'I’ve seen children do everything,” says Marie, while briskly doling sausages into a frying pan. “Some swear, some spit at you, some lie, some pinch your things. Some smoke, drink, take drugs, some run away, some wee on your floor. You have the school on the phone complaining, you have to go to listen to court appearances.” Marie, a slight, smiley woman in her fifties who doesn’t want to disclose her real name, is a foster carer from Essex. Over the past 20 years, she’s looked after around 80 of this country’s most disturbed and vulnerable children. Some have stayed a night with her, some for years. Her responsibilities are vast but her pay modest – meaning few people are prepared to do her job.
And that’s a problem. There are 87,000 British children in care today. Each one needs a stable, loving environment and children’s homes are a last resort. But with a new child coming into care every 22 minutes, Britain’s fostering system is struggling to cope.
Since the sickening case of “Baby P” – 17-month-old Peter Connelly, who died in 2007 after a sustained campaign of abuse – social workers are removing children from unsuitable parents far more swiftly than before.
“Local authorities started to intensively review all their cases,” says Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of children’s advisory service Cafcass. “When the microscope was put on a lot of these children’s situations, what was judged to be tolerable before is increasingly being judged as intolerable.” This, combined with the recession, which has led to a huge rise in family breakdown, has resulted in the number of children in care rising by 57 per cent over the past four years. Yet the numbers of foster carers have declined, with carers retiring and not being replaced. People are also starting families later, and children are staying at home longer. By the time people have the spare time and rooms to foster, they no longer have the energy. At present, 75 per cent of children in care live with foster parents.
“To cope with demand we urgently need another 8,750 carers, especially in big cities,” says Vicki Swain of the Fostering Network. “It’s hard because foster carers must have a spare bedroom, but the high cost of living means many candidates can’t afford homes with enough rooms to accommodate their existing families.” For now, experienced carers have their hands full with the increased influx of young children, leaving a lack of people to take on trickier cases, like newborns, siblings and teenagers. Matters aren’t helped by a cultural distrust of young people, fuelled by last summer’s riots and exacerbated by rare horror stories like this month’s case of the Scottish 14 year-old jailed for stabbing his foster mother, Dawn McKenzie, to death because she sent him to bed early.
For the children themselves, the outlook can be bleak. Children who have been through the care system are far more likely to become teenage parents than their peers – and twice as likely to lose the right to care for these children. More than half leave school with no qualifications, and they are more likely to end up in prison than at university, with one quarter of the prison population consisting of former “looked-after” children. Nearly 50 per cent of crimes committed by under-21 year-olds are by children in care.
The best way to improve these depressing odds is to minimise movement within the system, by quickly finding an adoptive match. If this proves impossible, as is often the case with teenagers, one long-term foster placement can offer the best outcome. “But right now, it’s a case of find a spare bed and think later,” says Eric Mole, who, together with his wife, Rita, has been a foster carer for 14 years. As a result, children find themselves staying nights here and there with carers with little experience of their age group. Months or years can pass before a suitable, long-term placement is found, leaving siblings separated and children dispersed around the country, far from their schools and friends. All this only compounds the traumas of children who have probably been physically and/or sexually abused.
Such grittiness is more than many can take. “Our culture has this ideal of precocious, adorable orphans,” says Krish Kandiah, 40, who lives near Oxford, works for a Christian charity and who – with his wife Miriam, also 40 – has fostered seven children over the past six years. “Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables – there’s a romanticism there, but the reality is tough. You’ll have sleepless nights when you wonder how you’re going to carry on.” Anyone of any age, without a criminal conviction involving children and a spare bedroom, is eligible to become a carer. The Kandiahs already had three young children when they applied to be carers six years ago. They spent around eight months being, first, assessed and then trained for the role.
“Some people find the vetting really intrusive, but to me it was necessary. A child in care has already lost so much they have to be safeguarded in every way possible,” Kandiah says. “Sometimes, I was frightened at what we were taking on, but social services assured us they would help and they always have – we’ve worked as a team.” Since then they have fostered one child – occasionally two – at a time, with stays lasting between a night and three years. Many parents might be anxious about their children mixing with “damaged” peers, but Kandiah says that his brood, aged between nine and 13, have loved the experience so much they all want to foster themselves.
