We urgently need more foster carers. Another 8,000 additional families are required to meet demand for stable, secure and loving homes for record numbers of fostered children, according to The Fostering Network
Our system of child protection relies heavily on foster carers. Of the UK's 80,000 looked-after children, 63,000 are in foster care. A shortage of available families weighs heavily on the care process. It may mean that a decision to take a child into care is delayed, with obvious risks. More children are placed out of area, far from family and friends. Many are required to move two or three times in a year, as a report by Action for Children has revealed. Siblings are more likely to live apart. The system is letting children down in so many ways.
At the same time, foster carers come under pressure to accept a placement that may be inappropriate for their own domestic arrangements, or without the necessary training, which increases the risk of a breakdown. Short-term placements become long-term by default. Multiple placements of children from different families are becoming more common.
Fostering organisations do fine work to raise awareness of the need for more foster carers, with frequent recruitment drives, and by providing better training and support. Without their efforts the situation would be even worse. But as the number of children in care rises, the gap between what is needed and what is available grows every day. The average age of foster carers has risen significantly, with a substantial proportion already in their 50s and 60s. Unless recruitment of new foster carers of all ages is stepped up sharply there will be a far higher deficit of foster carers very soon.
The outlook is not encouraging, and it is not because this generation is any less caring than previous generations. Structural changes in society make it more difficult for families to commit to fostering. Many people are delaying parenthood, prioritising careers and financial security. Grown-up children remain within the family home for longer, particularly in areas where housing costs are high. More students choose universities closer to their families to save on the cost of accommodation. Typical family homes are getting smaller, and the bedroom tax has encouraged many couples to downsize when their children do leave.
With an ageing population, more families are become responsible for the care of elderly parents and relatives. So families are squeezed between their commitment to their children and to their parents. Paradoxically, more people than ever before are living alone but often in single-occupier properties that are not suitable for fostering.
If the demographics militate against fostering, so do the economics. The finances of fostering are, at best, precarious. Foster carers are, essentially, volunteers supported by allowances that have kept not pace with increases in the real cost of living and many placements result in a financial loss. Yet the demands imposed on foster carers have increased significantly, albeit for the right reasons.
While I do not advocate a move to professional foster care, it clearly is wrong to expect families to subsidise the care of looked-after children. And yet, given where we are in terms of the arguments about spending on public services it seems highly unlikely that fostering will be able to negotiate a new settlement.
Where to turn in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles? There is pressure to find a solution through the privatisation of children's services. That is an argument for others to fight. I propose a third way, in which business forms a partnership with foster carers through a national membership scheme that provides meaningful discounts and special offers on goods and services to support the care of looked-after children. I am aware that some local schemes do exist. But though well-intended, they do not have the scope or reach to make a significant difference.
Businesses should recognise the exceptional role of foster carers in protecting and nurturing vulnerable children and young people in their strategy for corporate social responsibility. Companies can play a major role in improving access to the educational and leisure facilities that most children take for granted . By sharing the financial burden of foster carers they can make a significant difference.
It is essential for foster carers to be able to provide the same opportunities and experiences to looked-after children as they do for their own, without fear of overspending their allowances, whether they are buying shoes, books or school uniforms, or contemplating a trip to a farm park, the cinema or a holiday. As a foster family who look after siblings in care, we understand the significance of financial considerations. We are always mindful of the fact that as well as caring for other people's children, we are custodians of taxpayers' money. We also know that if we get it right we make an important contribution towards helping a looked-after child become a responsible and valued member of society as an adult.
If fostering is to have a future, it needs to become a national social movement, and not just the responsibility of a few thousand volunteers. A national membership scheme supported by business would provide a wonderful launch pad. Companies may even find that such a scheme becomes self-funding, by attracting additional business.
For the sake of all our children, fostering must be embraced and understood by all, and supported in meaningful, innovative ways. Business can, and should, play its part.