Fostering was once viewed as an act of kindness by housewives with a room to spare. Today it is a vocation of great responsibility, fit for all kinds of adults. Kate Hilpern reports on a changing role

Thirteen years ago, when Elaine Richardson first dipped her toe into fostering, teachers were one of the many groups of childcare professionals that treated her as "just a carer".

"I can remember turning up and them putting up barriers, saying they'd only talk to the child's social worker. Nowadays, it's a different story. We're invited to parents' evenings and to help create the personal educational plans of the children who are staying with us," says Richardson, who fosters in Barnet, London.

This is just one example of how fostering has moved away from being perceived as a charitable act – usually undertaken by housewives who had spare time, a spare room and a big heart – to being increasingly recognised as a highly specialised and demanding role in the childcare workforce. Like most foster carers, Richardson welcomes the shift. "These days, fostering involves a lot of things, like report writing, attending meetings, training, and liaising with other professionals – but while that might sound like a lot of hard work, both the child and you benefit," she says. "The child benefits because of your increased understanding of their needs and your increased involvement in meeting those needs."

In education, that might mean realising where the child is falling behind and working with the relevant people to help them, she says. "Meanwhile, the foster carer benefits because we get more of an input in the child's life, and slowly but surely we get more recognition for what we do."

Take the example of a five-year-old boy who has been severely traumatised from the neglect he suffered in the first five years of his life. Let's say his name's James and he came into fostering with attachment issues, unable to find it in himself to trust adults, who in the past have let him down. Today, a foster carer would be trained and offered one-to-one support in dealing appropriately with the kinds of behaviours James might exhibit, to help James slowly build up bonds with grown-ups. They would be expected to attend review meetings, document James's progress and champion his needs where necessary – for example, with the school if the foster carer feels it could be doing something more to help him prosper.

Lucy Smith, project co-ordinator of Lilac (Lifelong Improvement for Looked-After Children), agrees with Richardson's sentiments. "If foster carers feel recognised and respected, that rubs off on the children and young people they look after, who in turn feel more valued," she adds.

Such is the professionalism of fostering today that many people see it as a career. "If someone wants to be home-based and they have an interest in young people, and perhaps want a job that will fit in around their own children, fostering can appeal as a job," explains Helen Clarke, development worker for The Fostering Network (TFN).

Prospective foster carers should not expect to earn vast sums, however. "While all foster carers receive an allowance to cover costs, only around half receive some kind of fee in addition – and even that is only about the minimum wage when you divide their weekly sum up to 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Clarke.

There are those who question the idea of paying foster carers, saying the real motivation for fostering should be improving children's lives. But others argue the two should not have to be mutually exclusive, adding that no other profession working with children is expected to do so altruistically. "I've never met a foster carer who says they do it for the money, but I do know a lot that say they couldn't do it without the money," says Clarke.

It's not that you can't do any other paid work alongside, emphasises Brenda Farrell, fostering development manager at Barnardo's. "People have a huge choice when it comes to how much fostering they take on – emergency placements only, short-term only, long-term only and so on. They can also say how many children they're willing to take on and the age range. And some agencies – ours included – offer specific fostering schemes, like a short break service. This example is for people in full-time employment outside the home who don't have the time or desire to foster all the time."

Some foster carers, such as Debbie Booth, who has been fostering for 10 years in Dundee, fit full-time fostering around other career commitments. She has three children of her own, works full-time as a senior officer in social work, and she fosters children both on a short and long-term basis.

Booth particularly welcomes the growing involvement she has with assessment procedures and contact arrangements, both of which have happened since she's been recognised as a key member of the childcare team. "If the child has contact with their birth family and if there are assessments in place to see if the best thing for the child would be to return to their birth family, foster carers are now much more heavily involved in this. I'm not saying it's perfect. Some people still don't treat us as professionals, but I think things have changed an enormous amount and continue to do so."

For Toni Beard, who currently fosters a 13-year-old boy from Essex and two 15-year-old Afghan asylum-seeking boys, fostering does not feel like a career.

"The word 'career' doesn't feel right. For me, it's about opening up my home and making children part of my family," says Beard, who lives in Kent. "I'm not saying that people who do see it as a career don't do that, but it's just a matter of how you see it. It's why we only choose to do long-term fostering, whereby young people live with us a long time. But I do like the way that the support and training available for foster carers is getting better all the time and that we have more say in the child's life."

