Just as there is a military covenant, so there is an unwritten agreement between the nation and its foster carers. It goes something like this: ordinary families commit to provide a loving home to children and young people who cannot, for reasons beyond their control, live with their own parents. In return, the state promises to cover all expenses and to provide support to ensure that looked-after children flourish.
Over years this covenant, broadly speaking, has survived through good times and bad, and the UK system of child welfare has come to rely heavily on foster carers: about 80 per cent of the 81,000 children in care live with foster families.
However, the fostering covenant is currently being broken, to coin a phrase David Cameron once used to describe our neglect of the military. Austerity measures are having a devastating effect on practical and financial support for foster carers, and on children's access to their social workers and other services, including mental health services.
A report by The Fostering Network, the national charity for foster carers, published a stark survey of foster carers last week. Three-quarters of carers said that cuts have had a negative impact on the fees they receive for fostering, and two-thirds said that cuts had restricted access to vital services, including respite care and mental health services. Two-thirds said that cuts had reduced access to their child's social worker.
This is happening at a time when record numbers of children and young people are being taken into care, putting a severe strain on children's services. To put that into context, one child comes into care needing a foster family every 20 minutes. The picture painted by respondents to the survey is of a system in crisis, unable to cope with the demands heaped upon it.
We are foster carers and on a typical day we receive three mobile texts from our local authority looking for foster homes. By definition, the texts are brief. But they hint at complex family situations that have led to children and young people being removed from their homes. These texts are a last resort, sent by social workers racing against the clock, having failed to secure accommodation through the usual channels. These are the hard-to-place children that nobody wants. The frequency of these texts suggest that there are many such cases.
We currently foster three siblings, so we are in no position to help. Yet we find ourselves trying to work through how we might offer accommodation, even if it were only for a few days until something else became available. It is a pointless exercise, and yet that is what we do, and I am sure other foster carers respond in the same way.
These texts are a stark illustration of stresses within the system, a consequence of the shortage of foster carers. The Fostering Network estimates that some 9,000 new foster carers are currently needed to ensure stability in the system, yet recruitment and retention is severely compromised by the impact of cuts. One Fostering Network respondent said that £2,000 a year had been cut from her allowances. Increasingly, the day-to-day cost of providing for looked-after children is being subsidised by foster carers.
At a time of cuts across public services, foster carers do not expect to be immune from austerity. But the cuts now being imposed mean that children are increasingly to be in placements that are not appropriate for their circumstances or needs, and that families are often pushed beyond their ability as foster carers, without training or support. Cuts in benefits have also had a significant impact, causing some foster carers to simply give and look for work.
Society celebrates foster carers but generally does not want to be troubled by the reality of foster care. We warm to the generosity of their spirit and don't like to think that they, like everyone else, have bills to pay and might find the financial burden too much to bear. But something has gone badly awry when the care of children who have suffered abuse and neglect depends so heavily on goodwill and kindness. The foster care covenant, Mr Cameron, is well and truly broken.
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