For most of us, “Stay at home, save lives” might have seemed like an easy enough instruction to follow. And yet lockdown has unleashed untold stress on those for whom home is not a safe place.
Nowhere has the impact been more marked than on vulnerable children. Lockdown has denied them an education for half a year and many of them have also been trapped in abusive and neglectful environments – as demonstrated by the spike in the number who have been taken into care.
The pandemic is taking its toll not only on vulnerable children but also on the capacity of would-be foster carers to provide support. – Joanna Rossiter
The astonishing figures recently released by children’s charity Barnardo’s paint a grim picture of the looming crisis. The number of children needing foster care has risen by 44 per cent during the pandemic. Equally alarming is the fact that the number of people looking to become foster parents has plummeted by nearly half compared to the same period last year.
The pandemic is taking its toll not only on vulnerable children but also on the capacity of would-be foster carers to provide support. Sadly, rising unemployment and economic uncertainty is unlikely to lead to a flood of new volunteers.
Even before lockdown, local authorities were failing to cope with the pressure of finding homes for looked after children. (The UK government defines a looked after child as “a child in the care of a Local Authority either through a Care Order made by a Court or a voluntary agreement with their parent(s) to accommodate them”.) Back in May last year, Newsnight exposed the growing number of children who were being placed in unregistered, independent accommodation from the age of sixteen. All too often these settings can leave them vulnerable to abuse from opportunistic grooming gangs.
Concerns have also been raised by Ofsted, the Office for Standards in Education, about the rising number of children being placed in care settings outside their local area. According to a recent report from the Children’s Commissioner, 43 per cent of children in care are now placed “out of area” – an increase of 13 per cent since 2014. This can make them vulnerable to further emotional harm, since they are suddenly removed from the support structure that they may have had locally.
While the government launched a consultation in February on the unregulated provision of accommodation to children in care, the spike in need during lockdown will leave local authorities scrabbling around for placements and potentially resorting to less than ideal options.
So what can be done to recruit more foster carers in the post Covid world? It seems there is a particular dearth of interest among the young. The average age of foster carers is now 53 for women and 54 for men.
Why can’t climate change campaigners who espouse the view that we must limit the number of children we have consider adoption and fostering? – Joanna Rossiter
Could the trend to have children later in life be having an impact? People in their 30s and 40s are often in the midst of caring for babies of their own and therefore find it difficult to imagine adding more children into the mix. Those who might have thought about fostering once their children have left home will increasingly be too old to do so.
There is also a nagging sense that my generation lacks the altruism required for fostering. Or perhaps they feel there are other causes such as climate change and anti-racism where their time and energy is better spent.
The benefits of fostering need to be spelt out in terms that millennials understand. Indeed, with a little bit of creative thinking, the causes that matter most to them can be addressed through fostering and adoption. Krish Kandiah, the CEO of Home for Good, talked to me recently about the surprising ways in which environmentalism and adoption can go hand in hand.
For instance, why can’t climate change campaigners who espouse the view that we must limit the number of children we have consider adoption and fostering? Surely it’s the ideal, environmentally conscious alternative to small families. Similarly, a disproportionate number of children in need of foster care are from BAME backgrounds. Those looking for a tangible way to tackle racism could help to right this injustice by stepping forward as foster carers.
Amazingly, given the scale of the crisis and the receptiveness of churches, there are still some local authorities who view faith as a negative quality when vetting potential fosterers. – Joanna Rossiter
More can also be done to help local authorities understand the contribution that faith communities can play in solving this crisis. As many local authorities have already discovered, churches can provide a natural base of would-be foster families who understand the need and want to help. Amazingly, given the scale of the crisis and the receptiveness of churches, there are still some local authorities who view faith as a negative quality when vetting potential fosterers.
The fact that foster children are usually 8 years or older is another a barrier for recruitment. While plenty of families might consider providing a home to a toddler, few will open their doors to a teenager. This isn’t necessarily down to a lack of compassion but a lack of confidence in knowing how to parent a young adult.
Recruitment may well be an uphill battle. But fostering remains one of the best ways of improving a looked after child’s outcomes. Research conducted at the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol found that looked after children have an overwhelmingly positive response to being fostered with 98 per cent saying they had a trusted adult in their life and 83 per cent saying they felt their life was getting better in care.
Everyone from Whitehall down to local authorities knows that looked after children thrive best in families. Now it’s a case of persuading more of us to open our homes, and change lives.
Joanna Rossiter is Digital Editor of Spectator Life. She writes for The Telegraph, the Spectator and Unherd and is the author of The Sea Change (Penguin).
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