the investigation there is rarely support available. Foster carers are often traumatised by their experience and yet there is no post-allegation support.
Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that 47% of our survey's respondents were not offered support for children in their household and 28% had fostered children removed during the investigation. While removing fostered children during an investigation may be the right thing to do, we are concerned that this happens too easily and when child protection thresholds have not been met, unnecessarily destabilising children and young people and often undoing so much of the important relationship-building work that foster carers invest so much in.
Of course, the protection of some of our most vulnerable children must come first, but when the vast majority of allegations are unfounded and children are very rarely returned, we must consider the impact not only on foster carers but also on these children themselves and those in the wider foster family. We hear of children in these situations who are picked up from school by a social worker and never see their foster family again, despite many years in placement with them. What is this teaching children in care about relationships when they may have been removed from their birth family in a similar way? Can they no longer trust those who have taught them how to rebuild trust?
Foster carers with no other significant source of income can struggle the most at these times. Not only is it unclear to many how a fostering service will support them financially through an allegation but provision is also inconsistent. Some services pay for six weeks, some pay a retainer and some foster carers won't see a penny until the investigation is completed. With some investigations, particularly those with police involvement, taking more than six months to complete this can be devastating for a family with no other means of income.
The urgent need for change
Ultimately, we need to focus on the fallout of allegations more closely - indeed, this is something that we hope the various reviews of fostering and the care system that are currently taking place across the UK will do. As the ones who spend the most time with their looked after children, foster carers must be considered equally in the team around the child, even in times of uncertainty. A transparent framework should be in place for dealing with allegations, and ensuring adherence to timescales. Foster carers should be communicated with clearly and regularly and be given the same HR, emotional and legal support that would be afforded their social work colleagues. This would be an important step towards recognising foster carers as the professionals that they are and reducing the traumatising impact of an allegation on all involved.