Fostering discontent

Contrary to its public image, fostering involves something a bit
more complicated than “putting an extra potato in the saucepan”. It
involves taking into your home someone else’s children – children
who will have been traumatised by the loss of their own family, who
may have been abused or neglected, and who may behave appallingly
towards you for the duration of their stay.

For this often thankless task you will receive an allowance that
may or may not meet your out-of-pocket expenses. You may receive
excellent support from the placing authority or you may receive
none at all. You may find yourself a valued and vital member of a
team or you may be undervalued, patronised and left in the dark.
And after decades of giving other people’s children a safe,
nurturing environment in your home for little or no financial
reward, you will not be entitled to the same state pension that
those who look after their own children can expect.

Given the unique situation many foster carers find themselves in,
and the nature of the work, it comes as no surprise that there is a
shortage of people who want to do it. Figures from the Fostering
Network suggest that the UK has around 37,000 foster carers, and
that another 7,800 are needed. Demand for foster placements has
risen as professionals have recognised that most children do better
in family environments, yet at the same time the increasing number
of women who work full time has reduced the pool of potential
foster care recruits.

Fierce competition for foster carers across local authorities has
resulted in a spate of ugly squabbles, with councils accusing each
other of what amounts to “rustling” of foster carers – sneaking
into neighbouring territories unannounced and pinching their
supply, rather than growing their own. The situation is further
compounded by the growth of profit-making independent fostering
agencies (IFAs), which often pay better rates and lure people away
from the local authority.

In fact, while many local authority fostering managers see them as
the enemy, IFAs’ professional approach to foster care sometimes
shows up how poor local authority practice is. Of course, some IFAs
have been found to be seriously wanting, but new national minimum
standards and the advent of the National Care Standards Commission
will mean IFAs are facing inspection and regulation for the first
time, which should weed out the cowboys.

In March this year, the government threw Choice Protects into this
controversial pot. Spurred on by a damning Social Services
Inspectorate report into foster care practice in local
authorities,1 and concern from the Social Exclusion Unit
about the impact of unstable placements on children’s educational
achievement, minister of state Jacqui Smith announced a “major
review of fostering and placement choice” which would aim to
“provide stability for looked-after children and a better framework
of reward and support for foster carers”. According to Smith, one
of Choice Protects’ key objectives is a reduction in the number of
out-of-authority placements.

But, unlike the adoption review, which led to the new Adoption and
Children Act, Choice Protects is far more low-key. In fact, some
would argue that it is practically invisible – including some
social services departments and SSI inspectors who claim to have
never heard of it.

The adoption review was personally backed by Tony Blair and led by
the Cabinet Office, had an entire department of around 50 people
working on it, was high-profile and has led to far-reaching
legislation. By contrast, Choice Protects has a huge area to cover,
a handful of people working on it, Jacqui Smith’s part-time
interest, little prospect of generating legislation, and almost no
publicity at all. This is a strange set of priorities, given that
the number of children who would benefit from good fostering
practice is many times greater than the number who could ever
benefit from good adoption practice.

Those involved in fostering are, by and large, grateful for any
interest shown by the government in sorting out the complex mess it
has become. And to be fair, Choice Protects may yet pull an
impressive rabbit out of what looks like an unimpressive hat. The
review has involved several “working groups”, some of which seem to
have been productive from the contributors’ point of view; others
less so. A conference is to be held in the new year for foster
carers themselves, and the review is also planning to look at their
training and support needs. Significantly, the review team has
already concluded that it had “probably downplayed the contribution
that foster carers make”.

