We must foster the strength to save a vital network from brink

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Louise Groves was just 11-years-old when her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Two years later she lost her battle against the disease and when the teenager’s father died shortly afterwards, Louise’s family unit was torn apart.

No one pretended that a foster family could ever replace her parents, but it did provide much needed stability. As it turned out, Louise’s experience of living with a foster family, also inspired her to become a carer when she grew up.

She has now been fostering for five years, specialising in looking after teenagers and younger children on both a long-term and short-term basis.

“People are often amazed that I spend my time looking after teenagers who aren’t even mine, but it’s the best job I have ever had,” says Louise, who a number of years ago found she was unable to have children of her own. “So often we focus on the stereotypes of teenagers being hard work, but that’s not my experience at all.

“Fostering isn’t for everyone, but if you’re patient, have good communication skills and don’t give up easily, then it’s an incredibly rewarding thing to do.”

Sadly, for those who work at the Fostering Network, there are not enough people like Louise.

According to figures released by the group, next year at least 8.750 new foster families will be needed across the country – 750 in Yorkshire and the Humber alone – and if they aren’t found, the entire service could reach breaking point.

The crisis has been blamed in part on an increase in the number of children taken into care in the wake of the death of baby Peter Connelly and the high profile court case which followed and in part on the ageing population of foster carers, but the problems go much deeper than that.

In recent years, many foster carers have complained they feel sidelined by the wider social care system, while others have struggled financially to keep the door of their home open.

“Children should be able to live with a foster carer whose skills and experience make them ideally suited to meet their individual needs,” says Helen Clarke, the network’s recruitment and retention expert.

“Unfortunately the shortages mean that fostering services often struggle to find the right foster carer for a child first time.

“As a result children often have to live with a foster family too far from their home, are split up from brothers and sisters and end up moving not only from family to family, but also from school to school. Frequent moves result in children missing out on the stability that they need to help them make friends and build other relationships, and to be in one place long enough to receive the support they need to succeed in education.”

Around 59.000 children live with 45,000 foster families across the UK and the network is keen to expand the background of those applying to be carers and now encourages applications from same sex couples.

“I first became a foster carer at 19 when I was already working with children with disabilities,” says Richard Iles, whose partner Michael was also approved as a carer three years ago.

“It was a lot of responsibility, but I knew I was doing the right thing. We have never come up against any problems or prejudice for being a same sex couple that foster. I think everyone realises that knows us realises how happy we are fostering and how happy the children we care for are when they come to stay with us.”