Ever since the foster care stocktake was released, we have solidly questioned its remit and motivations. Indeed, whilst it was being conducted, we questioned whether it was a genuine response to the very real problems that exist in relation to fostering. But, prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt, we waited to see what its conclusions would be.
There has been much subsequent comment and reaction. It has to be said, mostly it was lukewarm. The leading charity, The Fostering Network, described it as a “missed opportunity”. The government could appear to be doing something – a well established tactic – and problems; like the proverbial can, could be kicked down the road. That works, but only to a point. Those familiar with wider, deep-seated problems in society that impact on fostering, could see the government; if off the hook, would only be so temporarily. And so it has proved to be.
The stocktake was a careful piece of choreography. It didn’t deal, for example, with the issue of mental health and its impacts. It had very little to say about education. It appeared largely unperturbed that only six per cent of children in care progress to higher education. Of course, in relative terms, children who start out facing so many disadvantages can be judged to have done well if they actually finish their schooling. If you think this is an exaggeration, remember recent publicity about schools ‘off-rolling’ underachieving problem pupils fearing the school’s results will be affected. This is a very good example of how the encouraging, optimistic blandishments intoned in the stocktake were rapidly overtaken by other factors. All of which can deeply affect children in the care system.
There is something wrong, by any measure, by a stocktake unruffled by only six per cent of children in care progressing to higher education. The problem is that any government intent on making serious inroads into improving this statistic would have to confront many other problems lying behind it. If they did, we could be reassured they would be looking at the issue in a holistic way which would bring change.
The stocktake has painted a world out of kilter with what is now happening. Press coverage has meant the government has been forced to respond in ways hardly anticipated by the stocktake.
This statistic is proving extremely problematic. And this explains why there is frantic government activity. The fate of care leavers’ is clearly being pushed up the political agenda. The government is now requesting universities work to improve the support they give to care leavers. Recently, a new ‘Care Leaver Covenant’* was announced.
It is concerning that the government is approaching this at a time when teenagers are too old. Many foster children need to recover first from damaging experiences – then be shielded from the extremely damaging effects of placement breakdowns. It’s only by being raised in a stable and loving environment that a young person can begin to develop ambition.
We argue that once we see foster children going on to higher education in large numbers, this will indicate a system of provision that is working. This is the litmus test. It should have been recognised as such by the authors of the foster care stocktake. But to have framed care in this way would have resulted in a whole series of difficult questions and policy requirements. Which is why it wasn’t done. Since its publication government responses have clearly been reactive. This is not at all the same as proactive engagement. And there are very real issues of trust emerging. It is hard for the government to ‘change it spots’ when the House of Commons Library reveals £7.7bn fall in education spending since the Tories came to power.
* Universities are signing up to the new Covenant in greater numbers: a welcome step since there should now be better support available. Information and practical advice can be found at the Office for Students (OfS) https://bit.ly/2E0U1YH
There has been press in recent days where experts are cautioning against a “looming crisis” in foster care. This is attributed to a lack of both support and funding from government. The result of this it is reasoned has left foster carers feeling abandoned and in many cases demoralised. This is made worse by the overwork and emotional burden of fostering children with complex needs and behavioural problems. Remember, no specialist training or qualification is required to be a foster carer – yet carers are increasingly having to deal with vulnerable children whose care would challenge professionals. This is why there is so much weight behind there argument made by The Fostering Network, that foster carers indeed be regarded and treated as professionals. It is revealing that the authors of the foster care stocktake set their faces against this argument. Their idea of what foster carers are having to deal with is conveniently – and cost effectively – rooted in a bygone age. This is inexcusable since there were, and remain, a whole series of alarm bells ringing.
Perhaps predictably – given their reaction to the foster care stocktake – the charity are not mincing their words: government stands accused of neglecting foster care. This view is expressed in the Fostering Network’s “State of the Nation’s Foster Care Report”. It goes on to point out the challenges faced by foster carers. Around fifty per cent of foster carers have been asked to provide care for a child known to be violent, has self-harmed, absconded or even been in trouble with the police. Now a significant number of foster carers find themselves looking after a child with mental health issues who is not in receipt of specialist support. That the situation is concerning, is made clear by the chief executive of The Fostering Network, Kevin Williams: “We are facing a continued increase in the numbers of children coming into care at a time when financial pressures and reduced budgets mean that local authorities are increasingly cash-strapped – that can only lead to a request for more services with less money, and subsequently to young people and foster carers not getting the right support to meet their needs. There’s a crisis looming – and the most disadvantaged in our society and our communities are going to be the people who suffer the most.”
Given that it is always going to be challenging to recruit new foster carers – currently there is a shortage of around 8,000 – it is especially disturbing the report finds that around half of all foster carers would not recommend fostering to other people. Such ‘word of mouth’ recommendations has been key in keeping the numbers of applicants up. So this fact alone could be of particular significance in relation to future recruitment. Important too, is the moral of foster carers: fifty-eight per cent of carers thought they were valued and treated as an equal by social workers, but twenty-five percent felt unsure about the authority they had to make day-to-day about the child in their care.
