by Jane Collins and Sarah Anderson
More than three years ago, we started something completely new when we first formed our own branch of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) union, to represent foster carers. We felt that at last foster carers were taking charge of their own story, rather than others in the industry who had no experience of being a foster carer speaking for us.
We have worked the union model now for more than three years, on the front line with carers – no one has been as immersed in it as we have, from daily casework to campaigning in Parliament for carers’ rights and a central licensing body. We have created a new narrative and raised foster care issues to a national platform. Carers once scared of speaking out have come out of the shadows and voiced their grievances to the industry.
But this summer, the National Union of Professional Foster Carers (NUPFC) v Certification Officer judgment destroyed the principle of unions for foster carers, by ruling that they are not workers in a legal sense.
The IWGB intervened in the NUPFP case as an interested party because it was detrimental to their own activities. But we decided not to be involved with the fight against the ruling because, even if it is successful, fostering service providers can simply – as has been our experience already – state that they don’t recognise a union and refuse to engage with it.
Time for a new model
In truth, we had begun to doubt the union model even before the NUPFC ruling. The traditional union structure of committees and regional groups is cumbersome and time-consuming, and we didn’t feel foster carer union members were getting the service they deserve. Being part of the union meant large chunks of foster carers’ membership fees have been going to support other causes and workers. We feel foster carers already spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week giving to society and that their funds should be spent on them.
We have therefore made the decision to establish a new organisation that complies with existing legislation – the Independent Foster Carers Alliance – to continue our groundbreaking campaigning and provision robust, independent support and allegations representation for foster carers.
Foster carers have never come together with one collective voice before, and have never had a truly independent organisation to defend them during the traumatic allegations process – which can resemble a kangaroo court – some face from local authorities. Traditional support services are commissioned by the fostering service provider, which is clearly a conflict of interest.
Effective independent support around allegations and standards of care issues needs to be done by specialists, able to understand the complexity of fostering, to robustly defend carers in allegations and to conceptualise what they go through. All of these will be addressed by the new casework team based in our Bradford head office.
Employment support for care-experienced young people
Our social enterprise team, meanwhile, are setting up a benevolent fund for foster carers and care-experienced young people, the Alliance Foundation. We will also be bringing on board care-experienced young people to work in our team, and supporting them in their early experience of employment.
Our children leave care and are thrust into a different world on their 18th birthdays. We believe they need the best start in employment and apprenticeships and we will be creating partnerships to help deliver a different more therapeutic approach that employees can implement for care leavers, facilitating their journeys into the world of employment and giving them a better chance for success.
We are also forming a number of exciting new alliances, including with national charities and universities. We will be campaigning together for better mental health support to deal with the effects of vicarious trauma suffered by foster carers, and for the establishment of a central licensing body.
Overturning previous rulings denying foster carers a duty of care on the part of councils, on the basis that the local authorities were merely fulfilling their statutory duties, is a priority for us. Foster carers have been murdered in their homes and had bombs built in their kitchens.
Foster carers around the UK are frequently and brutally attacked in their own homes; one we know had their house burned to the ground by a foster child. There is no support, no sick pay, no compensation – nothing – and children’s services often turn a blind eye to cries for help, or worse, use intimidation, threats of deregistration and emotional blackmail when carers ask for the right to keep themselves and their family safe in their own homes.
Creating a voice for foster carers
All the while the system lurches further into chaos and financial meltdown. There has to be a better way. We will continue to campaign for change and to highlight why the system is failing – our society’s most vulnerable young people deserve nothing less.
We need to be able to open more doors, have more discussions, form more alliances and use our profiles and visibility to widen our scope. More than anything we need to be independent, an organisation run by professionals with first-hand foster care experience, a non-profit platform exclusive to foster carers where all resources, money and time will be dedicated to protecting and campaigning for our members.
No one has travelled this road before, so there is no established trajectory to follow. But we intend to open those closed doors, create the largest independent organisation for foster carers in the UK, and develop a huge and influential foster carers’ voice. After all, happy, secure and protected carers lead to our children feeling the same – and at the end of the day that is what it is all about.