Sisters Amy and Natalie have been in care for four years. Their father has died and their mother is unable to look after them. They long for a stable, loving home but already they have lived with four different foster families and their trust in the adults tasked with their welfare has been badly damaged as they try to build lasting relationships at home and at school. “A foster carer is someone who looks after you and treats you like their family,” says Amy, 14, as she flicks through the lifebook of pictures and letters that she has carried with her from home to home. The sadness in her eyes tells you she has yet to meet a foster carer who fits the bill.
Natalie and Amy are just two teenagers in care to feature in a candid BBC documentary about fostering. Our system of child protection relies heavily on foster carers’ goodwill: of the UK’s 80,000 looked-after children, 63,000 are placed with foster carers. Most will spend all their childhood in foster care, while others will return home or live with a family member and around 10% are adopted.
But there is a shortage of families willing to take on the challenge – the Fostering Network, the charity that supports fostered children and fostering families, estimates that UK fostering services need to recruit a further 8,370 foster families this year to meet rising demand. It is understandable: for around £250 a week (more if you work with a private fostering agency) you could be faced with exhaustion, broken nights, tantrums, runaways or self-harm.
I should know. My wife and I are foster carers. For the past six years we have been caring for other people’s children, from a newborn baby to obstreperous teenagers. We also have our own family, including our first grandson, and busy jobs. Fostering has come to define who we are, yet we struggle to explain our motivation to family and friends, without whose support it simply wouldn’t be possible.
Part of the reason for the shortage of foster carers is the lack of funding and support, due to cuts in social services’ budgets and greater demand for foster places. The number of children taken into care is rising, and social services are struggling to help children and families with more complex needs. According to the latest Audit Commission calculations, in 2012-13 local councils spent £3.4bn on caring for looked-after children, of which foster care accounted for £1.5bn. Although the number of children in care had increased by 12% over a four-year period, council costs increased by only 4%. As each looked-after child’s care costs councils around £50,000 a year, there is growing pressure to make savings. Figures leaked to the Independent and the BBC last month show a 50% fall in the number of adoptions last year and a threefold increase in the number of babies subject to special guardianship orders, seen as a cheaper and speedier alternative to adoption. The measure sees a child placed with extended family, friends or foster parents until they reach 18 instead of being adopted.
“Foster carers work with some of the most troubled children, who through no fault of their own have suffered abuse and neglect,” says Kevin Williams, chief executive of the Fostering Network. “Foster care makes a huge difference, but families deal with really complex issues and need extra support.” This could include more respite care and training, as well as help in navigating the health and social care system, including speedier access to mental health services.
Edward Timpson, the children and families minister, says foster care will remain a government priority. “As someone who grew up in a large fostering family, I know that, not only do those who foster often find it a hugely rewarding experience, but also, and most importantly, the impact on the children they’ve cared for can be life changing.
“Every child deserves a loving home and the chance to thrive. It’s vital that as many people as possible, from all walks of life, are encouraged to take that positive step of opening up their home to children in real need of their help.”
But with the squeeze on council budgets set to continue under the Conservative government, the extra support families say they need to foster seems unlikely to be forthcoming. TV producer Sasha Mirzoeff’s series, Protecting our Foster Kids, which begins on BBC2 on 7 June – a follow-up to the controversial documentary about social workers, Protecting our Children – highlights the challenge of fostering. This is foster care in the raw: there is no embellishment, no soft focus. Here, foster carers and the children they look after tell it like it is. It is reality TV that captures painfully sensitive moments that will shape lives for many years.
The tone is set from the outset: the opening episode concerns the breakdown of Amy and Natalie’s placement. It is uncomfortable to watch. The failure of a placement is a catastrophe for everyone involved. Marina, their family support manager, says: “The right placement is critical. They [Amy and Natalie] have had three disruptions in a short space of time and we cannot allow this to continue. We need someone who is going to stick with these girls.”
Amy and Natalie’s experience is all too common – the Fostering Network’s figures published this week show that a quarter (25%) of fostered teenagers have had at least four placements, 17% are living with their fifth foster family and one in 20 with their 10th.
This placement makes a promising start and Amy, 14, settles in well with her foster carers Steph and Chris. But it all begins to go wrong with the arrival of Natalie, 15, who can no longer live with her foster family. It is meant to be a short-term arrangement until a suitable placement is found for Natalie elsewhere. But as days become weeks, the sisters’ relationship becomes fractious, their conduct deteriorates and the whole family suffers the consequences. The sisters constantly fight, and Amy begins to associate with pupils at school suspected of taking drugs. With cameras present, and with Amy and Natalie giving candid updates on their frame of mind, the tension becomes unbearable. Amy is asked: “When you look in the mirror what do you see? She replies: “A monster”. Steph, who seems so strong and unflappable in the early days of the placement, is in despair at the point when she admits defeat because she no longer trusts Amy. She is heartbroken when she takes Natalie to her new home and is too distressed to accompany Amy to hers. Like many foster carers, she appears to accept more than her fair share of blame for the breakdown.
In another episode, the theme is post-natal depression. Natasha, who already has one child, bravely admits that she is unable to care for her newborn, Jesse. The story is picked up when Jesse, now five months old, moves home. An experienced foster carer, Dawn has cared for 20 babies already and is deeply affected by loss when they leave. “You know you are going to fall in love,” she says. “You are all-encompassed by that child.” She compares it to mourning. “It is harder the longer they stay.” Jesse’s stay with Dawn and her family extends well beyond the initial plan as his mother struggles with her depression. Contact sessions with Jesse are cancelled at short notice and routines are difficult to maintain. By now he is more aware of his surroundings and has formed an unmistakable bond with Dawn, whose tender efforts to engage with Natasha on behalf of a baby boy who has stolen her heart are a thing of beauty. Natasha’s description of her love for Jesse and the turmoil she is going through is heartbreaking.
For the social workers having to manage placements, it’s a hard and draining job,made more difficult by the shortage of foster carers. “I can’t just knit foster carers,” says one exasperated social worker.
And of course, the children being placed in foster care are often angry and upset by what has happened to them and so are not always easy to work with. “When we try to get a child’s view, and the child blocks you out it is difficult, very challenging,” says Tricia, Amy and Natalie’s social worker. “You can’t help but feel for the child … I really want to do the best for them in the time that I have with them as their social worker.”
Sara Tough, director for children’s services at Dorset county council, says that she hopes Mirzoeff’s documentary will reinforce the important role of foster carers and encourage more families to volunteer. “We should celebrate foster carers, and be proud of what they do. They are an invaluable resource.” Giving TV unprecedented access to the fostering process presented a major challenge to all those involved, she says. But she was struck by the determination of the children to have their say and to promote their own stories. “The children were at the centre of all decision-making. It was crucial for them to have a voice. ”
Undoubtedly, some will find Protecting our Foster Kids voyeuristic and exploitative. I think it is remarkable, potentially award-winning television, which shines a light on the extraordinary lives of families who throw open their homes to other people’s children, and an entourage of social workers, child protection officers, family lawyers and often the relatives of the children they are asked to care for.
For Steph, the breakdown of Natalie and Amy’s placement hasn’t put her off fostering. She intends to continue to provide the stable, loving home that vulnerable children deserve, with basic training and well-intended but limited support. “I went in with my head and not my heart,” Steph says. “I am just a mum trying to do my best.”
Protecting our Foster Kids starts on Sunday 7 June on BBC2.