I've been involved in fostering for many years now. One of the debates I remember raging (and which still occasionally raises its head) is whether we should call the people who look after fostered children 'foster carers' or 'foster parents'. I'm not talking about what fostered children and young people call their foster carers - this usually reflects the relationship that has been formed and can range from calling them their first names to mum and dad or foster mum and dad - but I am talking about the job title which reflects how foster carers are perceived by other professionals.
At The Fostering Network we prefer 'foster carers' because we think it's important to send a clear message that looking after fostered children and young people is a task that goes beyond traditional parenting (and it takes into account that most fostered children have parents already - it's just that, for one reason or another, they are not able to live with them). It's not that foster carers don't exercise all the parenting skills that birth parents might use, but fostering is much more than that. It's also not that foster carers don't offer love and security and stability that birth parents might offer, but fostering is also much more than that.
Foster carers are co-professionals within a team
Foster carers are child care experts who operate as co-professionals in the team which is responsible for fostered children and young people. They are trained, supervised and accountable like other professionals and, in many cases, know the children they are looking after better than any other professional.
Unfortunately, as our State of the Nation's Foster Care survey of over 2,500 foster carers reinforced, foster carers are too often not treated as professionals meaning their expertise, opinions and knowledge are side-lined leading to frustration on the part of the foster carer and, very importantly, potentially poorer outcomes for the fostered young person. For the sake of the fostering system, the people who work within it and the children and young people who are being cared for by it, this must change.
All too often, fostering services do not have sufficient clear systems and processes in place regarding issues such as allegations, remuneration, whistleblowing or training. This means that foster carers are unclear as to what the due process should be when a certain situation arises, have little or no recourse to challenge the system and are often left in limbo. The default position in this situation, where processes do not exist or are ambiguous, is for communication with foster carers to dry up and for fostering services to simply stop using those foster carers. This would not happen to any other child care professional and should not happen to foster carers.
So, what can be done? There are so many areas in which change needs to happen, but here are just six to get the ball rolling:
Support - support for foster carers should be tailored to the individual needs of the child they are caring for and should be matched to the developmental stages of the child. All fostering services should provide a dedicated full-time support service for foster carers and ensure access to respite provision for all foster carers. Peer support opportunities should be enabled and promoted at a local level.
Training - a learning and development framework for foster carers should be implemented, covering accredited and standardised pre- and post-approval training. Within this framework there must be flexibility for training to be tailored to allow foster carers to meet the individual needs of children and promote their own personal development. It is also essential that knowledge of fostering is included in training for social workers to enable them to work more effectively with the primary carers of the vast majority of looked after children. Other professionals working with looked after children should also be given training to understand the role of foster carers.
Remuneration - governments should review the level of national minimum fostering allowances (and, in the case of Scotland introduce a minimum), with all fostering services being required to pay an allowance which meets or exceeds that minimum. The minimum allowance should also be extended to include post-18 care. All foster carers should be paid for their time and skills, preferably via a tiered payment scheme which includes retainer fees between placements. The administration of fee and allowance payments should be transparent, so that all foster carers are clear about their entitlement to allowances and fees.
Decision making - foster carers must be given the authority to make everyday decisions on behalf of children in their care without unnecessary delays and restrictions. Although this already exists in guidance in most of the UK, it is still not happening with sufficient regularity. Strengthened guidance needs to address the need for all other professionals - social care, education, health, police and so on - to understand and respect the role and responsibility of foster carers.
Allegations - a transparent framework should be in place for dealing with allegations, and ensuring adherence to timescales. Foster carers should be given the same HR, emotional and legal support that would be afforded their social work colleagues.
Whistleblowing - foster carers are in a vulnerable position if they choose to speak out about alleged wrongdoing or poor practice. We are concerned that this may act as a disincentive to foster carers, putting vulnerable children at risk. Whistleblowing legislation must be extended to included foster carers.
These things are very important if foster carers are to be treated as the co-professionals that they are. We hope the various reviews of fostering and the care system that are currently taking place across the UK will lead to change in all these areas. But unless they are also accompanied by a change in mindset from many of the other professionals with whom foster carers work then they are not, in themselves, going to bring about the change that is so desperately needed. Foster carers must be perceived, and subsequently treated, as an equal part of the child care team. Then their voice will be heard, benefiting them and ultimately the children in their care.