The Lost Children of Britain: With Less Funding Available for Foster Care, the Country's Most Vulnerable Young People Stand to Suffer Even More

Article excerpt

Joanna is 14 and has been in care since she was nine. In that time, she has lived with 11 different families. "At first I used to get attached and want to stay, but now I try not to," she says when I speak to her at the children's home where she is living. "Being in care has taught me that you have only yourself."

The local authority's struggle to find Joanna an appropriate foster family reflects a bigger picture: nationally, there is a shortage of 10,000 foster carers, a situation exacerbated by a 40 per cent increase in children going into care since the Baby P case erupted in late 2008.

Babies often take priority when foster placements become available, leaving children like Joanna with nowhere to go, or being shunted between new homes. Just over 10 per cent of children in care endure three or more moves in a year; 2 per cent are moved more than 20 times. This instability is unsettling for children who have suffered neglect or abuse, and can be compounded by moves across the country that separate them from their birth families.

As became apparent after the high-profile cases of Baby P and Victoria Climbie, the child protection system is straining under immense pressure. It will get worse. The Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS) estimates that an additional [pounds sterling]173m is needed nationally to provide for the extra children in care. But instead, children's services face deep spending cuts as local authorities prepare for 25 per cent budget reductions.

"Because the government; has chosen to protect--to some degree--funding for universal services like schools and health," says Matt Dunkley, vice-president of ADCS, "the bits of council funding for our most vulnerable children are under the most pressure."

Right now, there are 70,000 children in care, with more than three-quarters of them cared for by foster families. Not only is it a big saving for the council--costing roughly [pounds sterling]30,000 each year, against [pounds sterling]160,000 for a residential placement--but a home environment helps keep children from becoming institutionalised, and can provide much-needed pastoral care. A survey by the Adolescent and Children's Trust published in September 2009 found that 93 per cent of children in care said the most important adult in their life was their foster carer.

Slough is just the start

Akiva Solemani, who has been a foster carer for five years, talks to me about his experience. "When he first came to me, my boy was very unmanageable, but now he is lovely. His behaviour has transformed. He would say, 'You're teaching me to be good.' It is really gratifying."

Yet such good-quality placements can be hard to come by. According to a recent report by the Fostering Network, some carers are already being asked to take on challenging children as their first placement, without sufficient training. Dunkley stresses that most local authorities will try to avoid reductions to foster care, but the Fostering Network notes that some areas have already suffered cuts to training, while others have axed respite carers, who look after children to give full-time carers time off.

Slough is an example of things to come. The council has cut its payment to new foster carers by 50 per cent and is trying to cut it for existing carers, too, taking the weekly amount for a single child from [pounds sterling]400 to [pounds sterling]200. The council says this will bring the fee--raised several years ago to help recruitment--into line with those for neighbouring boroughs. But the move places existing foster carers in a difficult position.

Zareen Keaton, a mother-of-two, has been a foster carer for a decade, five of those years in Slough. "It will have huge repercussions," she says. "I currently foster two children. I've made a commitment to one that I've had for five years to look after him until he's an adult. I may not be able to honour that if they cut the money by half. …