And about time too

Foster care has too long sidelined in British society and even more
so since the New Labour government made adoption targets the
primary focus of reform in this area of social care. Yet foster
care, far more so than adoption, is truly about the needs of
children rather than the unmet desires of substitute parents. This
is not to demean adopters and their motives. But it seems to me
indisputable that, with many exceptions, most adoptive parents are
seeking a family for themselves (which is understandable and
admirable) while almost all foster parents take up fostering to
meet the altruistic impulse within themselves or to use their
parenting skills to benefit a wide group of children.

Their role is almost superhuman. To care for children yet never lay
claim to them or cross over into love, to pick up again from the
last departed child and welcome in a new one perhaps for a night,
perhaps a year, to meet professional requirements without ever
getting the recognition that they are doing an indispensable job,
to deal with the fallout of family and social failures and yet to
remain invisible and taken for grantedÉ I am sure I couldn’t
do it.

I don’t want to romanticise fostering. There are foster parents who
neglect, sometimes abuse and fail their young charges. For some
children, it erodes their sense of stability and self to live the
itinerant life, moving from family to family (some go through
dozens in a lifetime) and they grow up bitter and suspicious about
the fostering process. Some believe the foster parents are in it
for the money or other cynical reasons. But for many more children
than we know, the fostering option is far preferable to adoption,
and when they finally go out into the world as adults, they
remember the best families they passed through, the temporary
shelters which became home in their hearts.

When writing my new book Mixed Blessings, I interviewed a number of
mixed race children in care. (In some boroughs a disproportionate
number of such children end up under local authority supervision.)
It was illuminating to hear their stories of living with foster
families. A small number of interviewees preferred care homes
because there was no pretence there of family life – that is how
damaged they were. Only a tiny number wanted to be adopted. Perhaps
this was because I was interviewing children who were older than
eight and they knew by then that they were never going to be chosen
by adoptive parents. Besides, they were still waiting for that day
when their real mums or dads would come for them.

For most of my interviewees, foster care was the key, because again
there was no demand to commit on either side and yet there were
individual relationships and adults who gave their time and care
because they wanted to. None of this is statistically valid as I
was only interested in individual experiences and choices, but the
overall picture was interesting and certainly an endorsement of

Yet it is only now that Tony Blair seems to be acknowledging this
vital input by foster carers, a little too late in my view because
it comes when adoption – as a result of the government’s lead over
the past two years – has now spread like a fervent new religion
through social work departments and council chambers across the
land. Adoption is fascinating to tabloid newspapers; it appeals
hugely to ministers and the prime minister who believe profoundly
in a strong, Christian family ethos. The failures of adoption
rarely get into public debates; it would wreck our faith in happy
endings. Fostering, meanwhile, is a challenge of all that we want
to believe about human nature and nurture. There is no final
ending, no biological or social family contract, no tangible or
visible benefits that The Sun can communicate.

A recent report revealed that more than half of foster carers are
not paid a penny. This is unforgivable, appalling, exploitation and
it exposes just how we undervalue this essential work.

Fostering has no universal standards, no agreed financial
structures, no updated training programmes. Meanwhile, the profile
of children in care is changing dramatically – with childhood HIV
on the rise, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in need of
homes, more Muslim and Hindu children entering the system with few
carers from these communities within the fostering network.

So two cheers for the prime minister for endorsing the work of
foster carers, but what is needed is more, and more expensive than
pretty words.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is a writer and broadcaster.

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