The children we take in have often had harrowing lives. We give them round-the-clock care under immense scrutiny – yet we have no workers’ rights
Wednesday saw a landmark ruling: a UK employment tribunal recognised two foster care workers as employees. The carers, Christine and James Johnstone, had sought the recognition of Glasgow city council as part of a dispute over wages.
What does that ruling mean for other foster care workers around Britain? Even though it is just the first step of a long journey, my immediate reaction was one of huge relief and justice: finally someone recognised that I do a job.
For 10 years I have been getting up each day and looking after teenagers who have faced severe challenges – often more than most of us will go through in an entire lifetime.
There are so many misconceptions around what we foster carers do: I am supposedly self-employed, but I can only work for my one employer; I have signed a document which sets out what I have to do and how much I will get paid, but I am told it is not a contract; I have regular supervision – a series of boxes are ticked to make sure I am following the strict rules; I have a chain of command set in stone; I have to follow the child’s care plan whether I like it or not, or whether or not I think it is good for the child; I can’t have another job, yet I can be dismissed on a whim with no notice by employers who act as judge, jury and executioner.
In any allegation made against us – be it by a child, birth parents or the authorities themselves – it seems that foster carers are considered guilty before proven innocent and treated with patronising disdain. The vast majority of allegations are proved to be unfounded. We are often the fall guys for bad practice and a lack of coherent policies. In sum, we are disposable workers.
In an ordinary week, I attend child reviews, high-risk strategy meetings and review personal education plans. I endlessly record things and write reports. I will often be up all night, waiting for the police to search my house when a young person has absconded. This is certainly not shift work. I have to go to training sessions and work on my continued professional development plan (this covers anything from child protection to attachment theory). I work closely with specialist agencies: child sexual exploitation, mental health, drugs and alcohol, asylum seeking and refugees, youth justice, police and more. I also have to be available to mentor other foster workers and help with recruitment for the local authority.
Contrary to the popular misconception that foster care workers are simply substitute parents, we are expected to work closely with the child’s own birth family, sometimes at significant risk to ourselves. We must always respect that we are not the child’s parents, while we care for, love, nurture and support the children staying with us.
Given the gruelling nature of the work, the intense pressure, and the frequent mistreatment, you truly have to be passionate about wanting to help children and young people to be a foster care worker.
Foster carers have long faced a climate of fear and our lack of rights has been normalised. That is why we unionised with the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and why more carers are joining the Foster Care Workers Branch every day.
This attitude towards us starts at the top. In her inaugural speech as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, Alison Michalska said they needed to be “polite but firm” with foster carers and dismiss what she called “slightly mad notions”. She questioned whether a “professionalised, specialist, unionised workforce would improve the outcomes for children”. Well, we are already that – and we are passionate and committed workers trying to drive up standards for our children despite the continual battle for recognition. It is a struggle that demoralises an already overstretched workforce, and comes at a time when the country is some 9,000 carers short.
What does the Glasgow ruling mean for the future of foster carers? The decision is not binding on other tribunals and Glasgow city council will probably appeal. Nevertheless, its value is monumental. Thousands of foster care workers will now question the nature of their relationship with the local authority or independent fostering agency, and they will say: “I work hard, I am strictly supervised, and I get paid for what I do – so why don’t I have any employment rights?”
The Johnstones’ case is a step towards greater justice. We don’t want the world for ourselves – we want that for our children – but we do want to be respected and recognised in law for what we are: workers.
• Sarah Anderson is chair of the IWGB Foster Care Workers Branch
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