At the Community Care Live session on fostering a good care system delegates will hear that children are still being moved far too often from placements they could stay in. “We must be doing everything we can to make sure children get into the best placements and are allowed to remain,” says Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of Fostering Network and a former social worker.
Many young people leave care too young and the reason is often a purely financial one, Tapsfield argues, as allowing them to stay longer would cost local authorities significantly more money.
And while resources are not the only issue when it comes to improving the care system they are a crucial one, he says. Tapsfield feels this is certainly the case when it comes to the recruitment of foster carers, which is the theme of this year’s Foster Care Fortnight, which began this week.
There has been a long-standing shortage of foster carers in the UK – estimated at about 10,000 – but Tapsfield believes recruitment must be improving as the number of children in foster care has been increasing year on year. But some local authorities and independent fostering agencies are doing much better than others.
“They are putting together packages of training, support and payment that make it possible for people to choose to foster,” Tapsfield says.
Fostering Network launched a campaign in March this year calling for all foster carers to be paid a wage. A survey published to kick off the campaign (news, p6, 8 March) found 75 per cent of foster carers were paid less than the minimum wage and 40 per cent received no payment at all. Some authorities or agencies require that at least one foster carer does not work – but that is only possible if they also offer a reasonable fee, Tapsfield says.
Fostering Network is keen to promote the professionalisation of foster care and Tapsfield dismisses suggestions that some might be attracted to foster care purely because of the fees. “There isn’t any evidence that paying foster carers more means they love children less. It’s absolutely important to ensure they are doing it for the right reasons but overwhelmingly they are.”
Increased professionalisation, into which Tapsfield bundles improved training, registration and better ways of managing allegations against carers, is one of his priorities for the forthcoming children in care white paper.
Responses published last month to the Care Matters green paper suggest that the government would have to boil down the 122 proposals in the paper to a set of deliverable policies. Tapsfield agrees, saying there is a clear need to prioritise what is implemented and when, and suggests the white paper is likely to do that.
Alongside professionalisation, his priorities would be enhancing the role and standing of long-term foster carers, allowing children to remain longer in care, and recognising the importance of kinship care.
Tapsfield says kinship carers who are outside the foster care system often get little or no support and believes there should be a “unique service” with its own guidance and regulations that will support kinship care.
While some of his priorities will not require funding, the extension of the time young people remain in care has clear financial implications. It seems, when talking about improving the care system, one cannot escape the issue of money for long.
“We welcome the intention to publish a white paper and introduce legislation,” says Tapsfield. “But the key issue is still the comprehensive spending review. There is a need for real up-front investment in foster care.”
He adds: “The government has set out very clearly its ambition for children in care. It has to deliver the resources necessary for that ambition to be realised.”
● Desert island item: “A cross between a gardening manual and a plant identifier. I’m very practical!”
● Favourite film: Cinema Paradiso. It’s enchanting.”
● Favourite book: “I’m an Ian Rankin fan. I love the Inspector Rebus novels.”
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