For the record after the meeting I did not join the Union as I was not convinced that the IWGB understood the role of foster carers or our relationship with fostering agencies or the wider social services. I did not believe that a small union who until this period had worked with small groups of workers in individual buildings largely within London could take a national role for thousands of us. I still have not been given any evidence to contrary.
Sadly, I do not believe that many of the concerns that I spoke about have been addressed and possibly it could be argued that it is worse now. We still need a single voice solely for foster carers in each country that makes up the UK as the regulations are different in the four countries.
This is what I said at the time to a packed room in Portcullis House.:-
I have been a foster carers for 24 years for most of the time fostering mainly long term for, large sibling groups. Currently I have 3 in placement and 2 others on SGO's. I am the Chair of our local foster care association representing foster carers in 2 Local Authorities and I also chair the Fostering Networks England Advisory Committee. I sit on two fostering panels in the East of England, but today I'm speaking for myself, based on a huge range of experience.
I think I could have spoken about how I want what we do as foster carers to be improved for an hour without repetition and it's been hard to reduce it to a few minutes.
I want to speak today about the valuable work that foster carers do day in and day out. Not the impact of the unacceptable cuts in the allowances and fees paid to carers or where things go terribly wrong and sadly foster carers get left on their own with very little support, information or guidance. Both are valid topics for discussion, but it is the increasing expectations of the fostering task that is starting to grind us down. I am not sure what the answer is, but these are my issues.
For 20 years I've heard the comment that we are approximately 9000 foster carers short. This year the figure has been quoted by the Fostering Network, Coram BAAF and Banardo's. If we continue to be this short and then something new needs to be tried.
Of course, fostering is rewarding, but it could be better, much better. Let us look at something that's been talked about for years .... the professional or career foster carer in the team around a child; well that is what we should be, but it rarely happens.
The term career foster carer is particularly gulling as I've personally given up two careers to support long term placements and at other times, I've reduced hours. With 5 vulnerable children at home I am lucky enough to be able to be self-employed and work part time, although I did joke that I went to full time work to get some rest. My wife also gave up her career in residential childcare to initially fosters family of 5 orphans to keep them together.
At present fostering cannot be a career. No one in their right mind would look to build a career like this. There is no real way to progress however much experience is built without taking on the most damaged child, often presenting the most skilled carers with situations they cannot cope with, in their own home, sometimes 24:7. I can't think of any other career that's limited this way.
To be a real career option we at the very least need to have control of it, most foster carers do not. Control of our career is often limited to giving notice on the child or resigning. Both a last resort. And even then, we really cannot take our 'official' experience with us but have to start the process of registering to foster again. That isn't a career, and many don't bother. We need to own our own registration as an official foster carer. Currently we don’t.
I was a trained teacher aiming to be a head, then a Virtual Head for children in care, integrated into 2 different children's social service departments. Now I provide training around the UK to help adults support vulnerable youngsters. I meet a load of foster carers in that role. Foster carers experiences are very similar who ever I speak to.
There are so many competing expectations placed on foster carers. We are expected to bring up looked after fostered children using good (enough) parenting in a typical family environment. However, the constraints imposed by the fostering system and interpretations by the fostering service make our houses anything but a typical family home. Making children's experiences as typical as possible is where the very real work lies and often where the battles with the system occur on a daily basis.
Supporting and nurturing vulnerable and traumatised children so that they flourish and catch up has always been a job. It's not simply parenting, but we also juggle contact with birth families and the impact that this has, attend numerous meetings for the children, where a foster carers attendance is expected, but often the date or the time is non-negotiable. I was once in the situation where my fostering service demanded that I attend meetings, but my employer, the same Local Authority refused me the time for meetings. This hasn’t changed.
We are self-employed or so the tax office tells us and we aren't employed so the fostering agencies tell us, but we complete huge amounts of paperwork, that we don't have control over and much is never used. We turn ourselves, our families and homes over to scrutiny that no salaried worker would tolerate all dictated by the fostering system. It also seems that anyone in that extended team around the child who comes into contact with us, even for 30 minutes, is entitled to make representations about us even 'officially' in our annual appraisal sometimes without any real evidence, but we are never asked to contribute to anyone else's appraisal unless they are also foster carers. It's not a level playing field.
We are told we have to complete official training, according to a personal development plan dictated by the fostering service. However, most of how we gain our expertise in managing complex relationships and addressing neglect abuse and trauma doesn't officially count as it really can't be quantified. There is also an expectation that we become experts in huge areas of child development and social care administration in our own time with very little guidance and then we are rarely listened to.
Then we also have to find space and time for relationships, to earn the money to live in larger houses or drive bigger cars than we need and also for leisure and relaxation or even find the time to be ill. To be honest a meaningful work - life balance is difficult to achieve.
The expectations grow. Increasingly I see the expectation that carers will take on more of what was in the past undertaken by salaried workers in the team around the child, either because those salaried workers face an increased work load or because the posts or whole services no longer exist. This includes report writing, therapy, and increased transportation or contact supervision with reduced expenses.
In a survey in April this year the Fostering Network polled its members and over 2/3rds started that they had felt a huge negative impact on the work they did and associated the increased stress with recent cuts in local government in its widest sense.
What I want is a joined-up provision around the country. I'm not sure what the answer is, but foster carers should be expected to do the same things for the same reward wherever they are. I want a fostering career where fostering expertise is valued and where we are not consistently portrayed as a second or third best option, with official communication speaking of children languishing in foster care.
Finally, I want the carers have control of their own destiny in terms of managing workload and career progression.