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
    fostering.

    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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