Every year, around 30,000 children enter the British care system – imagine the intake of 30, average-sized comprehensive schools – all children needing to live with people other than their parents, in surroundings that may, or may not be familiar to them. On any one day in the UK, there are 65,000 children living with over 55,000 foster families. That’s a lot of vulnerable children.
In a recent report on the state of fostering in England, the government recognised that:
“…the number of children in care increased at a faster rate than the number of fostering places, which may suggest the fostering sector is struggling to keep up with the increasing demand.”
The charity, Fostering Network, reports that another 8,100 foster families will be needed in the next 12 months alone to meet the increasing demand for places.
So what exactly is fostering, and why is it important?
Fostering has a long history
There are references in The Bible and The Talmud to societies having a ‘duty of care’ for dependent children, although fostering as we understand it today, could be said to have been introduced in 1853, when a Cheshire Reverend, John Armistead, took children out of the local workhouse and placed them with foster families instead. The local union (a predecessor of the local council) paid the foster parents a sum of money, equal to the cost of keeping the child in the workhouse, and was still legally responsible for the children.
In the mid-1800s, the practice began to be more regulated, and the passing of the Adoption of Children Act in 1926, began the move towards increased regulation, legislation and safeguarding, which continues to this day.
What do foster carers do?
Ostensibly, fostering is a simple job involving looking after children and providing them with a bed, food and a stable, nurturing environment that they may not have previously enjoyed. In reality, fostering is much more complex and simply feeding and providing material comforts is the tip of the iceberg. More often, what these children really need, is a loving, stable and consistent approach to their physical, emotional and psychological wellbeing; and those skills go far beyond just ‘bed and board’.
Many children in care have suffered abuse or neglect; causing them to have a range of physical, emotional and mental challenges to deal with, in addition to the trauma of being removed from their parents.
A survey of foster carers revealed that 48% were supporting children with mental health needs who were not currently accessing specialist support; and 43% had looked after a child who had either caused violence in their home, gone missing or had some involvement with the police. This compares to just 8% of parents coping with the same challenges, and highlights the increasing demands of the role. Fostering can be a difficult and emotionally-demanding, 24/7 job!
Responsibilities (amongst others) include:
- Providing food, clothes and accommodation for the day-to-day living of the child (an allowance is paid to support carers financially with this)
- Passing the statutory minimum standards for foster carers within 12 months of being approved
- Attending CPD sessions
- Keeping accurate records or the child’s progress and incidents involving their behaviour or wellbeing
- Attending meetings with social workers, medical services, and review sessions
- Liaising with the birth family
Acting as an advocate for the child
- Keeping up-to-date with current training and legislation
- Supporting children in transition – if they ‘move on’ – either returning home, being adopted or to a new placement
Who can foster?
In short, most people! There’s no ‘generic’ foster carer profile – they come from all social spheres, have a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and life experiences. They receive training and have a dedicated social worker to support them.
There are a few criteria that you need to meet, although these may vary depending on whether you apply through a Local Authority or a private fostering agency. You should:
- be at least 21 years-old (although you can apply from age 18)
- have a large-enough spare bedroom
- be a full-time resident in the UK or have permission to remain
- be able to give the time to care for a child or young person depending on their needs
Applications can take from 6-12 months from enquiry to approval and will take into account your health, financial security, friends and own family too. Carers also need to pass safeguarding checks. Things that don’t affect your ability to apply include your race, marital status, religion, gender and sexual orientation. In fact, people from ethnic minorities are often sought after to match with children from a similar background. There’s also no upper age limit.
There are also different types of carers including those who look after babies, short-term, long-term, parent-and-baby carers and enhanced carers who deal with the most challenging children.
So with all this potential stress, why does anyone do it?
A foster carer we spoke to said:
“I do it because I can, and because I know I can make a difference. It has not always been easy. There have been many times when I questioned the sanity of what I was doing, especially as a single-carer. There have been tantrums, misunderstandings and difficult issues to resolve – and we are still working through many things each day – all of us learning slowly from each other and making progress. But when I see the life the children have now, and think about what might have been, I know it is the right thing to do and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
The truth is, we all have a responsibility to help the most vulnerable children in our society, and fostering is one important and vital way that can give them security, love, and the prospect of lasting change.
For more information, contact your Local Authority, or visit: