How much is a foster carer worth? Let's skip the usual platitudes: "Foster carers are worth their weight in gold," or "a good foster carer is priceless." They are always well meant, and it is hard to disagree with the sentiment. But so few people have any sense of what it costs to support a child in care and how this is funded. Recruitment commercials on radio cite apparently generous allowances, giving the impression that foster care is financially rewarding. Mostly, though, people assume that your love of children will carry you through.
So it may have come as a surprise to many to see foster carers coming together to set up a trade union to campaign for fair working conditions. Last week dozens of foster carers took time out from their busy lives to meet MPs in Westminster to make their case. It is a development that collides with the public perception of foster carers as selfless and dedicated. But when men and women who are indeed selfless speak out over the way they are being treated they deserve to be heard.
The reality is that our system of child protection relies overwhelmingly on volunteers. Foster carers provide homes for three out of every four children and young people in care. In return, they receive no salary but are compensated through allowances based on the number of children they care for and their special needs. The legal status of foster carers is uncertain, because we are neither employees nor workers. That means we are not entitled to sick pay or holidays, or to the national minimum wage. Generally, foster carers are not paid between placements, even though we have to make ourselves available at short notice. Our views about the children in our care are often ignored and there is also little redress for foster carers when things go wrong.
The finances of foster care are fiendishly complicated, with so many variables. By our own back-of-an-envelope calculation we have probably made a financial loss on most, if not all, of our placements. That is before considering some 'known unknowns', such as the cost of running a larger vehicle or of remaining (and maintaining) a home that our own grown-up family no longer requires. And the need for at least one full-time carer at home severely limits opportunities for employment.
Costs are unpredictable, ranging from the 120 mile-a-day school run (which bust our mileage allowance) during a recent year-long placement, to a specialist hairdresser for Afro-Caribbean hair (beyond our area of expertise). Some weeks our allowances cover these costs, some weeks they do not.
We entered into this commitment as foster carers willingly and with our eyes wide open, and we are as passionate as ever about caring for vulnerable children. But we can afford to reach in to our own pockets to meet these costs, while many other foster carers cannot. The injustice is that there are foster carers who struggle to pay their bills, and live in uncertainty, as a consequence of their selfless commitment to other people's children.
At a time when more children are coming into care and cases are becoming more challenging, local authorities are cutting foster carers' allowances to help balance the books in times of austerity. It is arbitrary and it is unfair.
The cost of keeping a looked-after child or young person in residential care is approximately £135,000 a year. The annual average spend on a foster placement is £33,000 (which includes a multiplicity of expenses, not just foster carers). This saving for the taxpayer is only possible through the dedication of fostering families.
We should celebrate those foster carers who care enough to consider forming a union rather than turning their backs on their vocation. They are worth their weight in gold, they really are.