There are now more children than ever coming into care, with almost 6,000 more in care on any one day now than there were in 2007. Around two-fifths of the children in care are aged 11 to 15, and finding people with the right skills to look after teenagers is now the top priority for fostering services.
Fostering provides a safe, secure and nurturing family environment, either short- or long-term, and allows children to keep in contact with their own families if they wish.
Children come into care for a whole range of reasons, including a family member’s short-term illness or a parent’s depression or drug or alcohol misuse. Some children may have been abused or neglected. Foster carers can give families a chance to sort out their problems by providing children with a home and supportive family for as long as they need.
When a child is taken into care, the local authority (or health and social care (HSC) trust in Northern Ireland) becomes responsible for his or her welfare. Social workers then work with families to make the home a safe place for a child – with the aim that children and parents can be reunited.
What is Fostering?
Fostering is a way of offering children and young people a home while their own family is unable to look after them.
It is often used to provide temporary care while parents get help sorting out problems or to help children or young people through a difficult period in their lives.
Others may stay in long-term foster care, some may be adopted, and others will move on to live independently.
About 70 percent of children in care in the UK live with foster families. Foster carers are child care experts working alongside a team of professionals providing children with the highest standard of care.
Fostering is not easy; but it offers the opportunity to make a huge difference to the lives of the children who need it. Fostering can be a very rewarding experience.
Fostering is often a temporary arrangement, and many fostered children return to their own families. Children who cannot return home but still want to stay in touch with their families often live in long-term foster care.
Often children will return home once the problems that caused them to come into foster care have been resolved and that it is clear that their parents are able to look after them safely.
Who can foster?
Can you provide a safe, secure and loving home? Foster carers are urgently needed in all parts of the UK and people from all can apply. Many foster families have their own birth children, you do not need to be married or own your own home, and families of all ethnicities, languages and religions are needed.
You do not need to have particular skills and experience to be a foster carer – fostering agencies are usually happy to train people who have commitment, enthusiasm and the right outlook. Good foster carers like children, are patient and calm, and prepared to support children through difficult times and emotions.
There is no upper age limit, although an agency would expect you to have a level of stability and security in your life, and to have the health and stamina to be able to care for somebody else’s child.
You can foster children as a single person or as an unmarried or married couple. The local authority will want to know if your relationship is stable and long lasting and can provide the kind of parenting experience that these children need.
You can foster if you are lesbian or gay.
It is important for fostered children to have a stable family life without any preventable disruption, such as a foster carer becoming seriously ill due to a long-term health condition. For this reason, all prospective foster carers have a full medical examination by their GP. Being overweight should not rule you out as long as it does not cause you to have serious health problems which could affect your care of a child. Agencies may be concerned about placing young children or those with health conditions, e.g. asthma, with carers who smoke, due to the risks of passive smoking.
People who have a conviction, or have been cautioned for specific criminal offences against children, or some sexual offences against adults, are not able to foster. Other convictions do not automatically rule people out.
You do not have to be wealthy to foster. Carers receive an allowance, and in some cases an additional fee, to cover the cost of caring for foster children. There is a recommended national minimum fostering allowance in some UK countries – BAAF or any fostering agency can give you the details.
Culture, religion, ethnic origin
Studies show that it is in the child’s best interests to be cared for by a foster family which shares as many aspects of their culture, religion and ethnic origin as possible. This can help the child to have a positive sense of their own identity. However, agencies will look at how you could support a child of a different culture, religion or ethnicity to yourself.
Applying to a fostering agency
Fostering is essentially a local service helping children to return home to their birth families, where this is possible. If you are interested in fostering, you should contact your local authority (Health and Social Care Trust in Northern Ireland) or a neighbouring one to find out what is needed in your area. You can also apply to an independent fostering service.
At this stage, you may be visited by a social worker or invited to a brief meeting to find out more about fostering. If you and the service agree that you might be suitable to foster, you will fill in an application form, and when this is accepted, the assessment process begins.
Assessment and preparation
Fostering is a major decision with implications for you, the children and your family. Because of this, the fostering assessment process is very thorough. Many services run preparation and training groups for prospective foster carers.
These groups give you an opportunity to learn about the fostering process and the rewards and challenges of fostering, as well as the chance to meet experienced foster carers and to hear about their experiences. A social worker will also meet with you individually. The whole family will need to be involved: if you have birth children, they will need a chance to think about what fostering will mean for them. Confidential enquiries will be made of your local authority and the police, and a medical report will be needed from your GP. The fostering panel for the local authority or service to which you have applied will consider a report on your application and recommend whether you should be approved as a foster carer or not and what the terms of your approval should be. The assessment process usually takes about six to eight months once it starts.
Once you are approved, you will be allocated your own social worker who will offer ongoing support, supervision and help. He or she will now start looking to match you with a child. If your agency feels that you are suitable to foster a particular child, they will approach you with more information to find out if you are interested. If everyone agrees that this would be an appropriate match, the child will come to live with you.
You will receive regular visits from social workers to check everything is going well, and will be involved in meetings about the child’s welfare with a number of professionals, and contact with the child’s birth family. Foster carers also receive ongoing training and have annual reviews to ensure they remain suitable and motivated to care for children and to consider any changes in the terms of their approval, for example, to increase the number of children who can be placed from two to three. There will also often be the opportunity to attend a local support group of foster carers. Other support available from your agency may include professional or legal advice, therapeutic support, and help with facilitating contact between the child and their birth family.