Widespread ignorance and common myths about fostering children could lead to a "fostering crisis" in the UK, a leading charity warns.
Despite a growing number of children being eligible for fostering, a new study reveals that many Britons incorrectly believe that single people, gay people, the unemployed, older people, renters and men are unable to foster a child.
There are more than 62,000 children living with more than 50,000 foster families on any given day in Britain – accounting for about four-fifths of all the children in care. But with one in 10 people unsure about what fostering actually means or entails, the charity Action for Children warns that the UK's predicted shortfall of 9,000 foster carers is bound to increase.
A child or young person is fostered when they cannot live with their own family due to problems that can range from drug and alcohol abuse to ill health. More than 90,000 children are currently in care around the UK, a 13 per cent rise since 2008.
But despite the numbers of young people in need of foster carers, the charity found that "myths" were leaving Britons uncertain about who could qualify as a carer. Nearly half of the population believes that over 55s would not be approved as carers, according to the charity's nationwide survey. In reality, there is no maximum age at which you can foster children.
One in three people thought that living in rented accommodation would stop you from fostering – when all you need is permission from your landlord. A third of those surveyed incorrectly believed that if you are gay you could not foster, four in 10 people thought if you were single you could not foster a child, while many people did not realise that men could work as foster carers.
Two-thirds of respondents believed you had to remain in employment if you wanted to foster, while almost 40 per cent thought foster carers were volunteers. In reality, carers are trained and given financial support.
Londoners knew the least about fostering, according to the research, while people in the South-west knew the most.
Darren Johnson, Action for Children's operational director of fostering, adoption and permanency, told The Independent on Sunday: "With myths preventing people from coming forward, and the public not knowing the true extent of just how many children are currently in care, we are on course for a crisis. There's an urgent need to tackle these misconceptions – to move children into loving homes so that they have the stability they need."
Mr Johnson added: "With the UK's population at an all-time high, sadly the number of children coming into care will continue to rise, and so will the need for carers."
The actor Neil Morrissey knows what it is like to be taken into care at the age of 10. He was fostered seven years later, and said the love and support he received from his foster parents enabled him "to grow into a young adult" and prepared him "for going out into the world".
He said: "Through being fostered I was able to learn practical, day-to-day things such as doing the weekly shop. The support I received, along with the discipline, enabled me to realise my potential and to take responsibility for myself."
Action for Children is launching a campaign tomorrow to dispel myths and raise awareness about how to become a foster carer. A "fostering myth-busting academy" will be launched online.
Jackie Sanders from the Fostering Network, said: "It's important to explode myths about who can apply to foster; but it's just as important to outline the skills that foster carers need, and to be clear about where there are current gaps.
"Across the UK there is currently a particular need to find people who can care for sibling groups, disabled children and teenagers."
The man myth: 'I thought there would be a lot of barriers, but this wasn't the case'
Father-of-two Steve Clarke, 52, from Newport, Wales, has been a foster carer for three years, looking after two children. He applied after learning his son's girlfriend had once been placed in care with four of her brothers.
"I have my own two grown-up children in their twenties; I had been working in banking for 21 years before running a fast-food restaurant. I wanted a new challenge. I thought being a man there would be a lot of barriers, but this wasn't the case. As soon as I picked up the phone, I felt reassured and welcomed and the application process began immediately. I am amazed at the development of each child. I would recommend fostering to anyone."
The gay myth: 'Seeing the transformation in a child is remarkable. Getting the stability, love and support is essential'
Tracy Davison and Jenny Godbold were one of the first same-sex couples in Scotland to foster a child after it was legalised four years ago. The couple, who live on the Isle of Skye, have since fostered one child. Tracy takes on the role of primary care-giver.
"When we were applying to become carers we were a little apprehensive, especially as it was very new in our community; there was no one else in the same situation. But we thought if we never try we will never know, so we decided to take this journey on together. We have been fostering for two and a half years and seeing the transformation in a child is remarkable. We have been able to ensure they take on responsibility and build up trust between us all. Getting the stability, love and support is essential in foster care."
The over-55 myth: 'It's not an easy job, but it certainly keeps you active!'
Maggie Webster, 66, a grandmother from Derbyshire, started fostering earlier this year. Despite fears her age would be a barrier, the new retiree wanted to share her home with children who needed care. She has since fostered three children.
"I was a little worried at first because of my age; I thought that there would be a number of barriers. However I was surprised and relieved when I made the first call to hear on the phone that I was absolutely eligible. Fostering is known to have a positive impact on the wider family, too. It's not an easy job but it certainly keeps you active! I feel useful and no longer retired. With my own children grown up I now have the time to give, and I will do it for as long as I can make a difference."
How any children does the UK think are in care: (Correct answer over 91,000)
What the UK thinks foster carers are