Foster carers will be familiar with the language of fostering. No one who has made it all the way to becoming an Approved foster carer can have missed key vocabulary: challenging, rewarding, life-changing…the list is a long one. It is well to be aware that words have power and this varies according to the particular context they are used in. This means they can shift our perceptions in ways that are positive or negative. And we are not always aware of the direction of this shift or its possible consequences. Fostering children is undeniably challenging and rewarding. Both terms can mean different things to us at different times. Consider the word ‘challenging’: its use is widespread as on one level it can obviously appeal to those who like a challenge. We should be aware that as well as including a particular group, it can also exclude others. This is especially the case if we already have our own associations with the term which then drives the way we think and behave.
A good example of this effect is where those who are looking to recruit more foster parents, only approach the idea of ‘challenge’ in a narrow way. It might mean they associate only people who are fit and robust as being able to cope with the challenges fostering presents. Doing this means overlooking a substantial and significant group in society that could make a huge contribution: the disabled. For foster care to be really successful, it has to offer a child or young person security and stability over the long term. It’s possible to see that where this is missing, foster care very quickly becomes about fire-fighting as placements breakdown. It is this phenomenon that wreaks so much havoc on young lives. Is it a surprise to discover that children who have never known stability fail to make progress at school. Or, that so many of them are; as dispiriting statistics make clear, destined to get caught up in the penal system. I a review set up by the Prison Reform Trust it emerged that children aged between ten and seventeen who had been in the care system were more than five times as likely to find themselves in trouble. This is not unique to the UK which proves that the twin ills of instability and insecurity affect children everywhere. To prove the point, in a piece ‘What is the foster care to prison pipeline?’ – published by the Juvenile Law Centre – stated:
“According to the latest data, there are 437,500 children in America’s foster care system, who face a disproportionate risk of being incarcerated. The problem is so severe that one-quarter of foster care alumni will become involves with the criminal justice system within two years of leaving care.”
This makes clear that a challenge, in a wider sense, certainly exists for everyone dedicated to the idea fostering provision should be about success and opportunity.
If we are to create a system of fostering provision that is fit for the 21st century, we have to start to think very differently. In the UK there is a shortfall this year of over 8,000 foster families. We need to widen the net to appeal to the kinds of people who are overlooked when we think about foster care. Why not, as a good starting point, look at people who every day successfully overcome challenges and make a success of their lives. At the very least, they are going to probably make great role models. But, and this is the most significant part, we cannot now afford to overlook them. It’s essential that prejudicial ideas about disability are dispensed with. Clearly, the degree of a person’s disability will always have to be taken into account but they will understand what dealing with challenge is all about. They will have a home and so the fundamental fostering questions – is it a place that offers security and stability – just need to be asked. If yes, then whether a person is disabled or able-bodied should not really matter.
It is a fact that disabled people are very rarely used as foster parents. But there are those with disabilities – such as Jon Powton who are making a real success of it. In a recent profile, he said –
“Being a foster carer is the best thing that I’ve done with my life.”
If there is a typical image of a foster carer, he did not fit it. He is a former engineer and aged forty-four, he suffers from a mild form of muscular dystrophy. Even though he and his wife have been fostering for the last eight years, he feels there is still a stigma attached to disabled foster carers. The idea of becoming a foster carer had first occurred to him in 2011. Getting his fostering career off the ground in the first place had not been easy. At the initial attempt, he was refused by both his local authority and a fostering agency. As he explains:
“They thought I was too disabled and my wife was too old.” Fortunately, he was not put off and was encouraged by the National Fostering Agency to proceed with an application. When he was Approved to foster, he was allocated a teenager to care for. Without a backward look, this led to Jon and his wife, Denise, fostering more children and young people. As far as he’s concerned –
“It’s the best thing that I’ve done with my life.”
In some ways, Jon Powton has taken up the cause for more disabled people to become foster carers. His experience of fostering has been very positive. It led him to frame the question in his own mind as to why it was there were not more disabled foster carers. His researches were further prompted by seeing an advertising campaign to attract foster carers that addressed all sorts of groups in society – except the disabled. Understanding that there is currently an acute shortage of foster carers, Jon Powton looked into whether anywhere in the UK was there an effort being made to recruit disabled people. The answer he found was – as he said – “literally nowhere” were attempts being made to appeal to disabled people to become foster carers.
it is an encouraging development that the University of Worcester has embarked upon research into the factors underlying the countrywide shortage of disabled foster carers. The goal is to identify the particular barriers that might be preventing disabled people to think about becoming foster carers. The research is being funded by the ‘Drill Programme” – Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning – along with the National Lottery.
The research project’s lead researcher at the university is Peter Unwin. He is principal lecturer in social work there. He stated – “There’s a stigma attached to disability that determines how agencies view disabled people who might apply to be foster carers – they tend to see only the disability and what you can’t do. it’s a very negative mindset that is robbing children of a caring environment and a potential new home.” The research has also highlighted that fear of loss of benefits, a lack of role models, attitudes and the messages and wording put out by fostering agencies, combine to put disabled people off.
There needs to be step change in attitudinal thinking – especially amongst the service providers. When the University of Worcester conducted a survey amongst five hundred foster care agencies – enquiring if they had any disabled foster carers – only six of them responded. Of these, only a couple had direct experience of working with disabled people and this was of a limited nature.