The system can appear incomprehensible: ever-increasing sums is being spent on foster care, but two-thirds of foster carers already feel that the allowance and expenses they are able to claim, do not adequately cover the costs of caring for children. The report finds that fewer than one in ten foster carers are paid at or above the national living wage. The Labour deputy mayor of Hackney, Antoinette Bramble has warned that record increases in the numbers of children coming into care are likely to result in a £3.1bn funding shortfall by the year 2015. Even though this is the case, it looks as if the state has been getting foster carer on the cheap for many years. That is a view likely to be endorsed by the carers themselves. There is now no economic case to be made against significantly increasing the resources available to support foster children and as crucially supporting families to reduce numbers coming into care. As Kevin Williams says:
“If we don’t prioritise these children and meet their needs now, they’re going to be very costly adults in terms of mental health issues, homelessness, involvement in crime and unemployment.”
A proper, foster care stocktake would have made an all-encompassing assessment of all the factors likely to impact on the provision and, most importantly, the efficacy of foster care. This would have resulted in a very different set of questions being asked. Those with an interest in finding out more about provision for mental health support services can learn more about the subject by visiting:
Of course, there are tremendous success stories and many foster carers achieving much for those children and young people they care for. All too often the background ‘mood music’ for this is it’s against the odds. Should we as a society expect fostering to be such a battle. If we do, we should at least recognise that those engaged upon it on our behalf deserve being well rewarded. Then there is the more nebulous cost. How much are we all impoverished if we allow a system to continue that is creaking and underfunded. Famously, this country is described as ‘being at ease with itself’. Such a sensibility has to be at risk if the most vulnerable children in our society face futures that are bleak. What is not acceptable is the random nature of this. Some children in care have a positive experience, but that, surely, is the entitlement of all. If, in the 21st century, we cannot plan, create, and deliver a system that guarantees this consistently, politicians are failing us all.
An apocryphal tale
We want the county’s foster children to succeed because of the system, not in spite of it. Consider the story of Lemm Sissay. He was a child in care, but went on to acquire two honorary doctorates, an MBE and beat Peter Mandelson to the Chancellorship of Manchester University. In his one-off production ‘The Report’ put on at the Royal Court in London, his experiences as a child in care were excoriatingly retold. It is a harrowing tale of achievement against the odds and the kinds of experiences that would break the will of most. Its value is that it illustrates to the rest of us the kind of world and experiences children in care confront. Of course, every story is different, but there are common themes – uncertainty, betrayal and indifference. Do we want people to succeed against such insurmountable odds. Of course not, because for every success story there will be many more that end sadly and, in some cases, tragically.
The nettle has to be grasped: government must embrace a new narrative about foster care. It has to be one that sees foster carers as professionals. It is a role that must attract recognition and respect. First, the flow of children coming into a system where there are nowhere near enough foster carers to deal with complex needs, has to be stemmed. This means significantly increased funding to be directed toward supporting families that are on the brink. Unless there is a direct risk to a child – abuse or neglect – it must make more sense to keep a family together. Removing the immediate strain imposed by the sheer numbers of children entering the care system, will create the space to look afresh at recruitment. What is it to be a foster carer? The type of person who can be a foster carer? There seems to be confusion about the expectations of the role. The government must be aware of the research done by The Fostering Network splitting types of foster carer into three distinct groups: ‘Pioneers’, ‘Prospectors’ and ‘Settlers”. So they will be clear in
many ways about the varying character attributes of those motivates to consider fostering. It follows, therefore, much more could be done to refine the recruitment process. Without waiting to be cynical, it may well suit the government to perpetuate a simplistic notion of the kinds of people who go into fostering: well-meaning, kindly and not looking for much by way of reward. Such a stereotype hardly compares with people keen to see themselves as professional, motivated to develop a career and take up every training opportunity its going to increase their worth. And it would be this last consideration likely to disturb a government already cutting costs.
There is a paradox: governments of all stripes have never been reluctant to spend countless sums on consultants and various vanity projects of one sort or another. In such instances, outcomes have often only been vague, and even if realised have come only after hugely significant cost over-runs. And yet, where fostering provision is concerned, it is clear to see that funding increases targeted in particular ways could make a profound and positive difference. The people of our country, the taxpayer and of course the growing numbers of vulnerable children all deserve fresh thinking and a new direction from government.
Are you in a position to provide a foster home?
You could be helping a vulnerable youngster who can no longer live with their own family. The minimum requirements to foster are quite straightforward: a spare bedroom; be over 21 years of age; have a passion and commitment to improving the lives of children and young people. Importantly, you should be dedicated to supporting them with their education.
Who can foster?
At Rainbow, we welcome all applicants to foster: this is regardless of their ethnicity, religion or indeed their cultural background. An individual’s sexual orientation or relationship status is not a bar to fostering. Single people, couples, divorcees, married couples – those with or without children of their own – can all consider becoming foster carers.
Would you like to be trained to foster a child, teenager, parent and child or a sibling group?
If the answer is yes, please call our specialist recruitment team on 020 8427 3355. You can also speak with us by calling our National Line 0330 311 2845
Remember too, there is plenty of detailed information about foster care on our website – visit http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/becoming-a-foster-carer/ We also have an updated Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) section on our website. This covers many of the basic enquiries we have received over many years. Go to http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/frequent-asked-questions/
or for another interesting topic http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/foster-children-scholarships-schools/
Of course we would be delighted to talk in person with you if you need clarification on a particular point(s) concerning fostering.