Ministers are facing demands for a comprehensive overhaul of foster care after Britain’s most comprehensive assessment of the service revealed low morale, funding shortfalls and poor support has fuelled a critical shortage of carers.
Only a handful of fostering services across the UK now say they have the types of carers they need to meet the demand for fostering places in their area, while the pressures on the system mean that little more than half of foster carers said they could currently recommend the role to others.
The stark findings on the state of fostering, shared exclusively with the Observer, are revealed in the largest survey of carers and services of its kind. It reveals a system under strain, resulting in mismatches between carers and the children they are asked to look after. Only 53% of the thousands of foster carers who took part said they had been given enough information about the children in their care. The survey also identified increasing mental health challenges among carers, who were often asked to take on more than their experience and expertise suggested they could reasonably manage without further training and support.
More than 3,300 foster carers looking after well over 5,000 children responded to the Fostering Network charity survey. It also involved 99 fostering services, representing more than a fifth of the sector.
It claims the government has neglected foster carers, who have been provided with inadequate funds to meet the needs of the children they look after. Meanwhile, the lack of a retainer given to those who were not currently looking after children meant that carers were lost. Those who remained in the system were asked to take on more children, often without the relevant information about their needs and background.
All but six of the 99 services that were included in the report said they had a shortage of foster carers in their local population. The pressures within the system, and the lack of availability of foster families, resulted in some children living a long way from family, friends and school or being separated from their siblings.
The findings follow similar warnings from local government, which recently said that up to 95,000 vulnerable children would end up in council care by 2025 because of a lack of alternatives such as foster families. Several council bosses privately said that the state of children’s social care was now the greatest emergency they face. Some also warned that the fees paid to private fostering agencies were far too high.
Wider concerns about the treatment of children in care have prompted a government review and a probe by the competition regulator into child residential care. Many in the sector believe that homes are built in cheap areas by private providers, which is taking vulnerable children away from their support networks and into the arms of gangs and criminality. The Competitition and Markets Authority’s interim findings also said that the largest private providers could be earning high profits in a dysfunctional market.
Roughly three-quarters of the 97,000 children looked after in the UK are being cared for by foster families. However, the Fostering Network’s 2021 State of the Nation’s Foster Care report found that independent scrutiny over where children were being placed was not routine, meaning that placements may not be in the best interest of the child.
“Governments have neglected foster care,” said the Fostering Network’s chief executive, Kevin Williams. “The saddest thing is that we’ve known about these issues for some time, and they don’t seem to be getting any better. We absolutely recognise that there is a crisis today in foster care in terms of the recruitment and retention of foster carers.
“Foster carers tell us quite clearly that the reason they foster is because they want to help children. When over a third of foster carers say that the allowance they receive isn’t sufficient to fund the child in their care, that’s really saying that the government is relying on the goodwill of foster carers to supplement the state. That cannot be right.
He added: “If local authorities are not properly funded, then actually they cannot fund foster care properly. Foster carers are not treated and valued and respected for the skills that they bring. These are really complex roles.”
He called on governments across the UK to undertake a comprehensive review of the minimum levels of fostering allowances. Over a third of foster carers said their allowances do not meet the full cost of looking after a child. Some revealed that minimum allowances, established in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, were not being met. Some 70% of foster carers said they do not receive any retainer payments in between fostering.
A government spokesperson said: “Foster carers make a lifelong difference to the lives of vulnerable children, and the State of the Nation report is an important reminder of this. Every child deserves a stable, secure and loving home, which is why we’re continuing to work with the Fostering Network on important initiatives such as its Mockingbird programme, which offers peer-to-peer support for fosters, and we have provided over £8m to help children’s services to embed this across the country.”
For all the pressures the fostering system is facing, carers are clear about one thing: there are moments that make it hugely rewarding.
“When you have a child in your care and at first they’re afraid to give you a cuddle, but three or four months down the road, they just run into your arms – you know you’re doing all right,” said Sarah Jones, 57, from south Wales, who has been fostering for almost seven years.
She and her wife had experience of working with vulnerable young people and went to Foster Wales. “They snapped us right up,” she said.
The support networks around a child being fostered are hugely important, but carers often bear the burden of ensuring those they look after have access to help. “It is left to the foster carer to carry the load,” said Jones. “I think that’s why we see high turnover … That’s why we see carers who are burnt out. We do this job 24/7. And we do it with love. Just like any other professional, we need to be adequately supported.”
Sue Stepney, 63, from Peterborough, said she and her husband took up fostering a decade ago after her children grew up. She agreed there was a status problem for foster carers. “I just don’t think foster carers are recognised as a workforce that is highly skilled in what they do,” she said, adding that it was clear that the system was under pressure in terms of overall places. “We’re full at the moment. We have six placed with us. But the minute you do have room, you are asked to take more.”
Both women said the financial support they received did not meet the costs of the care; Jones said children in foster care benefited from activities that weren’t covered by funding. “To give the kind of support children need, we go into our own pockets,” she says. “We’re really lucky: my partner has a great job. But foster carers need more.”
The pressures become more obvious at times of crisis. “While everything’s going OK, that’s fine,” said Stepney. “But the minute there are any struggles … the support is not great. Sometimes you have to fight really hard to get the support children need.”
Just like Jones, though, Stepney is in no doubt about the rewards that come with the role. “When the children first come to you, they don’t feel they’ve got a future,” she said. “But after a while, they’re talking about what they want to do when they’re grown up and talking about going to college and university. Then you feel you’ve really made a difference.”