David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF), says many foster carers have similar views about the term "professional". "Some view themselves very much as professionals and really want and value that label, but others don't feel it describes what they're doing, which is, ultimately, welcoming a child into their home," he says. "Some people actually feel uncomfortable with the label."

You could argue that fostering can never really be fully compared to other childcare professions, adds Derek Kirton, lecturer in social policy and social work at the University of Kent. "Foster care is unique in the way that it straddles both the domains of work and family. No matter how much the demands on foster carers change, there will never be any equivalent role with which to compare it."

Labels aside, the bottom line that nobody would argue with is that foster care in the 21st century bears absolutely no resemblance to the fostering service that existed 20 years ago.

"What we are now looking at is a skilled set of people who are given learning and development opportunities – with options to get qualified – and much more support and status," says Helen Keaney-Cheetham, fostering development manager at Cheshire County Council, who points out that some foster carers are now supported to study for a degree, if that's what they want. "I always use the analogy that if your boiler breaks down, you call in a qualified plumber. If we are looking at children in public care, who are vulnerable, then it certainly follows that you'd call in someone with skill, knowledge and expertise in that area."

Whatever people's views on the professionalisation debate, the rewards of fostering appear to be the same across the board.

"We have a 13-year-old girl with us at the moment. When she came to us, at 11, she was in special needs education because she couldn't express herself and she didn't have any friends because she was fed up losing them every time she moved," says Jackie Rickard, who has no children of her own and fosters in Carmarthenshire, where she also works full-time for a book company. "Now, she's in mainstream school, has some lovely friends and has blossomed into an increasingly confident young lady."

'Seeing your foster child survive in the outside world is reward enough'

Sheila Patel has been fostering with her husband Suresh for 18 years. They live in Kent.

For some reason, some people get very jittery about the use of the word "professionalisation" when it comes to fostering. But why? You wouldn't lend me your car or your dog, but you're willing to give me a child – a child that may be among the most vulnerable in the population – so of course we foster carers need to have professional skills in place to help prepare them for the big wide world.

Like many foster carers, I came into it because I wanted to help children. I remember being at a Christmas party and one of the guests, who was a social worker, said she was late because she'd been trying all day to find a bed for this boy. We already had five children, but we felt we could take in another. In the end, we often said yes to taking three at once.

It's been brilliant. We still have connections with some of those very early children, as well as those that have lived with us since. We've been to weddings, been there for the births of their children, helped them get into certain careers – all those things you do with your own children.

But despite all this, I quickly learned that you can't just do fostering because you want to look after a child. You need to be able to deal with educational psychologists, doctors, social workers and other experts. You need to understand issues around things like attachment, separation and loss – all of which require training. You need to be able to write reports, attend meetings and understand legal issues around fostering. And you need to be open to the idea of support.

All this is not without good reason. Fostering is about helping to meet the needs of children who may be traumatised before they come into care, about championing their rights, about working out what's best for them, about preparing for their futures.

The agency I work for support me well, pay me well and train me well. If you have those three jewels in the crown, I don't think you can go wrong.

The rewards are enormous. They are seeing a young person survive in the outside world. When I see young people, who have had a terrible start in life, paying the bills, feeding and clothing their babies, holding down a job, I think, "You've made it. You're doing your best. Not everybody else's best, but your best." That's reward enough.

Five fostering misconceptions

1. Foster carers get paid for doing what all parents do for free

Fostering is not parenting. It is a highly regulated role that requires skill, expertise, self-awareness, commitment, the ability to work as part of a team and to provide a high-quality effective service to children.

2. Being a good parent makes you a good foster carer

Some foster carers draw on their experiences as parents to inform their fostering work, but others don't even have their own children. For those who do, the reality is less that being a good parent makes you a good foster carer and more that being a good foster carer makes you a better parent.

3. Foster carers are replacement parents

The vast majority of young people in fostering already have parents with whom they are in regular contact.

4. Fostering is a stop-gap between residential care and adoption

While some foster carers help prepare children for adoption, many placements are set up with the aim of the child being returned to the birth family. Other placements are about meeting a long-term need, with some youngsters staying in fostering through to adulthood.

5. Foster carers all have to look after large numbers of children

You can choose how many children you want to take in. You might take only one child in a long-term placement, for instance. What's important is not how many children you feel you can take on, but the skills and kind of home you can offer.