This week we hear from a member of the Foster Care Workers Union telling us what prompted her join and why the work of the union is vital for the children in our care.
Why I joined a union
I’ve always loved working with young people. Doing various bits of voluntary work with children, I was usually drawn to those who were labelled as ‘difficult,’ but who often blossomed when given some patience, support and attention. Coming across children in care I saw how much difference a good foster carer could make, and how heart-breakingly damaging it was for those who were failed by the system. So when I had a break between jobs I decided to take the plunge and emailed my local authority to become a respite foster carer.
Three months later I was fostering, and have been ever since.
I was unprepared that some weeks I would lose money when there were extra costs for the child
I was expecting it to be tough, and it has been. The children I’ve cared for have brought out every possible emotion in me – hand-wringing despair, late night anxiety over that unattainable bedtime, incredible sadness when I see them overcome by trauma and loss, the feeling of relief when they are finally settled into an activity, and the immense joy of seeing them playful, happy and in fits of giggles. These children have challenged me in every way. But those are the challenges I signed up for, and the personal rewards have been massive.
What I wasn’t expecting was quite how challenging the working conditions would be. No-one goes into fostering for the money and security. But I was unprepared that some weeks I would lose money when there were extra costs for the child, or that I would be left with no income at all when respite breaks were cancelled – sometimes with just an hour’s warning. More than that, I was unprepared for the feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness I would feel when dealing with the council.
For months I didn’t have a supervising social worker because they had ‘run out’
Even during the approval process, I had concerns. They required adjustments to my home which ended up costing hundreds of pounds, before I could be sure I’d get approved and have any chance of making the money back. They also asked to be put into contact with people from my past I hadn’t been in touch with for years and felt uncomfortable calling on. Without any colleagues I didn’t have anyone to ask whether this was normal, and, desperate to get approved, I didn’t want to question it or speak up. Instead I just did what I was told.
Since then the support has been sporadic. For months I didn’t have a supervising social worker because they had ‘run out’, and I’ve never had the same one for more than a few months at a time. This pandemic has just made these things worse, with all respite care immediately cancelled, but foster carers falling through the gaps of government income schemes.
The real benefit is overcoming that feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness
As soon as I found out about the union, I joined. There are many benefits. I know if I get into problems with my local authority, the union’s case workers and lawyers will have my back. The updates and advice during this pandemic have been invaluable. But for me, the real benefit is overcoming that feeling of vulnerability and powerlessness: the feeling of being alone.
The logic of a union is simple: while alone we are powerless, together we are unstoppable.
While that might sound like an exaggeration, it isn’t. I would like to live in a world where no child has to be taken into care. But, while there are still children who need a safe home, and while local councils are still legally responsible for providing that home, the hard truth is that agencies need us more than we need them. Together, we have real power, but only if we are willing to come together and use it. When one foster carer sticks their neck out and asks for what’s fair, it’s easy to label them as a trouble maker and, with no employment protections, get them deregistered. But when we all come together to demand what’s right, we’re hard to ignore. As foster carers we want to be cooperative, to help out and make the best of a bad situation. But that can’t be at the expense of our own safety and security.
They will continue to undervalue us, until we start to really value ourselves
Working for change is hard, and it takes time. Just like other precarious workers (such as the Uber drivers or cycle instructors that form other branches of the IWGB) having no employee recognition or common workplace makes unionising harder. But progress has always been hard won: workers in the past took much greater risks, often to their lives, to get the basic rights most workers enjoy today. Foster carers can have those rights too (luckily with much lower risk than the union members of the past) if we organise for it.
For me, being in a union isn’t about being “against” our social workers or local councils. While the profits of some private sector agencies are eye-watering and should be held to account, many agencies and local councils are facing real challenges. And the social workers I’ve met have generally been working incredibly hard in near-impossible jobs. The problem is bigger than any one agency, boss or social worker. It’s a whole system which ignores and undervalues workers across the care sector, and particularly in foster care.
And they will continue to undervalue us, until we start to really value ourselves. That means recognising that we deserve more: more pay, more legal recognition, more security and most importantly, more respect.
Ask yourself this: what are we saying if we don’t come together and organise for a better deal?
By undervaluing us, they’re also undervaluing the children in our care. It’s not good for any child to be looked after by someone who doesn’t get medical attention for fear of not getting sick pay, or who is worried about how they’ll pay rent. The children in our homes deserve the very best possible care from foster carers who are thinking about what’s best for the children in their care, not how they’re going to pay next month’s bills if there’s a gap between placements.
If you’re thinking about joining the union, but you’re not sure, ask yourself this: what are we saying if we don’t come together and organise for a better deal? We’re saying that how things are today is OK. We’re saying that it’s acceptable that a third of foster carers get no fee at all for one of the hardest jobs ever. We’re saying that foster carers don’t deserve sick pay, or holiday pay or even the basic recognition of being a worker.
If that doesn’t sound right to you, then join us. And get every foster carer you know to join too.