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

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

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

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’

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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