Another week, another local authority prepares to cut allowances for foster carers. Now Bradford has signalled that its foster carers should expect to receive less money for caring for some of society's most vulnerable children and young people.
By doing so Bradford is following not-so-boldly in the footsteps of Bromley and Solihull, to name just two local authorities. In fact, a survey by the Fostering Network last year revealed that around 70% of foster carers had suffered cuts to their allowances, imposed by their council.
Small wonder, then, that there is an acute shortage of foster carers, and that there are calls for a union of foster carers to protect terms and conditions. The Fostering Network estimates that 8,000 new fostering families are needed to meet demand. The number of children and young people being taken into care is at a record high, and there is no sense that the pressure is going to ease any time soon. In particular, foster care is failing to attract younger families so the current cohort is getting older, and retirement looms for many.
Increasingly, foster carers are looking at alternatives to their local authorities, and the packages offered by private fostering providers look increasingly attractive. Councils can ill-afford to lose foster carers to agencies, when it is likely they will incur additional costs to secure placements. Yet, as councils struggle to balance their budgets, foster carers look like an easy target. Even if basic allowances are held, many additional allowances are being removed altogether to save money.
I think that it is particularly difficult for foster carers to express their frustration over allowances because there is still a widely-held belief among the public that fostering and money should never be mentioned in the same breath. That we do it for the love of the children, and that is a reward in itself; and that foster carers should not be motivated by money.
I usually shy away from writing about the finances of foster carer, not least because I am acutely aware that whatever we receive to cover our fostering costs, it is always more than birth families had to spend on their children before they were taken into care. Who am I to complain about allowances that must seem like a small fortune to so many? And councils are not singling out foster carers for cuts. Nobody has been spared. Our hardship is nothing, when measured against somebody trying to care for an elderly mum or dad at home.
You can judge for yourself whether foster allowances are fair by clicking here. We currently receive around £700 a week to foster three children. The finances of fostering are fiendishly complicated. Affordability is significantly influenced by your own circumstances, and those of the children you care for.
Some children arrive with nothing, and receive nothing from their families while they are in placement. Some foster carers have other jobs (I work, but my wife is a full-time carer) but others are unable to. You will need a larger home, and a larger car. If you already own these, you are spared the additional cost. If you don't, then it represents an expense. The wear and tear on the home is costly, particularly when you care for children with special physical and emotional needs. Fostering can be a messy business.
We try to give the children in our care the same opportunities our own children enjoyed. So, we go big on things like swimming lessons, farm parks, cycling, football coaching, trampolining and so on. Each placement becomes a crash course in life skills. Whatever their future holds, we hope that the children leave us better prepared than when they arrived.
Based on figures scribbled on the back of an envelope, I estimate that we have been out of pocket as a result of most (if not all) of our placements. This is before taking into account other factors, such as loss of earnings or vehicle depreciation. But I can't expect that to sway the argument about whether foster carers represent value for taxpayers' money.
Of course, our biggest contribution to fostering is our time, and taxpayers get that for free. We become parents to other people's children, on duty 24/7. We wash, dress and feed them, wipe their bottoms and blow their noses. We teach them to tell the time, tie their shoelaces and understand the difference between right and wrong. We cheer them on from the touchline, fight their corner, hold them tight and brush away their tears when they become overwhelmed by the sheer unfairness of it all.
This is what makes it so difficult to discuss money. But we really, really do need to talk about it.