Fostering: The important contribution of male carers should be celebrated and encouraged

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The Independent Online

As many as 30,000 men are already involved in fostering in the UK – either as part of a couple or, in a small number of cases, as single foster carers in their own right. According to Malcolm Phillips, who manages the Government-funded Fosterline advisory service for foster carers in England, the contribution that men make to the upbringing of the 50,000 babies, children and young people already in foster care is enormous. However they are often viewed with suspicion both by social workers and by society as a whole.

"We believe it is vital that children grow up with positive images of men being fun, creative, nurturing and above all, safe in a domestic setting, particularly if their experience of men has not been too good in the past," says Phillips. "Despite so many men being equal partners in foster families, there are still many social workers who treat them as subsidiary to their female partners and who tend to disregard what they say," he says.

At a time when there are insufficient foster carers to cope with demand, hostile attitudes towards men clearly don't help. But Phillips also detects a growing gap between the fostering profession – and society as a whole – in terms of how male and female stereotypes are defined.

Phillips believes that while society generally has rethought traditional gender roles – to the point where men are now encouraged and expected to have more involvement with the family and women are not necessarily expected to be natural home-makers – the fostering world continues to pigeonhole the sexes.

He believes that the profession now needs to address what he calls "the inherent discrimination against men as nurturers," so that fostered children can keep pace with, rather than lag behind, more liberal attitudes in society as a whole.

"It's already the norm for fathers to be seen at the school gates, or to take time off work to take their children to the dentist or doctor, and precisely the same should be the case when there is a foster dad," he says.

While single foster carers are growing in number, in the vast majority of cases, foster care is undertaken by a couple – either heterosexual or same-sex. But here too, adds Phillips, men's contribution should be better recognised.

"It is clear that between them, a couple can often cope better with the strains and stresses of looking after what may be a demanding child, but also having two adults in a home where young people live can bring the sort of diversity of life and work experiences that enriches all households.

"While we don't want to pigeonhole all men into being good at sport, nor all women into being good at helping with homework, we take the view that a couple will usually complement each other in terms of their skills and interests and will add to the rounded experience of the child."

While single female foster carers are already an important part of the available mix, single male carers are more controversial.

This, too, needs to change, says Phillips. "While single men are only a small part of the profession at present, they are growing in number and need to be heard.

"After all, for a minority of foster children who actually feel uncomfortable living under the same roof as a woman – it's often teenage boys who have had bad experiences – a single male carer is a very good option indeed."

While it is essential that all potential foster carers are vetted very carefully, Phillips believes it is illogical – and harmful – to assume that all men are likely to exploit the often vulnerable children and young people in their care.

"We understand that society is anxious because of the widespread publicity that cases of abusive men have received, but fostering is no different to education or social work in terms of needing to keep abusers out," he says.

"Of course, we must continue to recruit carefully, train, supervise and support well, but this doesn't mean that all men should be treated with suspicion when so many of them are doing such a good job."

Over the next few years, the country will need another 10,000 foster families to cope with demand, and Phillips hopes that many more single men, as well as couples, will come forward to learn about how fostering works.

"Our message during Foster Care Fortnight is that we don't care what age, sex or sexual orientation you are, nor what sort of background you are from.

"But we are working very hard to ensure that both men and women get an equally warm welcome."

'If I can help one young person make some decisions about his future, it will be very worthwhile'

Alex Neely, 37, is a single, gay man who has worked in a number of different care settings, including children's homes and street homelessness projects. He has been a foster carer for seven months and currently looks after a 15-year-old boy. He works part time as a gardener.

Although I wasn't treated with suspicion when I applied to be a foster carer, I did experience two things that shocked me.

The first was the lack of support and even basic information I received from one of the three local authorities I dealt with and the other was how tired I felt for the first few weeks.

I have a very good relationship with the young lad I live with and I feel that it is part of my role to prepare him for independence and give him as much information as I can on issues such as work, drugs and life in general.

Luckily, I have close family living nearby, including my mother and sisters, so although I have a male partner, who doesn't currently live with me, the boy I look after has many opportunities to meet my female friends and female members of my family on a regular basis.

Contrary to popular mythology, foster carers get only a small allowance for their work and while it would be fun to take him on various treats and outings all the time, I don't have a huge pot of money to play with.

We do enjoy swimming, bowling, cycling and going to the cinema together, however, and I'm hoping he'll help me with my gardening when he isn't at school.

I thought long and hard about becoming a foster carer before I applied and, I think the important thing is to be honest from the outset with the young person who comes to live with you. That way, they are more likely to be honest with you.

It's also vital to recognise that young people are under a lot of pressure these days and not to compound the pressure by expecting them to fit in with you or your family immediately.

Giving a young person a large amount of attention and making sure he is well and safe is a 24/7 job and my friends now know not to call me after 9.30pm because they know I'll be too tired to talk.

But if I can help one young person talk through his choices and make some decisions about his future, I will feel that being a foster carer is very worthwhile.

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