There's much more to being a foster carer these days than just looking after children. By Jack O'Sullivan
When Jane Asquith fostered children for the first time, 25 years ago, it was a simple, if casual process. "The social worker rang up on a Friday night and said she thought we would be lovely for these two girls. Would we take them?" Mrs Asquith recalls. "They arrived the next day." The stay was supposed to be for a month. In fact, the Asquiths fostered the five-year-olds until they were adults and had families of their own, so creating "foster grandparents".

It is a fairy-tale story, perhaps the dream of every couple who have considered looking after a child. Yet, these days, becoming a foster carer is more complex. "You're not just looking after children," says Jane Asquith, who has seen about 30 children pass through her Shropshire home and is now vice-chair of the National Foster Care Association. These days, anyone committed to the role has a great deal to learn.

"You may find yourself helping not only the child but also the parents - perhaps Mum has been ill and or has not been caring for the child properly. You may have to stand up in court and support children - some are fostered while on remand from the juvenile justice system. Today, you are actually part of a social services department rather than being on the outside. You are expected to be an advocate for the child at school, with the police, with the GP, to take them to the psychologist. You will make assessments. You're a very important person."

Most carers say the children have more problems than in the past. "There are still children who will go to school and are manageable," Jane Asquith says. "But a lot are not and carers may have them at home 24 hours day. They can't even go shopping because the child will not behave."

Meanwhile, fostering is coming in for a great deal more criticism as placement failures result in children being moved about, causing them considerable psychological damage. It is not unusual for a 10-year-old to have lived in five or six homes since the age of five.

So how does someone who really wants to help these vulnerable young people make sure that they are properly trained and so make a success of pursuing their best intentions?

There is an astonishing array of courses. The National Foster Care Association offers 35 subjects for training, including court-room skills, therapeutic techniques, fostering by men, and educational skills required by carers who play host to children who have been excluded from school. The most recent development is a course aimed at the children of foster carers, who can feel neglected and resentful when another child arrives in the home. There can be other serious problems such as an occasion, one carer explains, when a nine-year-old daughter was given the full details of sexual abuse suffered by another girl before she moved into the foster home.

The long road travelled before a child is entrusted to a home begins with a series of visits over several months from a family placement worker, who aims to meet both immediate and extended members of the family.

Then, although practice varies between localities, would-be carers typically are given a foundation training of up to 11 weekly, evening sessions, in which they are supposed to be equipped for their task. (There is now a national vocational qualification in fostering). The first six, usually before carers are approved by a panel, focus on relationships with the birth family, with the local authority, working with sexual abuse, how the experience will affect your own family and on behaviour management. The final sessions, once a carer has been accepted, go into more depth.

You learn, for example, how to make sure the home feels secure. "A child who has been sexually abused may not feel safe if someone follows her into the bathroom," Jane Asquith says. "It might not be OK for a man in the house to go in the bathroom to clean his teeth or to go into her bedroom." There is much to learn about the law, about finances (carers have to take out insurance) and basic health and hygiene.

"Once the training is over, you wait for the phone call," says Cherie Talbot, NFCA training development officer. "We hope that the child will be matched with the families, but in a lot of cases they are just placed there because there is a vacancy."

Indeed the gap between best practice and the actuality of foster care is often large, according to report published last year by the Association of Directors of Social Services. "The situation has got a lot better than 20 years ago, when there was no training," Cherie Talbot says. "But there are still parts of the country where no training is offered or some long- term foster carers refuse training. They have been looking after children for so long that they regard the offer of training as a sign that they are doing badly. If you are paying carers very little, it is hard to insist that they spend two days on a course about managing behaviour." (Rates vary from pounds 78 a week for a teenager in some rural areas to pounds 185 in London, with more for holidays, birthdays and Christmas.)

Yet, despite the difficulties, Jane Asquith has no doubt about the benefits of what she has done. "It is wonderful to see the children achieving for themselves. Now, to see my foster grandchildren being cared for has been a great bonus. I know we must have done something right, because our foster children are happy and bringing their kids up well.

"We have phone-calls every week from children who have lived with us. Christmas Day is often a day of phone-calls. Then, there is the pleasure of seeing the effects on my own children. Of course they get hurt but they get things back. You can see how they have also learned to be carers.

"What makes it all worth it is the day when a child says, 'I love you' or 'thank you', a child who for years has said he hated you. It's stunning. There are little treasures to be found in fostering"n