Foster carers are in short supply. For some years, the leading charity The Fostering Network has been running high profile annual campaigns to attract more people into fostering. These are imaginative and galvanise a lot of energy right across the UK. For two weeks, fostering children is placed high on the public agenda. And it has to be said there is a lot of creditable support from many sections of the media. And why not? Recruiting more foster carers should be much more of a national priority. The simple evidence for this is that back in 2014, fostering services were under the same pressure to find people with the right skills and qualities to become foster parents. And in 2014 there was a need for 8,600 new foster families.
This year’s #changeafuture campaign organised by The Fostering network started with the need to recruit slightly over 8,000 new carers. This means that over a five year period there has been hardly any change in the numbers of new fostering families needing to be found. The figure remains stubbornly fixed. This is despite the fact that back in 2014, there was excitement around a new profiling tool which held out the hope for fostering services of improving recruitment. Values Mode was the tool being used. It profiled individuals personality and values. The thinking behind it was that our beliefs and attitudes exert influence on most of our daily actions. And this encompasses what car we choose to drive, who we might bank with to the political party we might vote for. In 2014 Values Mode theory had already been applied to a number of other industries before being considered for the recruitment of foster carers. https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/site/search/%23changeafuture
The research had revealed that 73 per cent of foster parents shared a distinct values set. This was termed ‘Pioneer’. This compared against a national average in the United Kingdom of roughly 30 per cent with these values. Pioneers were the kind of people with a highly developed sense of right and wrong. They were also people concerned about the environment and the kind of society we live in. Interestingly, they were people with a powerful desire to make a difference. Encouragingly, these were people who exhibited the traits expected of carers.
It was reported at the time that Hertfordshire council – one of a group of local authorities – decided to pilot this values-based approach when recruiting foster carers. Specific changes were made to the marketing and promotional materials produced to appeal to ‘Pioneers’. The result: a net gain of thirty-six foster parents in the first year of the project followed by forty-five in the second. The research had also thrown up the fact that over a quarter of foster parents shared a ‘non-pioneer’ set of values. These were termed ‘Prospectors’ – 22 per cent – and ‘Settlers’ – 5 per cent. Prospectors exhibited a strong desire to ‘be the best’ and then, importantly, to be recognised for their actions. The Settlers revealed themselves to place a high value on family structure, routines and security. These traits were also a nice fit with the characteristics one would look for in people applying to become foster carers. It was obviously encouraging that the research when broken down indicated there were key groups sharing value sets appropriate for fostering.
The campaigns that were devised focused on those with Pioneer values – hardly surprising. But the mention of the fees available to those fostering remained a significant taboo. In the last five years, this seems to have been changing in relation to fostering recruitment. The fostering landscape has been changing as foster carers have been becoming more vocal. In 2016, foster carers voted to form the first ever trade union. This move received support at the time from Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell. At the time, this was described as being an unprecedented step which followed a meeting of sixty current foster carers as well former carers held in a committee room in Parliament. McDonnell was present and stated:
“Foster caring is an essential role in our society, and these foster carers carry a burden for the rest of our community so they should be properly recognised. They have never really been recognised and had legal rights. They should have security of their employment and be properly paid as well, and they should have the support that they need.” The union was formed and has since gone on to make its presence felt. Only in October, last year IWGB foster care workers protested Devon County Council’s decision to make “dramatic cuts and changes to foster care”
Apart from their concerns about their employment and legal status, one of the most pressing of their desires was to be recognised as professionals.
This was followed by the Department for Education launching what it termed a “fundamental review” of fostering in the country. Whatever conclusions the DfE come up with, they will not keep up with what is happening in the fostering sector. The plain truth is that the independent fostering agencies – IFAs – tend to pay more than the Local Authorities as they are competing in the market place and need to attract and retain the best foster carers.
Everyone involved in fostering provision will be aware that over 65% of children being taken into care are traumatised as a consequence of suffering some form of abuse or neglect. This can make it hard for them to be able to trust other people. Children who have had these experiences also find it hard to build relationships. This can result in them presenting challenging behaviours as their needs are so complex. This means that depression, anger or withdrawn behaviour can be common amongst such children and young people. In such cases, the best way forward is to place a child with a foster carer who has received special training in therapeutic foster care. The gives the young person child the opportunity; possibly for the first time ever, to build a trusting and enduring relationship with their foster parent. Whilst in the foster home, a child or young person may receive additional therapy. This is designed to enable them to overcome the traumatic experiences they have suffered.
These children, arriving in increasing numbers, present a difficult challenge for the most experienced foster carers. The unfortunate reality is many placements are breaking down because these children have been so traumatised. This has serious effects: when children experience multiple placement breakdowns the effects can be grievous. Such experiences more or less guarantee that they will come nowhere near reaching their educational potential. And this has to raise questions as to what we, as a society, expect from the significant sums expended on the care system. Only around 6 per cent of children from a care background progress to higher education. This is measured against around 50 per cent of their peers. This is not something that the country can either afford or accept.
