Julie Coghill was 23 and about to start a social work degree when she became a foster carer "almost by accident".
She had a few months to go before her university course was due to start when she saw an advert appealing for respite foster carers.
That was 13 years ago. Julie gave up her university place and instead has cared for around 50 children – mainly babies suffering from medical problems because their mothers were drug addicts.
Julie, from Edinburgh, said: "It is a very, very rewarding job. I get an enormous amount of job satisfaction. I pretty much work 24 hours a day seven days a week but the good points far outweigh the bad. I imagine I'll still be doing it in 30 years' time."
But Julie is unusual. A crisis is looming in the foster care system. There is a shortage of 10,000 foster parents and a demographic time bomb means that two thirds are approaching retirement.
The massive increase in care applications since the Baby P case has also put the system under increased pressure.
Local authorities are reporting that the situation is the worst it has ever been, with no beds available at all in some areas and not enough foster families with specialist skills needed to look after children with complex needs. In March, 832 care applications were submitted to the family courts – the highest figure ever recorded. In 2009-10 there were 8,684 care applications compared to 6,496 the previous year, a rise of 33.7 per cent.
The latest official figures for March 2009 showed a 5.2 per cent rise in the numbers of children living with foster families in England and Wales compared to the same month the previous year.
The chronic shortage of foster families means that too many traumatised and vulnerable children will be moved from home to home, forced to live miles from their friends and family and to be separated from their brothers and sisters. The resulting disruption and instability can be extremely damaging to children and can harm their longer-term ability to make and maintain relationships and to succeed at school.
There are an estimated 72,000 foster carers in the UK, with almost two-thirds aged 50 and over. Only 6 per cent of foster carers are in their 30s, 29 per cent in their 40s, 38 per cent in their 50s, 24 per cent in their 60s and 3 per cent in their 70s.
Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, fears that the situation could be made worse by any cuts in next week's emergency Budget. He said: "Services for children in care have been underfunded for too many years and to make cuts will mean a foster care system will be... unable to cope.
"When foster care works, it works really well, and outcomes are improving. However, children in care are still over-represented in prison populations, more likely to suffer from mental health problems or be homeless. Failure to maintain funds and invest in good quality foster care is a false economy.
The Fostering Network is calling for an additional £580m across the UK to ensure that foster care is properly funded including better pay, support and training for foster families.
Martin Narey, chief executive of the children's charity Barnado's, said: "The Government needs to urgently invest in a hard-hitting national recruitment drive for foster carers, it is past overdue."
Case study: The best job in the world but it pays less than minimum wage
Michele Sutcliffe loves being a foster carer but she can understand why there is a recruitment crisis in the profession.
Michele, 46, of Weaverham, Cheshire, has fostered children for the past 15 years with her husband Paul, who gave up work five years ago to be a full-time carer. They have two children of their own, aged seven and three, foster an eight-year-old girl and also offer emergency and respite placements. They receive a fee of £130 a week.
She said: "People do not go into fostering for the money but equally when one of you gives up work to support these children for less than the minimum wage it can be very difficult.
"I know people who have left fostering to work in Sainsbury's or B&Q just because they can't afford it any more. That's very sad because fostering is the best job in the world. The children are absolutely wonderful and you want to get them as much help and support as possible. Because the children are left at home for longer nowadays they have more difficulties than when I first started fostering.
"I think people are put off because of the money and because they are worried they won't get the support they need."