Poor relation?

    Fostering has long been seen as second best. Foster carers slog
    away while the trials and tribulations of adoptive parents hog the
    media limelight. This government has lavished attention,
    legislation, regulations and targets on adoption while foster care
    has carried on largely unsung.

    However, this long-standing inequity shifted slightly two years ago
    with the launch of Choice Protects, a review of fostering and
    placement services. More recently, Tony Blair’s public support for
    Foster Care Fortnight (see panel) may also herald a change of
    emphasis. “Foster carers carry out one of the most valuable
    functions in society,” he said, “as they give care, stability and
    love to children at what is a critical time in the child’s
    life.”

    So is fostering now in favour? Or will challenging local authority
    targets for the numbers of children adopted from care – up by 40
    per cent by 2004-5 and by 50 per cent by 2006 – keep fostering
    relegated to the sidelines?

    Anna Gupta, a lecturer in child care social work at the Royal
    Holloway University of London and a children’s guardian, regrets
    that it will probably be the latter:”Organisational priorities as
    opposed to children’s needs are driving decisions. These targets
    are influencing local authorities’ decision in favour of adoption.
    The benefits of long-term fostering are getting lost in the
    debate.”

    Mo O’Reilly, adoption agency manager at Barnardo’s, agrees:
    “Fostering has always been a poor relation to adoption.” She
    believes this is partly because the legal process for adoption
    “confers some prestige” as does its “lifelong” status.

    O’Reilly argues that an unintended consequence of the targets is
    that younger children are placed for adoption at the expense of
    older children. “If you have to get so many children adopted you
    are going to look at the younger, easily placed group because money
    comes from meeting the targets.” She adds that adoption isn’t
    appropriate for all children. “Children have diverse needs and we
    need diverse options.”

    Pat Gillen is the manager of an independent fostering service. He
    is angry that successful, long-term fostering placements are being
    overlooked in favour of adoption. “What is important for a child is
    permanence. Whether that is by adoption or long-term fostering is
    not important.”

    He gives the example of a six-year-old boy who had been
    self-harming and killing animals. The local authority deemed him to
    be too damaged to be fostered but was desperate to find someone to
    look after him until a place at a therapeutic community could be
    found. So foster carers from Gillen’s agency took him on a
    short-term basis. Three years later he is still with them and the
    carers are willing to foster him permanently. But the local
    authority is now trying to get him adopted elsewhere. Gillen says
    this is a disaster. “The local authority hasn’t asked him if he
    wants to live elsewhere yet, but we know the answer. They are
    telling me it’s in line with government policy and in the best
    interests of the child, but just raising the issue will make him
    think that his foster carers don’t want him. It will devastate
    him.”

    According to O’Reilly, this is common. “Independent fostering
    agencies can provide these placements, but they are often
    expensive. If a child who is difficult is happily placed, then
    every effort should be made to keep them there.”

    One of the reasons local authorities push for adoption is that it
    is seen as the cheaper option. But with government commitment to
    post-adoption support, the financial incentive may decrease or
    disappear. Fostering might finally be called off the substitutes’
    bench.

    Foster care fortnight

    • Foster Care Fortnight – which ended last week – was launched in
      the 1980s as Foster Care Week.
    • The annual event aims to raise fostering’s profile and
      encourage people to become foster carers.
    • The UK has an estimated shortage of 8,000 foster carers.
    • After last year’s event, organiser the Fostering Network
      received hundreds of enquiries and the campaign website registered
      70,000 hits.

     

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