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Small homes and cost of living hindering recruitment of foster carers

21 July 2023

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CHRISTIANS are finding creative ways to stop a lack of housing space preventing people being able to foster, Home for Good has reported.

The charity, which seeks to find a home for every child who needs one, by encouraging Christians to foster and adopt, estimates that about 9300 new foster families are needed urgently “to ensure all children and young people can be cared for in the right placement for them”.

In 2022, there were 43,905 fostering households in England. While the number of approved places is higher than the number of children requiring placements, it remains difficult to find homes for sibling groups, older children, children with disabilities, and children from ethnic-minority backgrounds. In almost half of all placement decisions, social workers have no choice in foster carers at all. One third of the children placed in residential care in England should be in foster care, but are not.

One of the obstacles to recruitment is housing space: foster families must generally provide a child with their own bedroom. A report on children’s social care, produced by the Competitions and Markets Authority and updated last year, noted that “the challenge is greater in areas such as London and the South East of England, where there is greater competition with other jobs and housing is more expensive and so there are limited numbers of applicants with spare bedrooms.”

This echoes the experience of Home for Good. “It’s not uncommon for people to be inspired, to have an interest in wanting to explore this, and in the end the first hurdle they fall at is lack of space,” the charity’s policy and research officer, Sam Lomas, said. “And then, naturally, in more urban areas, in expensive areas like London, that issue is exacerbated massively.”

The regional lead for London and the south-east, Billy-Jo O’Leary, agreed that the spare-room requirement posed a challenge in the region. But she highlighted examples of Christians’ finding ways forward.

“I know of one home whereby the daughter fosters, but lives at home with mum and dad, where there’s a spare bedroom,” she said. “They bought into their daughter wanting to be a foster carer.” She also knew of Christian charities that had come together to buy a property in London to enable a family to pursue fostering.

“There are really unique circumstances and stories that are out there, that are positive ways of being solutions-focused,” she said. “At Home for Good, we recognise that there are these fundamental issues, but how can we, as the Church, think about some solutions?”

The recruitment challenge is taking place against the background of a housing landscape undergoing significant generational shifts. Home ownership is falling, while the percentage of people who rent privately is growing. In London, less than half of the households own their property. Around the country, more than one in ten people aged 30 to 34 live with their parents.

As of 2022, the largest group of all approved foster carers were in their fifties (41 per cent), while 27 per cent were over 60. Polling of former foster carers by the Social Market Foundation found age to be the most common reason for foster carers aged over 55 to deregister: 61 per cent of this group felt that they were now too old to foster.

While the Government has increased the minimum rate of allowance paid to foster carers above inflation (to between £154 and £270 per week), concerns have been raised about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation is at a 30-year high, and, for many people, monthly mortgage repayments have increased by hundreds of pounds. The Fostering Network is calling on the Government to “make urgent funding available so that children in foster care and the families who support them do not fall into poverty”. It has calculated that it costs between £215 and 324 per week to raise a child in poverty, rising with their age.

The idea that those who rented their homes were unable to foster was a “common misconception”, a spokesperson for the Network said. “Not owning your own house does not bar you from fostering; but you will need to demonstrate stability, and a large part of our work is raising awareness around this — especially highlighting this to people who think fostering simply isn’t an option to them. There are lots of foster carers who live in rented accommodation.”

“Foster carers tend to be middle-aged,” Martin Barrow, a foster carer who reports on the sector, said. “A lot of foster carers are at that point when their own children don’t need them quite as much, and their own parents are still independent. But it’s quite a small window between the two, and I think that is one area where housing suddenly becomes quite important. . .

“Justifying having a four-bedroom house when you are in your mid- to late-fifties, early sixties, and even older — that is quite a commitment when . . . most people our age are thinking about selling and downsizing and freeing up some of the money.”

While the money paid to foster carers was “a decent amount of money”, it would not cover a mortgage or rent, he said. As mortgage repayments rose, some foster parents were weighing up whether they needed to rent rooms out, or take a full-time job, he said.

He echoed Home for Good’s emphasis on finding good matches for children in care. “What we really want in an ideal world: we want as many foster carers as we can get, so that we then have a choice,” he said. “Increasingly . . . we are having to make more difficult choices about sending children to homes that may not be the best for them. They are not bad, but they are not the best: they are not ideal. They are a little bit further away than we would like, or people who are older than we would like; they come from a different ethnic background. . . We are not always able to make those choices.”

Mr Lomas suggested that one way to improve recruitment would be to improve the experience of people expressing an initial interest. Ofsted statistics suggest that, while there were 138,075 initial enquiries in the year to 2022, only six per cent went on to apply. Applications are at their lowest level in several years. Part of the problem was “incredibly stretched” social workers, and a system that was “struggling to cope with demand”, he suggested.

Home for Good currently works with prospective foster carers and adoptive parents to “inform, upskill, and inspire”, and prepare them thoroughly before referring them to assessment.

The charity is also urging Christians to consider offering young people in care “supported lodgings”. In these, young people aged 16 or over — who now make up almost one quarter of the children in care — live with a “host” family, learning the practical skillsthat they will need for living independently.

Mrs O’Leary, who lived with a series of foster carers from the age of three, said that it was the sort of provision that would have helped her as a young person.

“It would have been really, really helpful for me,” she said. “At 17, being given a council flat and literally moved in with a lightbulb, no carpets, no furniture . . . a pile of paperwork and a set of keys, and the social worker left; that was it.”

Home for Good’s report on supported lodgings, Brimming with Potential, says that vulnerable young people have been placed in inappropriate accommodation, such as caravan parks, canal boats, and tents, and suggests that the Church is “full of individuals and families who have the passion and space to care for older teenagers through supported lodgings”.

 

‘My story is not voiced’ 

BILLY-JO O’LEARYBilly-Jo O’Leary, a General Synod representative for Rochester dioceseWHEN Billy-Jo O’Leary was standing for election to the General Synod in 2021, she felt that it was “really important” to mention that she had grown up in care. “My experience — for both me and my family — isn’t voiced,” she said. “And, actually, people like myself are often not seen as leaders. Prior to working for Home for Good, I did a four-year part-time theology course, because there were many people who negated my calling to be in leadership because of my background. I wanted to show anybody who didn’t think they could that, with Christ, you can.”

Mrs O’Leary first went into care at the age of three, and remembers that “every time we came into care there wasn’t a family who could take in three children; so we were separated.”

The search for people “to help look after me and protect me” led to “the wrong people”, and she ended up getting into “a lot of trouble”, involving drugs and a gang, and eventually receiving an eight-month prison sentence. During this time, she remembers realising that “I’m the only person who can change the destination through the decisions that I am making.” She ended up moving to the Isle of Wight, where she met her husband, a Christian.

She has now worked for Home for Good for six years, and, while speaking at one church, was reunited with her first foster carer, 28 years later. Today, she and her husband are extending their home to be able to offer supported lodgings to teenagers — something that she wishes had been available to her when she was a vulnerable teenager in need of love and support.

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