Fostering agencies are working strenuously to attract people to become therapeutic foster carers. And their ranks are growing. In the meantime, providers need to look at their existing pool of carers and offer those with the right aptitudes the opportunity to become therapeutic foster carers. This comes at an opportune moment because many carers want to be recognised as professionals. A therapeutic foster carer will have received special training. This enables them to create a supportive environment for a child or young person who has suffered trauma. The carer will be able to appreciate the experiences of the child and their negative impacts. Understanding what has gone wrong, means the carer will have the skills to support the child’s emotional, psychological and social development. Throughout the training, the foster carer will develop a deeper understanding of the underlying reasons for a child or young person’s behaviour. This will enable them to play a key role in supporting a programme of therapy in the fostering home. Moving increasingly towards therapeutic care will, again, have the overall effect of professionalising the role of the foster carer. This will appeal particularly to those identified as having ‘Pioneer’ values by addressing their aspirations.
Across the UK (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), a total of 8,600 new foster families are needed. An identical figure to the number required back in 2014. Over the intervening years carers will have retired so it does indeed look as if the recruitment effort is stuck against this figure of getting 8,000 new families into fostering. The Fostering Network is quite right in being anxious about the rate experienced foster carers are being lost through retirement – or simply ceasing to be carers. Those providing fostering services have to recognise that the challenge is now to recruit much younger people into fostering. And that will be a stiff challenge. It is nonetheless one that has to be met. How else are people to gain the required experience without starting when they are younger? This is especially, for all of the reasons given, because fostering is becoming more challenging. Back on Sunday, 25th May 2014, The Fostering Network was warning about the impending situation: “More younger people need to be encouraged to foster in order to avoid a recruitment crisis”. This was issued following the publication of a fostering survey revealing that almost one in three foster carers were (5 years ago) “approaching an age where they may consider retiring”.
The simple fact is that today the majority – three-quarters of people who are fostering – are aged over 45. The law currently permits people to apply to become carers from the age of 18. But most independent fostering agencies will really want a person to be a minimum of 21. Still very young – but a big difference between 45. The objective has to now be to present fostering children as a real career choice to individuals in the age band of 25 to 45. In an ideal world, promotional messaging should aim to attract people of around 30 and over. It is this group that are likely to have more life experience and to be in more stable situations than people under 24.
There is a strong argument for a public awareness campaign aimed at younger potential applicants. The evidence shows in research The Fostering Network has conducted. It highlights that many young people “rule themselves out” of fostering: only “22 per cent of people aged 18-25 think they would even be accepted as foster carers even if they applied within the next two years.
And there are going to be young people who will consider fostering – especially if it is presented as a career option with plenty of opportunities to train and build skills.
“Susie Walters, is 23 and going through the application process with her boyfriend, says she can’t wait to start. Susie’s motivation was her own mother. “She has been a foster carer for over thirty-two years, which means I was brought up alongside lots of children. My sister and I loved always having someone to live with.”
Everyone who works in fostering provision should also be encouraged by research conducted in May last year by YouGov for Coram. It revealed that 89 per cent of people in the UK realised that children were coming into care because of abuse or neglect. And most encouragingly of all, 22 per cent equal to 11 million adults would give consideration to fostering as a career.
Carol Homden, CBE, CEO of Coram stated:
“In the context when the number of children in care has increased and the need for greater numbers of carers is pressing, these findings are very encouraging. That people have a genuine desire to help vulnerable children during times when they cannot be with their birth parents was evidenced by our charity which pioneered foster care in the eighteenth century. The challenge now is how to build on the compassionate impetus of the public in order to meet the needs of those tens of thousands of children who need the love and support of a carer during difficult times in their lives. Foster carers make a massive difference to the lives of the children they look after. In the recent Bright Spots survey of young people in care undertaken by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol, 83% said that they thought that their lives were improving. Coram supports all calls for a national campaign to attract greater numbers of people to come forward to foster”.
In the light of this, many thought that it was disappointing that last years Fostering Stocktake did not call for such a campaign to be implemented.
The need for greater public awareness about fostering.
If 11 million adults might give consideration to the idea of fostering, that would surely justify a nationwide public awareness campaign. It would be expensive, but the social costs of running out of foster carers in the long term could be enormous. And such a campaign could create awareness amongst people under thirty that fostering is something well worth considering. Especially as the challenge is going to be to find applicants who are younger.
Are you under 35 and in a position to provide a foster home?
You could be helping a vulnerable child who can no longer live with their own family very soon. The minimum requirements for fostering are simply: have a spare bedroom for a child or young person; be over 21 years of age; have a real passion and commitment toward improving the lives of children.
Just who is eligible to become a carer?
At Rainbow, we welcome all applicants regardless of their ethnicity, religion or cultural background. A person’s sexual orientation or relationship status is not a bar to becoming a carer. Single people, couples, divorcees, married couples – those with or without children of their own – can all consider becoming foster carers. Information is available on 020 8427 3355. You can also contact us by calling our National Line 0330 311 2845. Remember we have plenty of detailed information about fostering 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/