Foster carers play a major role in helping looked-after children to achieve. But do they receive enough support themselves? DIANA GOLLOP reports
As the government seeks to improve stability and educational outcomes for looked-after children, the work of foster carers has become ever more demanding and important. But as the complexity of the task increases so does the need for training, investment and support.
There is an undeniable gap between expectations and assistance, not to mention a shortage of foster carers (see Factfile). But good practices by independent agencies and local
authorities can have a real impact on recruitment.
According to Andrea Warman, fostering development consultant at Baaf Adoption and Fostering, good practice involves “being explicit about expectations of foster carers while giving them a high level of personal attention and appreciation”. This can be shown in all manner of ways, from encouraging and developing carers’ expertise to professional respect, increased
remuneration and awards dinners.
Quality training is fundamental to successful placements. Peter Finn, manager of the fostering team at Dorset Council, says: “In our local authority, the initial application process involves
training, which is itself part of the assessment. Each approved carer has a family placement worker and training continues post-approval. We also review the carer at least once a year, including a review of training needs.”
However, training remains patchy and, although The Fostering Network is working to develop a training programme to be used across the board, this is not yet in use.
A few foster carers go on to complete an NVQ level 3. But Hazel Halle, director of the Fostering Network in England, believes it would be benefi cial to have a specific fostering qualification. Warman agrees that this would help foster carers to be taken seriously as part of the children’s workforce.
“They should be treated as part of the team and be consulted more because they have good insight into the child’s needs,” she says. “We still have this idea that people volunteer, on the side. But children in care now have such complex and varied needs. We need to respect foster carers as professionals. That does not mean that being a ‘professional’ is a cold, detached thing, but we cannot expect carers to do this very diffi cult job without being paid.”
Foster carers receive an allowance for each child and many also receive a personal fee. But the Fostering Network says only half of councils in England pay its recommended levels. The charity is concerned planned levels for a national allowance are too low because they do not take into account housing or transport costs.
A key element in ensuring retention is emotional and practical support. “It’s the quality of support that makes the difference,” says Finn. “Knowing that you are not doing this in isolation, specially when things get tough. I’d say people put that above fi nancial considerations.”
Many local authorities run regular meeting groups for foster carers and can be creative in the support they offer. “A buddy scheme for new foster carers who are linked with a more experienced foster carer can help,” says Halle. “Some places run groups for the birthchildren of the fostering adults – how they relate to the fostered children can be vital to retention,” she adds.
Warman also believes carers need more help with strategies for day-to-day life. “Of course, it is important to understand why a child may be behaving in a difficult way,” she says. “But they also need practical help: what to do with a teenager who won’t get up in the morning, preparation to enable them to liaise with teachers to improve a child’s educational outcomes, etc.”
Without doubt, pockets of creativity, determination and good practice are improving support for foster carers and opportunities for looked after children. But with such great need, excellence must spread nationally, and the government must be ready to put in place the necessary resources.
Vali Bugden has been fostering in the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham since 1989.
“I saw an advert asking for respite carers where you were asked to take a child for a weekend and I enjoyed that and wanted more. I had recently been divorced, I had the space and compassion, and I haven’t looked back since.
The initial training was quite intense – three days and some evenings – covering early years up to teenagers, and learning why children are in care. It was a real eyeopener. Later, I did an NVQ, which brought professionalism into my fostering. We had to learn all the policy. It was helpful because it put the foster carers on a par with the social workers.
My first placement is still in touch with me – she’s 34 now. My daughter befriended her – I had discussed fostering with my own children and they felt able to share me but I made a point of making special time with my daughter. Fostering takes a lot of time with many meetings and medical and educational involvement.
The borough runs support groups once a month and that’s so important. As I’m experienced, the social workers make sure there are some new foster carers so we can discuss certain problems together. You make friends and never feel you’re on your own. Social services make us feel valued – they organise summer trips and a party. The borough is really ahead in that way.
I get a fee plus an allowance and that’s adequate. When things are hard it never seems like enough. But when the kids are progressing it’s great.
The longest I have had a child is eight years but it’s usually around nine months to a year. Sometimes I have up to three children. You need to take breaks and be realistic – you don’t have to say yes to everything. But it’s a lovely way of giving something back, practising your skills and sharing experiences – it’s no good going to kids’ films on your own, is it? And now both my daughter and my daughter in law are going to start fostering too.