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Sarah Jones is a foster carer with Foster Swansea and a foster carer ambassador with The Fostering Network. Sarah was invited to speak at the National Fostering Framework conference in March. In this blog Sarah shares the key parts of her speech.

I need to come clean and tell you that I’ve only been fostering for two years. Actually not even two whole years! But I do have experience of working in the sector and with care leavers.

27 years ago I worked in a 'traditional' children’s home, and then in a short-stay hostel for the young single homeless in London. After 17 years running my own business in the US, I made Wales my home and have since worked in care leavers projects, as a policy officer, and as a manager for a large extra care scheme, all within the third sector.

My wife and I then made the decision that would foster and I became the main carer.

Raising concerns

My keen interest in policy and strategy brought me to join The Fostering Network’s team in Wales as one of several foster carer ambassadors within the Fostering Excellence programme. As ambassadors we hope to help shape The Fostering Network’s programmes, provide peer support, and amplify the voices of foster carers across Wales.

I do have concerns about the fostering system and would like to see:

  • better matched placements, with more information given to us in advance, where possible
  • improvements in training.
  • allowances reviewed, as they do not always cover the cost of looking after fostered children
  • fees introduced to recognise the contribution of foster carers
  • our regional diversity recognised and considered, as carers face different issues around the country
  • foster carers have an equal voice at the table with other professionals.

I'm really excited that the National Fostering Framework is taking this great opportunity to review the fostering system in Wales.

Training

In terms of training, Confidence in Care is a great example of a national programme being delivered to foster carers by organisations working in partnerships which helps to improve placement stability and overcome the difficulties with challenging behaviour.

I think the opportunity for more partnership training is very real under the National Fostering Framework. Local authorities could work together in clusters and be able to programme training events that they may not be able to afford locally. They could deliver specialist training that a single authority finds cost prohibitive. It will no longer matter whether you live in a large authority or a small one, the opportunities for a high standard of training could be available to every carer in all parts of Wales. It would end the issue of some carers not receiving any training, other than the mandatory training when they first sign up. We noted that carers in north and west Wales may need additional levels of support from the Welsh Government to allow them to come together, and particularly for the more rural communities and authorities.

Payments

The ambassadors, in particular, welcome the opportunity to discuss and resolve some of the disparities in pay for carers, and the maintenance allowances.

In 2011 The Welsh Government outlined the Minimum Maintenance Allowance for Foster Carers 2011-2014 and we are concerned that the figures within the research were based on ‘the minimum appropriate level of income’. It goes on to state that this level is equivalent to the relative poverty thresholds. It uses poverty thresholds as a baseline for maintenance allowances. What does this say about how our society values our looked after children and the carers who are raising them? We know that poverty is a major contributor to children becoming looked after and that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty of any nation in the UK. We do not want to see that poverty perpetuated in the care system.

There are no recommendations for one-off payments, holidays and the separate rooms needed for looked after children while on holiday. It does not take into account Christmas or birthday payments. Some local authorities give money to carers for Christmas and birthdays, others do not. All of which begs the question: will these children have the same experiences as children who are not looked after?

The ambassadors would like to see further research done into the true cost that carers face. We would also like the Welsh Government to set an absolute minimum standard, rather than just recommending a minimum.

Foster carers’ fees are also an area which needs assessment. Amounts vary between authorities, from no payments at all, to something more meaningful. The Fostering Network has found that a carer could be paid £37,000 in one part of Wales, and £13,000 in another, for doing exactly the same job.

Fee payments should be standardised and implemented universally, especially when partners of foster carers get nothing for their contribution. Foster carers also don’t get paid for long-term sick leave and we don’t get time off to grieve.

Areas to review

There is a huge investment in the assessment and training to become foster carers so let’s see what we can do to retain carers for longer. We would like to see an analysis of the influence of allowance and fee payments, training provision and support packages on foster carer retention in each local authority. We also feel more transparency around the use of independent fostering providers - in terms of performance, cost and outcomes - would be beneficial.

As foster carers, we want to contribute ideas to various aspects of fostering including recruitment, policies and procedures and training. We don’t just want to be carers complaining about a child over the phone. We all want to increase the number of consistent placements that are well matched and do not break down.

Motivations

Our children are our joy, our spark. They are the reason we keep doing this. We watch a child begin their time with us flinching as we offer a hug, being threatened with a pupil referral unit if their behaviour doesn’t improve at school, or getting into trouble with the police. But, under our watch, those children transform. Suddenly they jump into our arms, not content with a simple hug, they want an all-encompassing embrace. They go from being bottom in their class in maths to it being their favourite subject. They are no longer in trouble with the police but volunteering with a youth group.

Payments, training and support as professionals are all key to attracting and retaining foster carers. We’re not under any illusions that this career choice will become a highly paid one, but undervaluing it will also have its consequences and they will sadly be felt by our looked after children.

With the support of the Welsh Government, The Fostering Network and the National Fostering Framework we can do so much more.