The role played by foster carers has never been more important. Three-quarters of children in care are in foster care, and with a rising number of children entering the care system, improving the experience of care and raising the outcomes of looked after children must start by ensuring foster care is the very best it can be.
With such importance placed on the role of foster carers, The Fostering Network carries out a survey of foster carers every two years. Over the past few years the report based on this survey – our State of the Nation’s Foster Care report – has become recognised as the most comprehensive insight into foster carers’ views of fostering in the UK.
The 2019 State of the Nation report (based on a survey of over 4,000 foster carers) has just been published and it paints a picture of foster carers whose voices have been ignored by decision makers. Foster carers who are working to help the children in their care flourish despite a fostering system which, foster carers tell us, is too often not giving them the support, training, respect and remuneration they need and deserve.
A sense of frustration
My over-riding emotion when reading the report is one of frustration because the clear messages from foster carers (many of which are repeated from our last survey) reflect a sector which seems to have moved on so little over the last two years.
- Too many foster carers do not feel that they are treated as an equal and valued member of the team by their fostered child’s social workers, with only 58 per cent saying that they do.
- Six in 10 foster carers say that the allowance – the money they are given to spend on a fostered child – does not meet the full costs, with many saying that they are having to dip into their own pockets.
- When being asked to look after a child outside of their usual age range and expertise, more than three-quarters of foster carers are not given the additional support or training which would allow them to best meet the child’s particular needs.
Fostering can be a challenging and emotionally draining job and yet only about a third of foster carers feel that the provision of a short break from fostering when they need it is excellent or good. This risks burn out and a fostering relationship coming to an unnecessary end.
What is clear is that the vital practical and financial support that foster carers require to best meet the needs of the children in their care is not universally forthcoming. With The Fostering Network estimating that over 8,000 more foster families are needed this year, it is essential that the right package of support, training and remuneration is in place to not only ensure existing foster carers continue in their role but also to encourage new people to come forward to foster.
Growing demands on the role
Added to the fact that foster carers are not being supported and treated as they ought, the children and young people in their care have a very complex and challenging set of needs, resulting in the expectation on foster carers growing accordingly.
Our survey found that:
- In the past 24 months 43 per cent of foster carers have looked after a child who has either had involvement with the police, caused violence in their home or run away. According to a YouGov survey of 1,000 parents, this compares with just eight per cent of parents coping with the same three challenges from any of their children.
48 per cent of foster carers say that they are supporting fostered children with mental health needs who are not accessing specialist support.
While fostering has always been perceived as an altruistic activity, and our survey shows that the majority of foster carers (89 per cent) are still motivated by making a difference in the life of a child, the Westminster Government has mistakenly interpreted this motivation as an opportunity to rename foster carers as foster parents. And while we are the first to acknowledge the parenting role that foster carers carry out, as the abovementioned statistics indicate, they are required to do so much more. We believe that the label of ‘parent’ glosses over the complexity of the role and of the needs of children in care, and only serves to exacerbate the marginalisation that many foster carers feel within the children’s social care workforce. Foster carers are increasingly expected to act as professionals, and they are asking to be recognised and treated as such.
In a time of austerity, we must not allow fostered children and young people – and the families caring for them on behalf of the state – to be victims of cuts. The lack of investment in support, training and remuneration for foster carers, and the fact that too many carers are not being made to feel a vital part of the children’s social care workforce, means that the recruitment and retention of foster carers and the outcomes of fostered children and young people are being jeopardised.
The report outlines many recommendations to the governments of the UK, fostering services and placing authorities. We will, of course, be working with and urging governments and other policy makers across all four countries to implement the recommendations which we believe are essential steps towards ensuring that foster carers and the children and young people they are caring for are supported by a fostering system that is fit for purpose.