John (not his real name) is a foster carer in Scotland. With The Fostering Network’s annual 2 week “celebration of fostering” in full swing, he has written a frank account about the realities of fostering.
The present crisis has highlighted the conditions that care workers work under – the phenomenal task they undertake and the effort and contribution they make on behalf of everyone. Yet one group of care workers remain largely invisible: Foster Care Workers. I am a foster carer of twenty years experience. My partner and I have fostered nearly two hundred children: some for only a few days, many for several years.
At times, it is a difficult and challenging vocation but it is the most significant and fulfilling thing I have done in my lifetime. We play a vital part in the lives of often distressed, desperate and traumatised children. We help them to get back on their feet – ready to meet the challenges of adulthood. We do not have a magic wand that will make everything better again. But for these children we have been, and for some still are, the most significant people in their lives.
Because of the nature of work and the extreme trauma we often deal with, foster care is not a task you can easily walk away from – it requires total dedication. Foster care work is a vocation. The children in our care need a lot of guidance, management and compassion. We make ourselves available twenty four hours a day , seven days a week – that is our job and our duty.
We often face criticism when the issues of foster care’s worker’s conditions arise. There is a backlash along the lines of “what are you worried about? – you earn a fortune”
We work from home and the nature of fostering is sensitive. Little is known about what goes on inside fostering households as a result. No TV crews are making documentaries about us. No one is getting under the surface, exposing the commonly held myths. For us, this crisis has exposed an already existing situation that every foster care worker is already aware of – that our working conditions are poor and inadequate.
We are obliged to be self-employed and our pay is low. Not classed as workers, we don’t have even the most basic working rights. That means – no guarantee of income, sick pay or holidays -no independent oversight, governing body or management – no contract, no terms and conditions. If we do not have a child in our care we receive no income.
We often face criticism when the issues of foster care’s worker’s conditions arise. There is a backlash along the lines of “what are you worried about? – you earn a fortune”. This is one of the biggest myths surrounding fostering. Local Authorities and Fostering Agencies perpetuate this by running exaggerated and extravagant recruitment campaigns, quoting income in the tens of thousands. The fee paid and the allowance agencies provide to cover all the needs of the child is often lumped together. This is disingenuous and misleading: the allowance is for the child not the carer.
When fostering bodies ‘engage’ foster carers, it’s not generally understood that they assess, register and ‘approve’ both partners in a household. Both have an obligation to attend training and participate fully. Both work – only one receives a payment. I know of no other vocation where this situation exists. In Northern Ireland and in some parts of England foster carers receive no payment. In the rest of the UK it’s a mixed bag with the majority receiving a fraction of the minimum wage.
There is no provision for foster care workers in the Governments’ emergency plans
It is hardly suprising that there has been a lack of foster carers in recent years. Now, there is also a huge rise expected in the number of children coming into care due to an increase in domestic violence and other factors created by the pandemic. Foster care workers want to step up – we want to help even though that means we will be at increased risk of exposure. However, if we fall ill and are unable to care, the children will have to be moved and we will receive no income nor sick pay.
At the same time, all respite for accommodated (fostered) children has been cancelled during the lockdown. This means, at a stroke, that respite carers , who provide a valuable and essential service, have no income. There is no provision for foster care workers in the Governments’ emergency plans. Foster care workers will have to rely on claiming benefits which may take months or simply not be available. Some may face destitution and there is a real danger that some fostering households will not be able to remain viable and that children will lose their fostering family and have to be moved.
Working in a precarious and insecure environment with not even the most basic working rights and no access to the support other workers enjoy causes stress and worry, and that’s not helpful when we need to concentrate and focus on the children in our care.
It is somehow seen as inappropriate if we ask to be treated on an equal basis
More so now than ever before, other key workers are recognised and respected for what they do. Quite rightly and deservedly so. However, if we raise our voice in concern about the precarious conditions foster carers work under we are frequently met with outright hostility. We are told we are undeserving, that we are moaning and that complaining distracts from caring for the children in our charge. We are told that we should “ just get on with it”
I have huge respect for my fellow foster care workers: we do indeed “ get on with it”
Fostering involves a lot of inter-agency meetings. I have attended many of these where there might be as many as six or seven other professionals present – doctor; psychologist; school nurse; social worker; teacher police; lawyer etc. I am as equally dedicated to the child’s care, welfare and development as the rest of these people. What’s the difference between them and me?
They have guaranteed basic working rights and conditions. They have a contract specifying the conditions under which they work. They have an employer who owes them a duty of care – to comply with health and safety regulations and is bound to provide for them if they are sick or unable to work!
We are often the most significant person in the child’s life. Yet, it is somehow seen as inappropriate if we ask to be treated on an equal basis. This doesn’t make any sense! What we are asking for is completely reasonable.
Conditions for foster care workers are not going to improve without action
Reading this you might conclude that fostering is not a very attractive proposition. Please do not be put off. It is possible to do something, to believe in something, and still believe that reform and improvement are long overdue and essential.
Conditions for foster care workers are not going to improve without action. That’s why I joined the IWGB Foster Care Workers Union. They are the only truly independent organization campaigning for real and significant change in the conditions under which we work. The Union are lobbying Parliament: formulating proposed legislation; taking legal actions and holding those responsible for our welfare to account. Currently they have an active petition online (www.change.org/Rights4FosterCarers) where foster cares across the UK are highlighting the lack of statutory sick pay and demanding action.
This Pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in the system. Care workers are going to emerge from this as our champions and with the recognition they have long deserved. Let’s not forget to include the 55,000 dedicated and hard working foster care workers in the UK today.