Britain is teetering on the brink of a fostering crisis, charities warn today.
New research shows a dramatic increase in the number of children and young people taken into care each year following the Baby P case, which has put unprecedented pressure on the existing network of carers.
It is estimated that a new foster place for a child is needed in the UK every 22 minutes, after a 17 per cent rise in the number of care cases since 2008.
The increase means that unless a further 8,750 new carers can be found next year, the system, which is already struggling to maintain and recruit sufficient numbers, could start to fail.
This would result in more cared-for children – who are already more likely to fail at school, commit crime or go on to have their own children taken into care – being forced to live in residential care, move away or be separated from siblings, it was claimed.
Last year alone 24,000 children who came into care were fostered, said Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, which is launching a nationwide recruitment drive for carers this week.
"The figures highlight the overwhelming need for more people to come forward to foster. With more foster families, children in care will have a better chance of finding the stability and security they need to go on and achieve their potential," he said.
Last month it emerged that the number of children being taken into care via the courts has doubled in just four years, largely as a result of the publicity surrounding the death of 17-month-old Peter Connolly – known as Baby P – who died in 2007 after months of abuse, despite being seen 60 times by doctors and social workers.
The true number of care cases annually, including those that voluntarily agree to be looked after, is more than two and a half times that figure. But money available to local authorities that look after children is being cut by an average of 27 per cent over four years from 2010.
Labour's Shadow Minister for Children and Families, Catherine McKinnell MP, said that in the face of these cuts, the Government had to make sure that vulnerable children did not lose out on placements.
"We're in a tough economic climate, with local authorities seeing their budgets slashed," she said, "yet those that are facing the deepest cuts are also seeing the highest increase in the number of children being taken into care.
"Foster carers do a difficult and emotionally challenging job, 24 hours a day seven days a week. They need to be incentivised to come forward in the first place, and then supported in their role so that they can get on with supporting our most vulnerable children."
Media worries over the rising figure has been divided between concerns that vulnerable children are being taken away from their families unnecessarily and anger over what is regarded as the stagnation of the adoption system in which children receive permanent homes.
David Cameron promised to intervene to speed up the process following the announcement that just 60 babies were adopted in 2010. But many agree adoption is not always the right answer.
Charities believe an equally pressing crisis is brewing in the shortage of foster places, as social workers become more confident in removing children from dysfunctional or abusive parents.
The long hours, poor financial rewards and stress of dealing with youngsters who may be suffering extreme emotional problems means 14 per cent of carers leave the service each year.
Jonathan Ewen, director of family placement at Barnardo's, one of Britain's biggest independent fostering providers, said more could be done to make the current system work better.
"The fact that more children are coming into care is almost certainly a good thing because it means social workers are being more proactive," he said. "But what needs to happen on the back of that is that we need to be much quicker about making decisions because they are being damaged the longer they are not in a situation of care and love."
Half of all children rehabilitated with their natural parents see the arrangement break down again, often requiring them to go back into care.
"The research tells us there has been insufficient work on the specific issues which led to the child coming into care in the first place," said Mr Ewen.
The Department for Education said it would be announcing new measures to enable more people to become foster carers, and would cut the red tape that can stop people coming forward.
Case study: The carers - 'You are heartbroken when they go'
Vilma Watt and her husband, Peter, have fostered so many children over the last eight years that she claims she has lost count.
"We are probably talking about 60-plus, but we have never sat down and worked it out," she said. "We have done everything – newborns and 17-year-olds at the same time, special needs – everything."
The couple from Chessington, south-west London, were inspired by Mr Watt's family's experience of fostering.
Mrs Watt 40, admits there were challenges for her own daughter, Ivanna, then aged 10, but that the experience has helped her become a more balanced person.
"It is lovely to spend time with the children after they have found permanent homes and see how much progress they have made and to know that if they had remained where they were, they would never have been what they are today," she said.
Mrs Watt, who adopted one of her foster children, Ruby, now aged five, said she had never been particularly maternal. But today the family has three daughters, a grand-daughter and two foster children all living with them.
"You are heartbroken when they go," she said. "If you aren't, you're not doing a good job. You are trying to teach the child to form positive relationships. You have a little cry, but then the phone goes and they say they have [another] child and you just say yes.
Case study: The child - 'Not enough attention is paid to the early signs'
Kay-Jay's father left his mother when he was two years old.
She had grown up in care and was a troubled person. It was around this time that she started to physically abuse her son, as did her boyfriends.
Kay-Jay believes it was because he reminded them of his dad.
At the age of three he was taken into care. Over the next 15 years he had 11 different placements – some good experiences and some not so good.
Some ended as a result of his own bad behaviour, his involvement with drugs and gangs, or on another occasion stealing the family car at the age of 10. Now aged 23, with a successful acting, music and modelling career, he can see how the support he received helped him turn his life around by the time he was a teenager – although others he met on his journey through the care system were not so lucky, ending up in jail or attempting suicide.
"I have met foster carers who do it for the love and that has helped me a lot," he said. "But I think it is scary for a family to do, especially when you have the negative press about young people in care – you don't know what to expect.
"Young people can be emotionally distressed. The system lets down young people.
"Not enough attention is paid to the early signs. It is important to be preventative. It is no good leaving it until someone has done something crazy. It's too late then."