THE case of the foster carer who is suing a local authority for denying that she is a “worker” — and, therefore, entitled to four weeks’ holiday, sick pay, and other employment protection — must ring a bell with members of the clergy who, a couple of years ago, were similarly told that they were not employed, did not have a contract of employment, or even an employer, according to a judgment by the Court of Appeal which took into account precedents as far back as the 11th-century Investiture Contests between popes and Holy Roman Emperors (News, 1 May 2015, Comment, 8 May 2015).
For tax and benefit purposes, a beneficed clergyman or woman is treated as an “employed earner” but not legally in any other respect, even if Common Tenure has led to a de facto employee status for Church of England clerics. Methodist ministers and Roman Catholic priests are in a similar position. God is their only boss, it seems.
But one word that was commonplace in the discussion of the employment status of clerics has been conspicuously absent from the debate over foster carers. The word is vocation.
The claim that a foster carer is a worker has provoked many shrill comments on social media. Parents are not workers, and don’t get large amounts of cash from the state, so why should foster carers, tweeters brayed. They appeared not to have given much thought to the difference between parenting, adoption, and foster care.
Fostering can mean taking in a child for a couple of nights, several months, or for many years while he or she cannot live at home because the parents are ill, have a drug or alcohol problem, are in prison, or are troubled in other ways.
Some will need long-term fostering, or a family to adopt them permanently; but many return home to their family. Because of that, and because of recent developments in understanding in psychology, it is now seen as important to maintain the links between foster children and their birth family — through letters, photos, phone calls, or even face-to-face visits. Their parents may still remain involved in any important decisions being made about their child.
All this means that fostering does not provide the same legal security for either the foster carers or the child. It also means that a foster carer’s typical day can involve dealing with several different agencies, educational institutions, and social workers. Carers are expected to undergo a programme of continual professional development. And all this is governed by a fostering agreement, filled with rules and regulations, which differs from a contract of employment only in legal nicety.
Foster carers are not only on duty through evenings, weekends, and holidays: they are also opening their own homes to share them with vulnerable, disadvantaged, and often damaged young people — sometimes at considerable cost to the carer, the carer’s spouse, and the family life of the carer’s own children.
That is, to me, inescapably an act of vocation. The idea that those who have a vocation should not be in receipt of the same basic decencies as the law grants to employees is not just unfair, but also unjust.