Should foster carers be shunned because of their beliefs?

Will it harm a child to be fostered by a God-fearing, smoking vegetarian? Gordon Carson looks at the hard choices social workers have to make when demand for care exceeds supply

Will it harm a child to be fostered by a God-fearing, smoking vegetarian? Gordon Carson looks at the hard choices social workers have to make when demand for care exceeds supply

Fostering children is often described as a selfless act. But while foster carers typically place the interests of children in their care above their own, this doesn’t mean they similarly sideline their beliefs and practices.

Foster carers’ beliefs and lifestyles, such as a very strict religion or vegetarianism, can cause social workers to question their suitability to look after specific children.

But with the UK-wide shortage of foster carers estimated at 10,000, and a 7% increase in the number of children in foster placements in England over the past year, fostering providers and social workers are also having to guard against being too quick to discount carers who do not conform to their ideal of a foster family.

A recent discussion on Community Care’s forum CareSpace underlined the problems facing social workers. One highlighted a case of a child, who was not allowed by her vegetarian foster carers to learn how to cook a meat dish at home. Although they did not prevent her eating meat outside their home, they refused to have meat cooked inside it.

One social worker said: “This young person has additional needs which are fairly complex. At the time of placing her these additional needs were given a higher weighting and these were the only carers with particular skills and knowledge that could provide a local placement allowing her to remain at school. The carers have always been 100% upfront about their position. This is a case I have inherited, but I believe that at the time of placement (which was an emergency) there were far more important factors to consider for matching than diet.”

Eddie O’Hara, an independent social worker and consultant, agrees that pressure to find places for children entering care in emergencies often doesn’t allow the matching process to be conducted with the “same rigour” as in long-term placements, and the selection of suitable families available can be limited.

But he says this should not be the case when social workers are looking for longer-term placements.

Yet many of those social workers on CareSpace have reported that for children with complex needs it is difficult to find “perfect” matches even in longer-term placements. So when do beliefs about diet, religion or politics become an over-ruling factor in a placement decision?

The publicity surrounding the High Court decision in February in the case of Christian couple Eunice and Owen Johns (see case study) is a clear case of a difficulty that can arise from such decisions.

David Bradley, executive director of performance and quality at charity and fostering provider TACT, says foster carers with strong religious beliefs can bring “a whole range of positive attributes”, such as empathy and tolerance, to the profession. “But it’s equally important that that tolerance does not become intolerance,” he adds.

He cites a case he experienced, where a carer with strong religious beliefs thought a child’s behaviour showed he “had the devil inside him”.

“Those issues were looked at and it was felt it was not workable, and it led to the carer being deregistered,” says Bradley. “Those views are not appropriate in terms of what we would expect a carer to bring to a child’s care.”

Much depends on the rigour of the initial assessment process of foster carers, which provides the best opportunity to “get down to people’s core values”, says Hazel Halle, director of services for England at the Fostering Network.

“You are trying to predict what people’s reactions to things will be when children are actually placed with them,” she points out.

It is also important that carers recognise the demands of their professional role in meeting the requirements of children’s care plans, says Eddie O’Hara.

“Carers should feel free to put their beliefs and lifestyle choices, such as vegetarianism, on the table as part of a dialogue with other professionals,” he says.

However, where medical research provides evidence that a belief or lifestyle choice is harmful, such as smoking, the decision becomes more clear cut.

“You have to be realistic that a lot of people smoke,” says Halle. “But we know it’s a serious risk to children’s health and, if they see an adult smoking, it increases the chance that children will smoke too.”

Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, which represents independent and voluntary providers, says new foster carers should be given a “very clear message” about the harmful effects of smoking and encouraged to give up.

On CareSpace some felt it was just as important for children in care to be aware that other people have differing beliefs and learn to compromise as well.

However, this is perhaps only feasible if children have more say over their placements than they do currently. Good practice dictates that children be given information about their potential foster carers, and offered the chance to meet them, before a placement begins and know what to expect. But, says Bradley, only 48% of children in care placements provided through TACT had met their foster families before they moved in, due to the emergency nature of many of the placements.

This is one issue addressed in new government guidance on fostering which came into force on 1 April. However, foster carers, for all their undoubted qualities, are as likely to reflect some of the more contentious beliefs and habits as the wider population. For the most part, the issue comes down to the experience and professional judgement of the social worker.

Case study: Anti-homosexual views are at odds with child welfare

The case of Eunice and Owen Johns shows how strong religious beliefs can sometimes be at odds with the anti-discriminatory values of social work and the support social workers are trying to provide for vulnerable children.

The couple alleged they were being discriminated against by Derby Council because of their religious – and specifically anti-homosexual – beliefs, after they told a social worker they would not be able to tell a child in their care that a homosexual lifestyle was acceptable.

But their argument was dismissed at the High Court by Lord Justice Munby and Justice Beatson, who said the couple’s views may conflict with the local authority’s duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of looked-after children.

Expert commentator Ed Mitchell, solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today, says:

“A series of high-profile decisions in different contexts have considered whether religiously-based anti-homosexual views are to be accommodated and respected by public authorities. R (Johns) v Derby Council gave the courts the opportunity to consider the issue in the context of foster care approvals.

“The decision came before the High Court in unusual circumstances in that it was not asked to consider the legality of an actual decision to refuse approval. It was only asked to consider if anti-homosexual views should be taken into account as part of the foster carer approval process.

“Nevertheless, the court’s decision contains strong support for the view that a council is entitled, and might even be obliged, to refuse to grant foster care approval to a person who would be likely, when acting as a foster carer, to promote views which are disapproving of homosexuality.

“The court made it clear that it is not in any way a prohibition on devout Christians or members of other religions acting as foster carers.”

(illustration: Karvel Rafferty/Illustration)

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