By Jane Wright
When I first started to work as a foster carer I would have never believed that I would one day join a trade union for foster carers, nevermind become the chair.
Previously I had worked in the NHS and had been a member of Unison, but had never particularly needed their help or support. I took it as read that they would be there if needed and would regularly negotiate regarding my pay and conditions. It never occurred to me that this was a luxury and I completely took my employment rights for granted.
Then I became a foster carer.
In common with most people I took the decision to foster because I wanted to help children who could no longer live with their birth families. I gave little of no thought to how I would be treated and I was only vaguely aware that I would be self employed for tax purposes. I certainly had no inkling how little protection I would now be afforded in a defensive working culture.
It was only a few weeks after our first child arrived with us that I discovered I really had no rights at all. Before our approval we had booked a family holiday to stay in a remote area of Scotland where we went every year and we were more than happy to take the baby in our care away with us, however his birth parents said no. They weren’t happy about the idea of missing contact for a week so I asked my Supervising Social Worker what other options were available only to be told there were no options and we would need to cancel our holiday. At that time our four birth children were all of primary school age and had been so good throughout the recent upheaval that comes with bringing a premature and fragile baby into a household so felt they deserved a holiday. I pointed out that cancelling the holiday would be a blow for us and our children and suggested there must be another alternative. Apparently there was no alternative and I spent that ‘holiday’ driving several hundred miles to make sure our foster baby didn’t miss a contact and our birth children didn’t miss their much needed break. I came home even more exhausted than I left.
I tried to discuss my frustration at the situation with my supervising worker on my return only to be told I clearly wasn’t committed enough to the role. Later that year I discovered that annual pay increases are also a luxury that isn’t afforded to foster carers, in fact, in the 10 years I have fostered for my LA I have never had a single pay increase meaning that in real term my fee is worth 25% less than it was back then. I work for an authority that doesn’t have skill levels so I have no means of increasing my fostering income while continuing to undertake this important role for society.
I expect that by now some of you reading this are feeling a bit uncomfortable that I have mentioned those two big taboos in the fostering world namely ‘holidays’ and ‘pay’. To be honest, I feel a little uncomfortable writing about them but in the last 10 years I have learnt the hard way that not having a proper rest and trying to live with less money coming in than going out are both very stressful. I now care for an older child so am not dealing with the acute sleep deprivation I experienced as a baby carer, however with no increases in fees or allowances for several years, ever increasing council tax bills and more expensive food bills – things are certainly not a bed of roses.
What the Scotland Foster Care Workers Union has given me is a light at the end of the tunnel. I love being a foster carer and will hopefully give many more children the opportunity to experience normal, loving family life. The Foster Care Workers Bill gives us a realistic chance to be properly protected and have many of the same rights as other members of the team around the child. I firmly believe that with these rights will come some much needed respect as a workforce. At present we are all too often scapegoated when things do not go well, whether or not we agreed with those decisions. At present I could be deregistered with no external scrutiny if someone decides to make a malicious allegation about me and at present I am viewed as ‘not child focused’ if I ask about money or my own well being.
From speaking to many hundreds of foster carer workers since this union was formed it is my impression that most foster carers will not use their holiday entitlement to be away with their foster children. On the whole we love giving children the chance to experience the new opportunities that holidays offer but from time to time everyone needs a chance to recharge their batteries. With the use of some child-centred practices such as the Mockingbird model or specific respite carers who the children know and love, we can all manage to have a guilt free rest from time to time
Foster care is a job like no other and we are very fortunate to be able to have a positive effect on the lives of children who lie with us, but there is no doubt that it is a form of work and we need the protections of workers status.