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Could you foster?

foster parent_and_child_06_06_12Being a foster parent can be challenging and frustrating, but incredibly rewarding.

Most of us don’t want to believe there are a significant number of children in our cities and towns whose short lives have been, at worst, a living nightmare. Some are born with learning difficulties or physical disabilities, simply because their mother will have drunk too much alcohol or taken drugs during her pregnancy and the effects have took hold.

Others are neglected, shunted from pillar to post, abused both physically and mentally, and even abandoned. It may be hard to think of innocent children being treated so badly, especially by their parents, but there are ways that those of us in positions of privilege can help – and one of those is fostering.

Are you suitable?

Fostering is different from adopting, because essentially it is a temporary arrangement. To be able to foster, the main criterion is that the carer can give high-quality care to the child, working in partnership with the local authority or fostering agency to achieve this.

‘Foster carers must be able to offer the time, commitment, space and skills to care for children separated from their families,’ says Elaine Dibben, foster care consultant for the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF).

‘These children may have experienced neglect or abuse before coming into foster care, so carers will need to be great listeners, have a good sense of humour, be flexible and understand the problems that the children may present.

‘Foster carers need to be able to create a sense of security for those children placed with them who may have had unsettled lives and show “stickability” and resilience when there are more challenging times.

‘They need to work as a team with the social workers and professionals who are involved in planning for the children and supporting both the foster carers and the children. They must be prepared to take advantage of the training and development opportunities on offer to build on their own skills and experience.’

Often, the foster parent will also need to be in close contact with other professionals, including teachers, doctors and therapists, to help the foster child work through behavioural or emotional problems or deal with short- or long-term healthcare needs.

In England, the government has introduced national minimum allowances for 2012/13 for foster carers with a base rate of £114 per week for babies, rising to £172 for 16-17 year olds. This figure is higher if you live in London or the south east, to reflect higher living costs. ‘It is important for children to live with foster carers who reflect and understand the child’s heritage, ethnic origin, culture and language, and fostering agencies need carers from all backgrounds,’ says Elaine.

‘This helps children not to feel “different” and means the carers will have a good understanding of the child’s religious or cultural needs and can help them deal with any discrimination or racism.’

People needn’t be married to become foster carers either. ‘They can be cohabiting, single or divorced,’ says Elaine. ‘Gay men and lesbians can foster, too.’

Unlike adoption, there is no upper age limit to foster a child. ‘Having experience of parenting children into adulthood can be very helpful. And having children around to support their parents in the fostering role and provide good role models is useful, too,’ says Elaine.

‘Children will present challenges and foster carers will need to have the energy and be healthy enough to undertake what can at times be a demanding and stressful task.’

Why foster?

While fostering is not something to be taken on lightly, the rewards can be huge. ‘The main positives which are described by foster carers include being able to see the differences in children as they become more settled, grow in confidence, learn and achieve new things and move on into a permanent and stable situation,’ says Elaine. ‘It is also a job where foster carers can develop and gain new skills and knowledge through training and, working with other professionals, and know they are making a real difference to people’s lives.’

Not all plain sailing

Of course there are pitfalls, too, not least dealing with a child who may be mentally and physically scarred from previous relationships or experiences. ‘Fostering does involve all the usual demands of parenting children,’ says Elaine. ‘But in addition, there will be extra meetings with social workers, health and education professionals.

‘Often, foster carers may be involved in helping children to keep in contact with parents and family members,’ says Elaine. ‘As such, it is vitally important that they keep written records and information about what’s happening, to help inform the plans being made for the future. For this reason, people thinking about fostering need to be realistic about the amount of time they have available.

‘Foster carers who have their own children living at home will have to balance the time they have, to meet the needs of the children in their care. It’s possible that their own children may at times be shocked or upset by the behaviour or impact of the fostered children. It is important that the birth children are involved in the initial discussions about their family being involved in fostering and know who to talk to if they are finding things difficult.

‘Fostering does involve caring for children at a very difficult time in their lives and sometimes foster carers can find the demands and the stresses caused by this difficult to manage. This is why it is important that foster carers are able to ask for and make use of the help and support that will be made available to them in this situation.’

The greatest need

It is estimated that nearly 9,000 foster carers are needed across the UK in 2012.‘For children under school age, it is usually preferred that they have one foster carer who is not working, to avoid them experiencing several care settings. It is also important that children are able to remain with their siblings when they are being separated from their parents so foster carers who have the space and time to meet the needs of more than one child are particularly welcome,’ says Elaine.

‘Teenagers need foster carers who have particular skills in dealing with the issues around adolescence. Many children will benefit from being able to live with a family rather than move into residential care.’

A helping hand

Over 65,000 children were in the care of local authorities in the UK last year and of those, a massive 74% were living with foster carers – that is over 48,000 children. The majority (37%) were aged 10 to 15.

Fostering is a different thing from adopting because the overall legal responsibility for the child is still down to the birth parents or the local authority. If a child is adopted, the legal responsibility is signed over to the new parents, exactly as if he or she was born into that family.

‘For children who cannot live with their own parents, fostering is a way of providing a family life,’ says Elaine. ‘It is often used to provide temporary care while parents get help sorting out problems or take a break, or to help children or young people through a difficult time.’

Most of the children will return to their birth parents once those problems are resolved, usually within a year of being put into foster care. Others will stay in foster care long-term, though, and some will eventually be adopted. If they are older, a child may move from a foster carer to living independently.

For information on The British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF) visit or call 020 7421 2600. The Fostering Network is the UK’s leading charity for foster care and has lots of information on its website. Visit

What are the different types of fostering?
The various schemes depend on the needs of the child…

Emergency: Where children need somewhere safe to stay straightaway just for a few nights.

Short-term: Where carers look after children for a few weeks or months, while plans are made for the child’s future.

Short-breaks: Where disabled children or children with special needs or behavioural difficulties enjoy a short stay on a regular pre-planned basis with a new family, and their parents or usual foster carers have a break from their duties or for themselves.

Remand fostering: Where young people in England or Wales are ‘remanded’ by the court to the care of a trained foster carer.

Long-term fostering: Not all children who cannot return to their own families want to be adopted, especially older children or those who continue to have regular contact with their relatives. These children continue to live with long-term foster carers until they reach adulthood and are ready to live independently.

Family and friends or kinship fostering: Where children who are looked after by a local authority are then cared for by people they know. If they’re not looked after by the local authority, children can live with their aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters or grandparents without any outside involvement at all.

Private fostering: Where the parents make an arrangement for the child to stay with someone else who is not a close relative and has no parental responsibilities, and the child stays with that person (the private foster carer) for more than 27 days. The local authority still must be told about the arrangements and be able to visit to check on the child’s welfare.

This article was first published in at home with Lorraine Kelly in April 2012. [Read the digital edition here]

Picture credit: Shutterstock

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