Rewards are overdue

    The pay is rotten and goodwill is running short, so why not
    professionalise the role of foster carers, writes
    Rachel Foggitt

    A survey by the Fostering Network has found that two-thirds of
    foster carers receive less than the recommended fees and
    allowances, and highlights huge national variations between
    agencies, both local authority and independent. More than half are
    paid nothing for their services and a further 20 per cent receive
    less than £100 a week. The Fostering Network is calling for
    the professionalisation of the role in order to provide a
    consistent, high-quality service for all children in foster
    care.

    They recommend a base line fee for foster carers for the work they
    do, according to their experience and training as well as an
    allowance to cover the expenses of looking after a child, based on
    age and recognising the special needs of fostered children.
    The Fostering Network is campaigning with Baaf Adoption and
    Fostering for a national minimum allowance for every child based on
    age to be included in the Children Bill. Sure Start minister Cathy
    Ashton is leading an amendment to this effect through the House of
    Lords, where it has cross-party support.

    “We are encouraged by the support it’s getting,”
    says Vicki Swain, policy and campaigns manager of the Fostering
    Network. “Decision makers recognise how unfair it is for
    children in different areas to be given different allowances.
    It’s a challenging and skilled role. We expect foster carers
    to know about attachment issues, to cope with the consequences of
    sexual abuse, to liaise with parents and to support a child through
    court processes. They should be awarded professional status with
    formal training and appropriate payments.”

    Clearly people should not foster just for the money but there is a
    rigorous assessment process to weed out unsuitable applicants.
    Tracy McLauchlan, recruitment co-ordinator for East Sussex
    Council’s fostering team, supports the notion of
    professionalising the role. “There’s definitely a
    vocational element to fostering,” she says. “But the
    days when we could rely on people’s goodwill alone are long
    gone.”

    Janet Williams has fostered for Gwynedd Council for 24 years. She
    is paid an allowance but no fee. “It costs us to
    foster,” she says. “All the children who come to us are
    treated as part of the family. We do things together and you
    can’t count the cost all the time. We don’t do it for
    the money, but fostering’s a full-time job, seven days a
    week. Now I’m nearly ready to retire but I’ve got no
    pension because I’ve had no income. I’ll have to get a
    job, which is galling after the work I’ve done over the
    years.”

    The national shortage of foster carers means children are often
    moved from home to home, separated from siblings and have to live a
    long way from their communities and schools. At the same time many
    people who express an interest in fostering cannot afford to give
    up work to do it.

    A wider pool of carers increases the chance of finding people to
    meet children’s individual needs. “The match is
    important,” says Swain. “A child should not have to go
    somewhere inappropriate just because there’s space. We need
    local carers for local children, reflecting the population in terms
    of ethnicity, religion and culture.”

    In East Sussex they have a shortage of more specialised placements.
    “We have raised awareness of fostering through our recent
    campaigns,” says McLauchlan. “Now we need to target
    carers for black and mixed parentage children, mother and baby
    placements and sibling groups.”

    The government accepts the Fostering Network’s recommended
    payment scheme and encourages all local authorities to follow it
    but there is no regulation or funding. Local authorities are
    expected to find the money themselves.

    “The government makes it clear that every child
    matters,” says Swain. “If this is the case, foster
    carers, who look after some of society’s most vulnerable
    children, should be professional, trained people who are rewarded
    appropriately for the skilled and important job they do.”

    ‘Dramatic success’ for Brighton

    Brighton and Hove Council has had a long-standing shortage of
    foster carers, as have most councils. Last year the council decided
    to enhance the payment scheme and improve the training and support
    packages to encourage more people into foster care and to retain
    their experienced carers.

    The council consulted its carers, took advice from the Fostering
    Network about professionalising the service and employed marketing
    consultants to help with the recruitment campaign.

    In May last year eye-catching, full-page adverts appeared in the
    local press, designed to have an inclusive, broad-ranging appeal
    with the new rates of pay explicit, but not prominent.

    “The success was dramatic,” says Clare Smith, service
    manager for the fostering team. “We used to get 15 to 18
    inquiries a month; after the campaign we got 80. Several people
    said they had always thought they couldn’t afford to, or
    weren’t eligible because they were single or gay or over
    50.” 

    Foster carers used to be paid a basic rate and could claim back
    money for expenses such as equipment, travel and activities. Now,
    in line with Fostering Network guidelines, they receive a realistic
    allowance to cover all the child’s needs and a fee for their
    work. Once people have been fostering for two years and have
    completed the mandatory training courses they have an increment and
    another after five years, reflecting their experience.

    “This is about professionalising the role,” says Smith.
    “Fostering is a full-time occupation. Carers need to be at
    home so they can commit to meetings, contact arrangements and
    respond to the children’s needs. We expect a lot from them
    and we should reward them appropriately. They are also well
    supported: each has their own social worker; there’s an
    out-of-hours service; a community family worker to help with
    practical tasks; and a placement support team to work with older
    children.”

    Now, an experienced carer who fosters three older children could
    receive as much as £52,000 a year. Legislation which came in
    last year made much of this exempt from taxation. “The carers
    are worth it,” says Smith. “They do a difficult and
    important job. A good foster carer earns every penny.”

    Some experienced carers were ambivalent about the extra money, but
    most now like the autonomy of budgeting their own money.
    “It has taken the cap-in-hand element out of it,” says
    Simone Walker, foster carer for 13 years. “It’s much
    better now. More is expected of us and we feel more valued for the
    work we do.”

    In February, a scheme was launched for council staff to have paid
    leave from work for their fostering commitments. “We expect
    carers not to work outside the home when they foster and the new
    payments reflect this,” says Smith. “But some couples
    both work part time, leaving one available for the children. They
    could take advantage of this initiative. We also get a trickle of
    working people wanting to offer weekend respite and hope to get
    more council staff interested.”

    Most foster carers leave when they are ready to retire from
    fostering, but more are lost to the service when they become
    long-term carers for the children they already care for. This is an
    excellent outcome for the child, but involves constant recruitment.
    “We particularly need more carers for over-twelves,”
    says Smith. “And ethnic matching is a particular issue in
    Brighton and Hove where there is no dominant ethnic minority group.
    The next stage is to target our advertising more
    specifically.”

    Brighton and Hove aims to approve 20 carers this year. “We
    will always need more so there is scope for better matching,”
    says Smith. “But now our carers are better trained, supported
    and rewarded and this makes for a far better service for the
    children.”

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