In Bromley the weekly fostering allowance for looking after a teenager is nearly double the figure awarded in Southend. Such discrepancies are duplicated all over the UK, a situation the government wants to rectify. But will the new rate be enough, asks Katie Leason
For years now, those in the foster care sector have been arguing for a nationalminimum allowance for foster carers. As it stands, the rates paid by councils to foster carers continue to vary widely, leaving some foster carers managing on allowances that do not cover the costs of fostering.
In light of this, the government in January launched a consultation on its proposals to establish a national minimum allowance for foster carers, including a new offer dismissed as miserly by campaigners (Charity slams proposed allowances, 2 February).(1)
The government plans to announce the new allowance in July, but, unless it increases its offer substantially, there is a real danger that foster carers will continue to be out of pocket.
We talk to two foster carers, one paid relatively well, and one badly, to find out how they manage on their current allowances – and whether they think the government’s suggested figures are an improvement.
Fostering in Southend
David Hadjicostas and his wife Evelyn have been fostering for nearly 14 years. In addition to their two teenage birth children they have two foster daughters – a 16-year-old who has lived with them for 11 years, and a three-year-old who has been with them since birth.
The pair foster for Southend-on-Sea, a unitary authority in Essex, and receive a total of £206.77 each week to cover the cost of both girls – £83.02 for the younger child and £123.75 for the 16-year-old. So is it enough?
“Not at all,” says David, who works for the fire service. “It sounds like a lot of money but one of the realities of fostering if you have children yourself is that you have to live in a large house, which, of course, is very expensive.”
The family lives in a five-bedroom house, after investing £30,000 to build extra rooms when they made the decision to foster. Living in a larger property means that they now pay almost double the rate of counciltax they would have done otherwise, as well as more for heating and lighting. The family has also had to buy a seven-seater car so that they can all fit in – but of course having a bigger car costs more to insure and fill up with fuel.
“It comes out of my pocket as the foster allowance doesn’t cover it,” he says. David has done a rough calculation of how much he thinks he has spent on fostering.
“I’ve probably paid out £100,000 over the 14 years. Fostering is an expensive business and if we didn’t foster our circumstances would be very different – I would have to find a lot less money every month. I make no complaint because I volunteered for the task and have had many happy times, but I thought the cost of fostering would be met by the local authority and have found out to my cost that’s not the case. It’s like going to work and me taking the fire engine down to the petrol station and paying on my card.”
Under the government’s proposals David would receive £220.50 for the girls – £107.61 for their younger foster daughter and £112.89 for the 16-year-old. The totalamounts to slightly more than they are currently paid, but as David points out, falls far short of the “more realistic” rates recommended by The Fostering Network (see panel left). While the government’s figures may take into account practical considerations such as food and clothing, they do not acknowledge the costs beyond everyday items. They certainly do not leave much spare to cover replacing costly items that have been ruined in anger by some of the 30 children they have fostered over the years – toilets and sinks have been broken and the family is on its third front door.
“I go and visit my mum and she has the same front door as when I was a kid,” says David.
Despite this, the Hadjicostas, who haven’t had a day free from fostering for 12 years, wouldn’t change things for a minute.
“I don’t want to be paid for this job, I just want the allowance to cover the expenses. We have welcomed the children into our family and way of life. We should be able to put all our energy into fostering and not worry about money.”
Fostering in Bromley
“With foster care you don’t do it for the money, you do it primarily to give the child a better life,” says Maggie Burton, who has been fostering for nearly three years in south east London. In that time she has fostered 10 children.
At the moment she and her husband Ian, a manager in telecommunications, have one 15-year-old foster daughter living with them, for whom Bromley Council pays a weekly allowance of £241.43, almost £118 more than the Southend allowance.
Maggie is reasonably satisfied with the amount. “It’s adequate. I certainly wouldn’t say it’s generous but I’m appalled at how low some allowances are around the country. On the face of it when you start fostering you think that it’s generous but then you realise the hidden costs.”
These hidden costs can often prove expensive. At one point the Burtons had to buy a second car because they had a sibling group who couldn’t travel together for long distances because they would fight.
Taking a holiday can also be difficult – and costly – for foster families. Foster children may move on from a placement at any time, and if a holiday has been booked in advance, it’s often not possible to get a refund – in the past Maggie has booked a trip for five travellers but only four have been able to go.
Also, foster parents cannot share a room with their foster children, which means they have to pay for additional accommodation. External influences can also play a part – Maggie knows of one situation where a local authority stopped a child from going abroad at the last minute because of the political situation in the country – even though the advice from the Foreign Office was that it was a safe destination.
The government’s proposed allowance of £112.89 for a child of secondary school age is “utterly ridiculous”, says Maggie.
“With that you are barely covering the food and clothing costs, the very basics. It’s less than half what we get. The government estimate is disgusting.”
She suspects that it’s already the case that low allowances from local authorities contribute to the difficulties in recruitment, with prospective foster carers more inclined to work for independent agencies that pay more.
Maggie is keen to contribute financially so that the young people in her care gain new experiences. To this end, since she began fostering she has taken children as far afield as Canada, has organised skiing trips, and bought sailing equipment, including a dinghy, for a child who enjoyed being on the water. She has also paid for her foster daughter’s boyfriend and siblings to go out with them on trips.
“The fact we’ve been generous is down to us but I’m a believer in keeping young people occupied and giving them great experiences.”
Despite the financial implications of fostering, Maggie doesn’t regret becoming a foster carer and would definitely do so if she had her time again.
“It wouldn’t be a financial consideration whether we did or didn’t. It’s more like a vocation than a job. I don’t think finance comes into it. I know that we’re not making anything on it.”
(1) National Minimum Fostering Allowances, Department for Education and Skills, 2006