Edward Timpson, the Children’s Minister, grew up as the son of foster carers. He speaks fondly of a home full of other people’s children. Fostering “enriched our family,” he once told the Guardian. “It made it greater than the sum of its parts.” He doubts he would ever have been Children’s Minister if his parents had not fostered.
Which is why it is all the more surprising that the government of which Timpson is a member shows such antipathy towards foster carers and foster care. Ministers view foster care as little more than holding pen for unruly children until their futures are decided by people who know best, which, by definition, excludes foster carers.
It is a view that festered during the years of coalition but has bubbled to the surface as the Conservative government gives shape to policies aimed at dealing with deprivation and social exclusion. When it comes to deciding the future of children in care, it has established a hierarchy, with adoption at the top and long-term fostering, kinship care and special guardianship as fall back solutions of last resort.
Unveiling legal changes to increase the number of adoptions earlier this month, backed by £200m of new money, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, said:
“Every single day a child spends waiting in care is a further delay to a life full of love and stability – and this simply isn’t good enough. We have a responsibility to transform the lives of our most vulnerable children, making sure they get the opportunities they deserve.
“That’s why we are changing the law on adoption to make sure decisions rightly prioritise children’s long-term stability and happiness, so that children are placed with their new family as quickly as possible, helping them fulfil their potential and get the very best start in life.”
For the avoidance of doubt, Timpson, who grew up with 90 fostered brothers and sisters, said:
“Every child deserves a loving home and the chance to thrive, and I have seen first-hand the benefits adoption can provide, where it is in a young person’s best interests.”
These were not off-the-cuff remarks but carefully drafted and included in the Education Department’s press release. Morgan and Timpson were simply taking their cue from David Cameron, who during a speech on adoption in November said:
“It is a tragedy that there are still too many children waiting to be placed with a loving family.”
It is a narrative that goes largely unchallenged in the media. Alice Thomson, the veteran Times commentator who is close to Cameron, wrote in support of moves to increase the number of adoptions, saying that the current system was “brutalising” children.
For a foster carer, language like this is deeply hurtful and forces you to question whether what you are doing really has any value. We believe that we provide a loving home to all the children who are in our care, and accept them as part of our extended family long after they have moved on. Just one of “our” children has been adopted; others have returned home, or now live with long-term foster carers or grandparents.
In deciding the best outcome for children and young people, the key issue should be permanency, regardless of the legal status. Sometimes adoption really is the best option, and once this has been agreed it should be expedited as quickly as possible.
But the reality is that the vast majority of the 70,000 or so children in care in England will not be adopted. Some will return home, once the cause of the intervention has been addressed. The majority will live, and thrive, away from their parents but are likely to maintain regular contact with their family members, a continuity that will serve them well once they become adults and make their own way in life. Many are old enough, and savvy enough, to know what they want, and it isn’t a new mum and dad.
It is not easy to understand why the government persists in denigrating foster carers, who provide homes to about 80 per cent of all children in care. There already is a shortage of foster families and the existing pool of carers is getting older (the average age is now in the mid-50s).
Soaring housing costs make it more difficult to maintain a home that fulfils the criteria for fostering at a time when potential carers are getting squeezed between stay-at-home sons and daughters and responsibilities to ageing parents.
Cases of children coming into care are more complex and intractable and the funds available to cover carers’ expenses are being cut. Many placements are now covered by carers at a loss, particularly if they, like us, work for a local authority rather than a private agency. Although money is rarely a primary concern for carers, it becomes more difficult to justify the physical and emotional commitment when you are out of pocket.
It is easy to see how the idealised vision of an adoptive family coming to the rescue of a child in distress chimes with the Conservative view of the traditional home as a pillar of the community. But I suspect that there is also a financial motive for the government’s antipathy to fostering. Fostering allowances are far from generous but they cost the state almost £1.5bn a year. In contrast, once a child is adopted and settled with a new family the state has no financial responsibility and social workers have no ongoing commitment.
Maybe Whitehall calculates that meaningful savings can be achieved as children’s services around the country come under pressure to merge to cut costs.
Martin Barrow is a media adviser at Forster Communications