Thousands of British families want to foster unaccompanied refugee children living in dire conditions, but authorities say it could take up to eight months to do so. So what next? Milli Hill reports
Would you open your home and your family to a refugee child? Save the Children estimates there are currently around 5,000 ‘unaccompanied’ children in European refugee camps who have no adult officially responsible for their care. And as the world becomes more and more aware of their plight, large numbers of people are stepping forward to say that they are willing to foster them.
In the past seven days more than 10,000 people have volunteered to become refugee foster carers via an online initiative from charity Home for Good. In addition to this, Kevin Williams, chief executive for The Fostering Network, has called for more people to urgently come forward and consider becoming foster carers, in particular those who have experience of working with children who have suffered trauma, or who may have similar cultural or linguistic backgrounds to the refugees.
However, if you are one of the many people who sees fostering a child refugee as a chance to help make a real difference in the current crisis, don’t start getting the spare room ready yet. Because whilst you may be willing and able to welcome a child in need into your home right away, in reality, it could be several months before you are eligible to do so.
This is because the existing system demands you go through the exact same rigorous process as anyone wishing to become an approved UK foster carer, as Melody Douglas, managing director of FosterTalk, explains: “To foster any child – refugee or otherwise - you need to undergo the assessment process. There are no short cuts. Assessing someone to be a foster carer is a lengthy and detailed process that may take up to eight months to complete.
"It will be carried out by a social worker who will make visits to your family home, talk to you about your hobbies, interests and lifestyle, as well as taking up references from your friends and employer. You will also be required to undergo a medical and apply for an enhanced disclosure to check for any offences you may have committed in the past.”
Once approved as a foster carer, it’s also unlikely you’ll be able to discriminate and declare that you are only interested in fostering refugee children, as opposed to those from the UK. But whilst some may consider this to be fair and equal, others feel that insisting both UK children and refugees are processed through the same system is inappropriate, and that more urgent action is needed for the unaccompanied children currently in the dangerous conditions of Europe’s camps.
Should there be a fast track?
Fellow Telegraph journalist Toby Young has initiated a petition, signed by over 2,000 people, calling on David Cameron to allow UK families to immediately take in around 3,000 refugee children. Young suggests we remember the spirit of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 669 children in 1939 as part of the wider ‘Kindertransport’ initiative, which saw the UK taking in nearly 10 thousand predominantly Jewish children, many of them into the care of foster families.
At the time of the Kindertransport, an appeal for fosterers on the BBC Home Service resulted in hundreds of offers, and, once cursory checks were made that their homes were ‘clean and respectable’, children were quickly transported to what must certainly have been relative safety.
Whilst the story is inspiring, that was 1939, and times have changed. It’s no longer considered acceptable or safe to place a child in a family without rigorous checks and several months of preparation and training. But, given the scale of the crisis, and that unaccompanied refugee children are no doubt extremely at risk, should there not be a ‘fast track’ process to bring them to safety in days, rather than months?
I asked Toby Young how he felt about the inevitable delay to aid, in an era where an action like the Kindertransport no longer seems possible. His response was brief but clear. “I think the Government should appoint a child refugee envoy whose job would be to find homes for these children, including vetting all the people who’ve volunteered to become foster parents. That way, they won’t have to spend a year being interviewed by politically correct local council officers and the issue of why refugee children are being given priority within the present foster care system won’t arise.”
Children come with baggage
The Department of Education have stated: “There would not be any chance of changing the process of becoming a foster carer, which is there for a reason.” But many of the thousands of people who have come forward to volunteer feel that help needs to reach refugee children now, not in several months time.
One applicant, a UK nurse married to a Syrian GP, told me: “We have two children of our own and want to help. We only have a three bedroom house, but that doesn't bother me, these people need shelter and love. I find the system to get started daunting and think it would take months, while these beautiful people and babies need safe homes soon.”
Jenny Smith, an author and retired foster carer from Lambeth who has given a home to both UK children and several refugees from Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq, feels that, whilst the mainstream process may be time-consuming, it’s vitally important.
"You can’t just take a child and place them into anybody’s care, without the proper training”, she explained. “Children come with a lot of baggage. You see these lovely cherubic faces but the reality can be extremely difficult. There’s a huge amount to deal with, from the paperwork, to the issues of language, to the possibly difficult behaviour. I don’t think people realise what an involved process they are getting into.”
Smith’s accounts of her years as a foster carer are nevertheless inspiring. Her first experience of a refugee was a 14-year-old Kosovan boy who had spent the four days prior to arriving on her doorstep hiding in the back of a lorry. He spoke no English, and she quickly fetched the attendants from a nearby carwash, who she knew were Kosovan, to translate.
A child is a child
“They explained what was happening, and told him to be a good boy for me”, she recounted. “He was quiet and hard working, and within a short time became head boy of our local school. Then he went to university and has never looked back.”
Not every story ended so well, Jenny added. In her view, support and training were vital in what could be a hugely complex and emotional task. She sounded unflappable, and perhaps most impressively, utterly without discrimination – as a foster carer her house became home to a long list of children, all of whom she welcomed with open arms and without question.
But fostering isn't easy. Nor does it suit everyone. There are 63,000 UK children currently in foster care, and the Fostering Network estimates that over 8,000 more foster families must be recruited in the next 12 months to support this overstretched system. Whilst it may currently be an emotive issue to wish to house an unaccompanied refugee, in the long term we need people who are prepared to open their doors to all children.
Any attempt to analyse who is most deserving of our help – UK child, or refugee - is simply a microcosm of the wider current debate: are they ‘refugees’, or ‘migrants’? Syrian, or from somewhere a little less war-torn?
Destitute, or clutching a smart-phone? Rather than getting caught up in arguments about who is most in need, we must simply move as fast as we can to improve lives. Literally and metaphorically, we need to pull people out of the water first, and ask questions second. So if you can, sign up to be a foster carer, not just a refugee foster carer. Compassion should have no borders.
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