Back in Spring 2016, the then education secretary Nicky Morgan caused quite an upset when she said: “We cannot stand by while children spend months in care waiting for their new family, when loving parents are available.”
Yet of those children in care, 75 per cent are being actively fostered. Unsurprisingly representatives of those hard working foster families hit back in an article in The Guardian to say: ‘children in foster care are not “waiting” for a loving family: they are in one.’
Fostering doesn’t operate in the same way as adoption but from our experience it is very deeply valued by all involved.
For anyone entering fostering there is a clear difference they must recognise – foster carers never have parental responsibility for the children they care for, no matter how long they look after him or her. Plus the local authority will always maintain some involvement in the child’s life which places expectations on the fosterer to attend certain meetings and undertake other administrative chores.
Although some people who enquire about fostering through GLF have found that a compromise they weren’t able to accept, we see these differences as a very positive thing. It means that fostering provides an alternative care option that may much better suit the child involved.
We at GLF find foster homes for all types of children. Some can be very temporary offering a child a home while their parent is ill or in hospital and unable to look after a much loved and wanted child.
For those children that aren’t able to live at home on a long-term basis, fostering offers a clear way for them to still maintain a link with their biological parents and families.
Ally, a 45-year-old woman who has been fostering through us for a decade, explains it perfectly: ‘I’ve been looking after Adam now for five years and I don’t think that is going to end any time soon. Although he sometimes has a difficult relationship with his birth mum he hold me recently that he is glad he is still part of her life in some way as it means he still knows the family he comes from.
‘I know that my job is to keep him safe and offer him care and stability. Neither Tom or I have ever felt the need to bring up adoption – he knows he is loved by me even if I am ‘just’ his foster Mum.’
‘I love fostering, I truly do, but when my foster child asked for chips for dinner every night, I did get exasperated’, says Trudy, 32, from South London.
‘I knew he needed to start eating healthily but it has been a real struggle to get him to – it did make me feel like I was failing him.’
Trudy is certainly not alone. Children can enter foster care for a wide variety of reasons but have often experienced chaotic home lives and a lack of guidance. When kids are not used to eating healthy food or being told to do so, foster parents can often feel at a loss as to what to do.
So how can you help? Firstly recognise that meal times can be a time of anxiety for foster children so don’t make food feel like punishment. Introduce new healthy foods gradually but never force them to eat it all or fall into arguments over dinner – increased tensions will only result in the child having negative emotions about meal times.
Get them involved in all the fun stuff to do with food, too. Take them food shopping and let them choose a few healthy items they fancy the look of. Encourage them to make their own snacks and sandwiches and ask them to help you make dinner occasionally. Not only are you giving them valuable life skills, but by letting them feel part of the process they can feel a bit more in control and also start to appreciate that a rigid diet of high-fat and high-salt food can be quite boring.
At GLF we also remind foster carers that children must know that food is easily available to them. Don’t feel guilt tripped into stocking your cupboards full of packets of crisps but children should be able to easily help themselves to healthy snacks. Occasionally we hear horror stories through the national media of foster carers padlocking their kitchen cupboards – that is certainly not a supportive home environment right for any child, let alone one that needs that extra care and support.
Trudy says that by letting her child get more involved in choosing and cooking food she is slowly making progress. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ she said, ‘he won’t be begging me for big bowls of salad any time soon but he now really likes peas, tomatoes and fresh potatoes. Small steps, but we are getting there.’
Let’s be frank, some of my friends think it’s a bit strange that I want to foster children but I don’t want children of my own,’ said Amy, 31 from Northolt
‘I may not be typical among my friends but I know I can offer so much to children who have grown up in difficult circumstances or have physical or mental health problems that can mean their parents sometimes need a break from looking after them. Helping children in need of extra care and support is more rewarding to me than having my babies of my own.’
Amy has now been fostering for two years and much of her work is in respite care looking after children who have autism or learning disabilities whose parents need a break from the constant care their children require. She has also fostered teenagers that need that bit more guidance as they’ve not had much experience of parental boundaries.
At GLF, foster parents come from all different types of backgrounds, with different levels of child care experience and different reasons to want to become involved in fostering. We often meet women like Sarah which means we don’t judge and we don’t hold much stock with stereotypical beliefs about what makes a good foster parent.
‘Being a foster parents takes patience and communication but I have the energy and motivation to remain committed to a child throughout both the fun and the challenging times,’ Sarah said. ‘I’m proof that you can have a deep caring instinct without being, or wanting to be, a mother.’
According to a 2013 survey by the charity Action for Children, over half the nation (54 per cent) think you won’t be approved for fostering if you are older than 55. Anne, a pensioner from Kent, knows better. She has been fostering through GLF for the last five years.
She said: ‘Children have played a big part of my adult life, but while my three kids weren’t yet ready to have children of their own, I felt I had a lot of love and experience to offer to a child that was just going to waste.’
At GLF we encourage foster applications from people of all ages – as long as you are able to commit to the responsibilities of fostering and answer the needs of a child we will consider your application.
So yes that means that just as there isn’t an upper age limit, the lower one is much lower than you think too – you must legally be older than 21, unless you have very special and rare circumstances, but that is where the restrictions end. Yet recent research showed that only 22 per cent of people under the age of 25 think they would even be accepted as foster carers. So the team at GLF were delighted for Stacey Heywood who was recently recognised in the 2016 Pride of Britain awards for becoming the UK’s youngest foster Mum at the age of 17. It proved to us what we have always known – that the love and dedication it takes to provide a safe and caring foster home is not age dependent.
Of course the different stages of life can bring with it different challenges – so if you have concerns that your health may not be what it once was, or at the other end of the spectrum, you’re not yet sure if you can offer a stable enough home, get in touch so we can talk through your individual case.
Returning to Anne in Kent, she added: ‘Sometimes people wonder why I want to foster children now that I am a pensioner and free from responsibility, but for me there couldn’t be a better moment. I have so much time and patience to offer since I’ve retired and that is what some children really need right now.’
Sarah, 27 from Bromley, is typical of many young people in the UK. She works for a good firm but is stuck renting as she can’t raise the deposit she needs for a mortgage. While she is resigned to waiting to buy her own place, from a young age she has always wanted to look after children and didn’t want to put that dream on the back burner.
Sarah said: ‘I heard about fostering when I was at school and as I got older it began to feel like something I would be really good at. My life now is really stable – I have a great job, secure income and a lovely home – except it isn’t mine.’
The UK’s National Minimum Standards for Fostering asks for a foster child to have their own room, with few exceptions, and accommodation to be of a reasonable standard but makes no other stipulation about housing type. So as long as you have the space required and your landlord has given you approval to foster children in your home, your rental arrangements won’t prevent you from fostering. GLF can advise you on how best to broach the subject with your landlord if you’re worried that they might say no because they don’t properly understand what fostering entails.
It is important to remember though that while you will receive financial support from the government towards the cost of fostering children, fostering does not make you eligible for extra housing benefit. The good news though is that after a rethink the government will no longer apply the bedroom tax (officially known as the under occupancy penalty) to foster carers. This means that if you are in social housing and in receipt of housing benefit you will not have this payment reduced if you use one of the bedrooms for a foster child.
Sarah has now been approved to foster and looking forward to welcoming her first child into her home. ‘I might never be able to afford my own home but I’m so glad that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing fostering. I can’t wait to be a foster Mum.’