The Kandiahs have opted only to foster children younger than theirs, so their own can act as role models. So besotted were they by their first charge, a three-year-old girl, they adopted her. “Basic rookie error,” Kandiah laughs. “Our children don’t need a PHSE [Personal, Social, Health and Economic] lesson to know what drugs can do to people,” he continues. “They see it in the scars on the face of the boy sitting with them at the dinner table.” Kandiah is a glass-half-full man who prefers describing the highs of fostering to the lows. “Miriam and I do have far more grey hairs than when we started, but there’s such joy there, introducing children to their first positive experiences. Recently, I’d had a really dull day at work in meetings, but when I got home I took the youngest foster child to the park and put him on a bike without stabilisers. He’d never been able to pedal before, but now he was shouting 'Awesome, awesome!’. It really made my day.” The toughest part of the job, he says, are the farewells. “They do say if your heart doesn’t break when a child leaves you have done something wrong.
“You love these children as if they were your own. You have to console yourself that even if it is painful for us they have gone on to happy endings, either reunited with their birth parents or adopted. And we have stayed in touch with all but one of the children we’ve fostered – it was one boy’s birthday recently and we all went to see a film together.”
Other carers are more negative about goodbyes. “You can only stay in touch if their adopted or foster parents allow it, and so sometimes you never see or hear from them again. It’s horrible, like a bereavement,” says Marie, who tends to look after children aged between three and 11. “Sometimes they’re reunited with their birth parents and you’re unsure it’s the right decision, though that’s happening less since Baby Peter. Court decisions can come out of the blue and they can be moved on with very little notice.
“It’s very unsettling for them. Once, I was obliged to take a child to see his father fortnightly, even though I was sure he’d been abused by him – that was traumatic for both of us. You have to console yourself you made some difference in whatever time you had.” Divorced and with two adult sons, Marie is paid a weekly allowance to cover childcare costs, as well as being remunerated for her time – typical wages are between £350 and £550 a week, not a huge sum for a job where you can never clock off. “You do this job for love, not money,” Marie stresses, yet 36 per cent of foster carers have considered abandoning their work because they think the pay is inadequate.
Eric and Rita Mole, aged 59 and 63, from Congleton, Cheshire, applied to be carers after Eric sold his auto-electrical business in order to help Rita, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. “Our children had left home and our house seemed to echo with just the two of us around,” he says. “We’d been successful with our own children, so we thought it would be nice to offer a home to people that needed it.”
Because Rita finds caring for young children too physically challenging, the couple have tended to foster teenagers – though they refuse to take on anyone with a history of violence – so far caring for around 120.
“We’ve come across some situations that were completely alien to us and had some hard times, but we’ve had the rewards of seeing these people get on and have a better life.” Their two daughters have helped frequently, and the eldest has fostered herself.
Most placements start badly, Mole says. “Then there’s usually a honeymoon period, when they get up in time for school and are helpful and social. Then they get confused, they’re not used to life being so straightforward, so they decide it’s time to push the boundaries. We’ve had youngsters who think hard drugs are a natural part of everyday life, that we were the aliens for not using them. We had to make them realise this was not normal after all.”
Some have autism and ADHD. “Some are completely detached, they won’t respond to anything you want to involve them with. I used to look at that as being anti-social, but my training’s taught me it’s to do with their history, that it probably developed in the first three months of their lives.”
Other children rebel constantly. “Some youngsters just don’t want to be looked after by what they perceive is the state. You can’t get across to them that we are a family because they’ve never really known what a family is. Sometimes they don’t come back at night, which is very upsetting. It’s only happened to us for 24 hours, but I know of carers whose charges have disappeared for weeks on end and then turn up out of the blue saying: 'Right, where’s my tea?’ Once or twice, there’s been a clash of personalities, and the youngster has had to move on. You tell yourself you did your best, but you do feel a failure.”
The Moles think of themselves merely as custodians of other people’s children to lessen the emotional wrench when they leave. None the less, they’re applying for special guardianship (a process similar to adoption but maintaining links with the birth family) of a 15 year-old they’re currently looking after. “He’s never had a feeling of belonging anywhere and we feel it’s important he has a sense of identity,” Mole says.
Their other current charge is Daniel Foden, 20, who, with a family background of drug and alcohol abuse, has been living in foster homes since he was two. On and off, he’s been with the Moles for the past six years.
Normally, state funding ends at 18, but Daniel is one of a lucky few to benefit from a pilot scheme extending this to 21 (the average age to leave the family home is 24).
“I wasn’t always the best behaved boy and I had my ups and downs with my old foster parents, so I moved out at 16,” he says. “Social services said they’d get me a flat, but I didn’t have the maturity. Now Eric has me in my own little cabin in the garden. It’s kitted out with an electricity meter and I’ve had to learn to be a bit tidier and to budget.” Daniel is just starting a new job at a DVD warehouse. “Eric and Rita have helped me with growing up.”
“You’re a saint,” I tell Eric. But he’s heard it all before. “We didn’t do it for the accolades,” he shrugs. “We’ve just realised we can make a difference.”