Carole Bell, who heads the looked-after children section at the
Department of Health, and has been involved with Choice Protects
from the start, says: “I would have thought that the minister would
want the recommendations to be acted upon, because two-thirds of
looked-after children are with foster carers. I can’t tell at this
point what level of leverage there will be for the

Bell says the fostering model needs to be re-evaluated. “There are
a number of things about foster care we want to explore. A lot of
people have been worried about our model of foster care – it’s
still regarded as on a par with taking in evacuees during the war.
But now we’re using foster carers to do a very difficult job often
with children who have some very complex needs. We need to look at
what we expect foster carers to do and what their status is – so
we’re looking at things like their rewards, and their pension
entitlement, and how much training they need and what support they

The financial aspect, in particular, needs to be sorted out, she
says. “For example, there’s quite a range of rewards paid for
foster care. We are looking at what is sufficient, and at the tax
position. The Treasury and Inland Revenue have agreed to get
everything on the table and look at tax treatment of foster carers.
There are several options, but it’s an extremely positive move
because they clearly don’t want people forced out of fostering by
their financial situation. Also, at present foster carers aren’t
entitled to a pension – we are working with the Department for Work
and Pensions and the Fostering Network to look at how we can make a
difference to that – we may have a solution.”

All very promising, but the timescale may be working against the
Choice Protects team. Early findings should be with Jacqui Smith
for consideration by March, leaving the Choice Protects team little
time to do the in-depth, well-researched review that many people
have been calling for.

In the longer term, there may be hope on the horizon. The local
government settlement announced at the start of December included a
Choice Protects grant, which is set at around £20m next year,
growing bigger – by an amount unspecified as yet – in years two and
three. Bell says of the grant: “We see that as having the potential
to pump-prime and strengthen local authority fostering services.
They will have a wide choice about how to use that money – if they
wish to look at how they reward foster carers, then they can. We
think people need to look at this area with a sharper focus, and
we’ve identified funds to help them do that.”

Unfortunately, there is little concrete evidence on how much it
really costs to look after a child, which means that setting rates
of pay for foster carers is difficult. Although the Fostering
Network publishes recommended rates, the range is very wide, and in
reality most foster carers are either out of pocket or are simply
covering their expenses. They are being asked to look after
children with increasingly specialised needs, making their role
more akin to that of a residential social worker who is on duty 24
hours a day, seven days a week, than to that of a casual carer
providing a bed and a seat at the family dinner table. Yet many are
working for cost price or less.

Vicki Swain, policy and campaigns manager for the Fostering
Network, who has been involved in Choice Protects, believes a
proper “wage” would help. She says:”We would argue that there needs
to be a professionalisation of foster carers. The job has changed
and we need to recognise that. Also, paying people means they have
a duty as an employee to their employer – for instance to turn up
to training sessions. And that’s better for the child.”

She adds: “We’ve been calling for a review of fostering for well
over 10 years, but this isn’t the review we wanted. We wanted a
thorough exploration of all the issues facing fostering. For
example, we wanted it to look at the purpose of fostering, because
until you know what its purpose is, it’s very difficult to
establish what foster carers should be paid. And we wanted some
proper evaluation and research into fostering. At the moment, no
one knows how much it costs to look after a child.”

The very existence of the review can cause problems for
campaigners, says Swain.”We don’t want to criticise Choice Protects
before it has had a chance to report. It may be that they decide
there’s too much to cover, and extend the deadline or draft a few
more people in. But it is very difficult to be critical of
fostering practice at the moment because every time it’s mentioned
Jacqui Smith says ‘well, we’re in the middle of a review of
fostering’. It’s very difficult to campaign for anything while it’s
still going on.”

Perhaps the real issue about the lack of foster carers centres on
the suitability of placements. Children need, ideally, homes and
families similar to their own, within the same area. A 14-year-old
boy with a passion for football would, ideally, be placed with a
foster carer for whom the concept of sport was not abhorrent, and
who had some experience of caring for teenage boys.

Unfortunately, the shortage of foster carers means many children
find themselves with far from ideal carers, away from familiar
streets and places, away from school, and losing contact with
friends and extended family. In the worst case scenario, children
end up in a damaging game of musical chairs that moves them from
placement to placement as gaps become available.

The answer is, of course, more foster carers – which Choice
Protects may, or may not, contribute to. But it is likely to take a
significant shift in attitudes, pay and support before sufficient
numbers of people view fostering as both rewarding, and a viable

1 Social Services Inspectorate,
Fostering for the Future, 2002, at:

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