Inquiries are like buses: you wait for ages and two come along at once. Fostering has been ignored by officialdom for so long that when separate reviews were launched by MPs and the Department for Education, it was inevitable that expectations would run high. Not so much among foster carers, who have learned through bitter experience that not much ever changes. But children’s services, fostering agencies, social workers and care leavers all saw this as a golden opportunity to press for changes they felt were urgently needed. 

Fast forward a few months: the reviews have come and gone and the government has responded. Foster carers, it seems, were right to be wary. Nadhim Zahawi, the children’s minister, broadly welcomed both reviews and made recommendations to embed best existing practice across the whole system. It is difficult to disagree with any of it, but those expecting major reform, such as giving employment status to foster carers, were left disappointed. There is no extra money, of course. The charity Fostering Network described it as “a huge disappointment and a wasted opportunity”.

Where does fostering go from here? There is no doubt that it faces significant challenges. Some are rooted in the crisis facing social care generally after years of austerity. Others are specific to fostering, including the recruitment and retention of carers for record numbers of children and young people removed from birth families. But foster care also has great strengths, safeguarding children at risk and transforming many lives. As a foster carer, I see the profound difference we make every day. 

There are steps that can be taken to improve the lives of carers and support their work with vulnerable children. These are my suggestions:

Minimum weekly allowances must be mandatory

The government sets minimum allowances, reviewed every year. But fostering providers are not required to pay them. A significant number of foster carers receive less than the cost of supporting a child at home. This is unacceptable. Our response to this practice should be as robust as it is against employers who fail to pay the national living wage.

Allow foster carers to accept placements with other providers

Foster carers are self-employed but with a big difference: they can only work with one provider at a time. They might be approved to foster on behalf of their local authority, but can go many weeks without a placement. But they can’t offer their services to a fostering agency, and seeking alternative temporary employment is impractical. This feels like a restraint of trade that would not be tolerated in any other sector. It is also inefficient use of a valuable resource.

Foster carers should be exempt from council tax

Local authorities are seeking innovative ways to recruit more fostering families. Some offer discounts or exemptions for council tax. This is a valuable benefit for foster carers and a meaningful contribution to those who maintain a larger home than they would otherwise need. Exemptions should be standard across all local authorities.

Sort out Staying Put

Since May 2014, fostered young people in England have the right to stay with their foster families when they reach 18, if both parties agree. But the scheme is a bit of a mess. The young person is no longer in foster care, and the family are no longer foster carers. Foster care regulations do not apply. A local authority pays about half of what the foster carer previously received. The young person is expected to make up the difference, either from wages or from housing benefit. Unsurprisingly, the number of young people staying with their foster family has fallen to its lowest level since the scheme was introduced in 2014, according to Ofsted.

Offer special deals and discounts

Councils should use their clout to encourage local businesses to offer special deals and discounts to foster carers. Foster children have a right to enjoy the same experiences enjoyed by others. Their development has often been curtailed by a lack of opportunity. But fostering allowances, funded by council tax payers, only go so far. Free or discounted tickets to farm parks, the cinema, bowling alleys and so on for foster children would make a huge difference to foster families without involving significant cost to businesses.

Provide respite care

It has become increasingly difficult for foster carers to get time off. Regular families can turn to family or close friends for help, but this is unlikely to be an option for foster carers. At certain times – weddings, funerals, hospital visits, graduation ceremonies – young children need to stay behind, just as they might if they lived with their birth families. Asking for help should not feel like an imposition.

As an extension of this, it should be possible to continue allowances after a child moves on, to recognise that a foster carer’s work continues for a time after each placement (for example, completing paperwork such as diary notes, liaising with schools and other organisations that had contact with the child or preparing the home for the next placement). Emotionally, the end of a longer placement can be tough and it takes time to bounce back. Having a small number of days still remunerated by the fostering provider feels fair.

In the spirit of the government’s response, none of these suggestions represents radical change, nor will they solve all fostering’s problems. But they address day-to-day challenges and go some way towards acknowledging that fostering families are also entitled to care and respect. And they won’t cost the earth.

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