What this research show should not be surprising. It is indicative of the wider exclusion faced by disabled people in society. Just under half of disabled people within the age range of sixteen to sixty-four are in employment. This is compared to over eighty per cent of able-bodied people. These statistics are worse for some specific disabilities: less than six per cent of people with learning disabilities are in full-time employment and the figure is just sixteen per cent for this with autism. What should concern us all is the result from a recent ComRes survey which indicated 1 in 4 employers in the UK is less likely to hire an individual with a disability.
Given that the official figure shows the shortage of foster families in the UK is at 8,500 we cannot afford to ignore this group. But we should be be considering disabled people because society is up against it in terms of finding carers, an examination of the unique offering that disabled people can make in relation to fostering should be articulated. Apart from Jon Powton’s story there are others of disabled foster carers who are making a phenomenal difference to the lives of children and young people.
What are the experiential differences of a child being looked after by a person with a disability? This will be unique and potentially extremely positive. Any child arriving in a disabled person’s home will be instantly confronted by someone who is disadvantaged. They will quickly see that they have to deal with problems every day that able bodied people do not. It is an immediate lesson for children that it is not just they who have real problems. The experience of another foster carer with a rare type of arthritis is illuminating in all sorts of ways. She believes that far from inhibiting her job as a foster parent, her view is that the arthritis helps from the perspective of children seeing everyone in life has “ups and downs”. Another positive effect is that when her condition ‘flares-up’, the foster children will help with jobs around the house.
Role models in life should not just be sporting successes and stars of stage and screen. A disabled carer who is coping every day and still managing to do their best for a foster child is sending a powerful signal to the child of its worth. Foster children are desperate to know that they are valued. Why wouldn’t they be? So many of their experiences – if not all – point to the contrary. A disabled foster carer shows them they are valued each and every day. Fostering agencies need to be creating a wholly new narrative. The benefits of being cared for by a disabled foster carer are unique and should be promoted. Of course, such placements may need additional support but if the foster home is stable and secure – with care and love – it is providing all that we ever envisage a foster home should.
The government should be playing a part in this. It’s a matter of record that disabled people struggle to get into employment. Jon Powton’s experiences stand for many – as he stated: “As soon as the word disability is mentioned, you can hear doors closing.” But how uplifting is this – since fostering became his way back into employment it came to represent so much more to him – “it isn’t just a job, its a vocation.”
Benefits to us all.
The government needs to wake up to what is a real opportunity to address the serious shortfall of foster carers. It also presents the scope to create a sense of value and inclusion for what could be thousands of people afflicted by some form of disability. And they could be in no doubt that they would be doing work of inestimable value on behalf of us all. This could be a classic win-win situation. Of course, such placements may be more costly in terms of the additional support they may need. This cost would be dwarfed when set against the long-term social costs that failed placements ultimately lead to. There needs to be a sea change in government thinking which views disabled people as a valuable resource. Jon Powton employs a compelling argument when he states:
“There are more than 13 million disabled people in the UK, meaning that recruiting 0.01% of us could more than solve the problem of the national shortfall in foster carers.”
A quick search will reveal that there is precious little information available to disabled people who might be thinking of fostering as an option. The authors of the government’s recent fostering stocktake were not supportive of the idea of a general national fostering awareness campaign:
“It was put to us, not least by ADCS, that what was needed in addition to the recruitment efforts of local authorities and IFAs, and in addition to Foster Care Fortnight, was a large-scale national advertising campaign funded by central government. We are not persuaded of that.”
The fact remains that the country is short of 8,500 foster families and each year experienced foster carers are lost through retirement. This means that recruitment will remain at the top of the fostering agenda for years to come unless we can find ways to target groups that can make a real difference. The LGBT+ community has many outstanding carers who well understand what it is to meet and overcome challenges in life.
More facts and figures concerning disability and independent living can be found at: https://www.dlf.org.uk/content/key-facts
Could you provide foster care?
To be a successful carer you need to have the passion, commitment and dedication to prioritise the needs of a child or young person. It’s important to understand that many children coming into care now are extremely vulnerable. This is because they have been traumatised by experienced that affected them well before coming into the fostering system. Here at Rainbow Fostering Agency, we have over twenty-one years of experience recruiting and training foster carers from all walks of life. If you want to find out more, simply call us on 020 8427 3355. It’s also possible to get in touch with us by using our National Line – 0330 311 2845.
To find out what makes a foster carer visit: http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/who-can-foster/
We are always interested in meeting established foster carers who might; for whatever reason be thinking of transferring to another fostering agency. We have been rated Outstanding by Ofsted and support the career ambitions of all our foster carers. Find out more about what we can do to further your career: http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/transfer-to-rainbow/
Rainbow Fostering is expanding. Be part of four success story: we now have offices in Birmingham, Manchester, London and Hampshire. we are recruiting in these areas.
The circumstances of our foster carers are all different. Some are single/divorced/married. We also have couples who live together – with or without children. We also have many same-sex couples fostering children and young people.
It is the policy of Rainbow to always try and place our children and young people with foster carers who reflect their own background and cultural heritage. Whatever your ethnicity, we would love to engage with you and tell you all about the rewards a career in fostering can offer.