Fostering: the ultimate form of community activism

by Peter Watt

I wrote recently about other forms of community activism that we, as a political party, should be celebrating. Well can I recommend one in particular to you all: fostering.

Christmas is a time for families and a time for children. It’s a time for celebrating the nurturing, loving and secure environment of home. But of course that is the ideal and we all fall short of that from time to time. And for all sorts of reasons, some children from some families are unable to live at home with their parents. Instead, for a short period, or longer, they live with a foster family. Each and every day in this country there are about 59,000 children and young people living with 45,000 foster families.

The numbers of places available have always been tight, but are getting worse. This week saw fostering network raise the alarm about the looming shortfall in foster carers. Their research indicates that there needs to be a further 8750 families who foster across the UK over the next 12 months to avoid a potential crisis.

Why? Well, a couple of things. First, demand is going up. After the tragic death of Peter Connelly in 2007, more children are being referred to social services. Social services are, understandably, less inclined to take a chance if they are concerned about a child and more children are therefore looking for foster families. Second, foster carers are getting older and 14% of the workforce retire or leave each year. A double whammy: increased demand and falling supply.

Every year appeals are made for people to come forward to be foster carers, and every year some do. Generally just enough come forward to cover the numbers of those that leave. But why is it such a struggle to get people to take on the role? I’m not sure that I know, but I am always surprised at how difficult recruiting foster carers seems to be.

Are we changing as a society so that we no longer see caring for children, other than our own, as our responsibility? Is it a fear of being judged as a parent yourself? Not enough time? Fear of the impact on your own kids? Not being able to cope with “problem” kids?  All possible reasons.

But as someone who is from a family that fosters I know that it is an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable thing to do. We have been fostering for about eight years, and reckon that in that time we have fostered over 60 children. And that’s the reason I find it surprising that recruitment is difficult. Being a foster carer is such a great thing to do. It sometimes makes for a busy house certainly, but the downsides are far outweighed by the upsides. In other words we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it.

Each child or young person that comes is different. They all bring their own personality, strengths and contribution. And of course they do come with the odd challenge. The very young lad, who called me a c..t at the top of his voice in the middle of a school performance, always springs to mind. As a middle class parent, I was horrified that other parents might think that he had learnt this from us. But I kept smiling, while inside the shame burnt.

Most of all the children have often had lives and experiences that someone much older than them would struggle to cope with. Loss, separation and bereavement. Cruelty, abuse and neglect. Caring responsibilities beyond their years. Whatever the reason they have had to come into care, they are with a new and strange family facing an uncertain future. What does it all mean? Why am I here? For how long? What about my parents, friends, school? Where will I sleep? And so on. It must be terrifying.

But really simple things can help them settle. Hanging onto treasured possessions and photos. Trying to stick to established routines or, more likely, establishing a routine. Its incredible how resilient children are and how quickly they settle and begin to grow as people.

Goodbyes can of course be sad, sometimes heart-breaking. Some children move to long term placements or adoption, but 40% will move back in with a parent. But we still keep in touch with many of those that have stayed with us, and most are doing well. In fact I bumped into one the other day in the pub and he bought me a pint. He was being friendly, but it also made me feel old. And whether they stay for one night or for several years, they always leave their mark.

I have to say that we are, on the whole, well supported by our local social services, schools and so on. In my view social workers are often unfairly maligned. I think that they have an incredibly difficult job, that on the whole they do very well. It can be pretty thankless to be honest.

But as a party we should be looking to celebrate the work of foster carers. It could become an element in our workable and practical approach to the development of a local community activist base. The demand for foster carers is likely to increase; it is certainly unlikely to decrease. They are pretty cheap, very big/good society and are very effective.  Working out how to innovatively make better use of them in supporting vulnerable families should become an element of our plans in a more cost conscious world. More respite care for families that need it; mentors for young parents and early intervention.  All of them could be extended if there were more fostering families available.

But for all of that we will need to recruit more families. So if you’ve ever thought about it, do something about it. You really don’t have to be a perfect parent or parents. All you need to do is call your local social services or contact fostering network and ask for details. Perhaps it could be a new year resolution.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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5 Responses to “Fostering: the ultimate form of community activism”

  1. figurewizard says:

    I sometimes wonder, when hearing that a child that has been fostered is moved back with its parents whether the decision to do this has been based on the best interests of the child or on some notion of ‘the rights’ of the parents. The interests of children should not be the principal concern but the only one.

    Also at this time of year there is a surge of interest in children tragically suffering in far away places but we should all remember that we have children in our own country who are suffering in different but equally tragic ways. Perhaps rather than making appeals for charity it would be more effective if a message were to be rammed down our throats that this is a matter of national shame that needs to be addressed once and for all.

  2. Peter Watt says:

    figurewizard I have a lot of sympathy for that

  3. Richard T says:

    “I am always surprised at how difficult recruiting foster carers seems to be.”

    I’m not. And I’m certainly not surprised by the retention problems.

    The recruitment process is laborious and intrusive, understandably so in principle, but in practice there’s more than a touch of Kafka to the proceedings.

    Once you’re in, there is an array of disincentives that seems to expand with each passing year.

    You’re at the arse end of departmental political and funding battles, information about which is almost perversely difficult to obtain. I used to think Universities were the pinnacle of poisonous organisational infighting until I took up fostering for a LA.

    Your ability to challenge or influence poor decisions by SWs is minimal, and attempts to do so are rarely forgotten or forgiven. Yes, they’re busy, but we all are. I’ve seen freshly-minted SWs arbitrarily pull rank in ways that would cause a Guards RSM to blush, I’ve seen critical case file information withheld from carers and the consequent buck passed around like an All Blacks exhibition match.

    I could go on, but wouldn’t want to put off any aspiring carers, and in any case you develop coping mechanisms for all this guff.

    Without a doubt it’s worth doing, but looking after damaged children is tricky enough without all the dysfunctional organisational overhead.

    And then if you move to a different area you get to start from scratch again…

    tbh I’m surprised the attrition rate isn’t higher.

  4. AmberStar says:

    @ Peter Watt

    It’s housing that makes it almost impossible. Unless you already have a house with spare room(s), how can you accomodate 1 foster child, never mind several siblings?

  5. Peter Watt says:

    AmberStar there is always the option of day respite care.

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