Robert Tapsfield: The more people who step forward, the brighter the future shall become

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The Independent Online

Most of us are lucky enough to spend our childhoods with our own families. But for thousands of children every year, this sadly isn't the case. For a wide variety or reasons - perhaps because of a parent's illness, depression or drug abuse, or because they have been neglected or abused - over 70,000 children live in the care system on any given day in the UK. For two-thirds of these children, it is foster carers who provide them with a safe and secure home until they can hopefully return to their own families or reach adulthood.

When a child enters the care system, it is the duty of their local authority to find them the right form of temporary care. For most children, this means trying to find them a foster family which meets their individual needs in terms of their ethnicity, culture, background, language, religion, interests and location.

In England about eight per cent of children in care are of mixed parentage, about five per cent identify themselves as black or black British and about three per cent are of Asian background. In edition there are nearly 3,000 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. All of these children will be best placed in a family that matches their background, not only because moving to live with a new family can be extremely difficult but because it is likely to be much easier if the new family share some of the characteristics of the birth family.

A child that lives somewhere that feels familiar, and where their experiences in life so far will be understood, respected and developed are far more likely to settle and feel happy in their environment. However, the shortage of foster carers means many children not only have to live with a strange family, but also have to a cope with a family that eats differently, speaks a different language, follows different religious or social customs, or has a lifestyle completely different from their own.

A teenager who has arrived as an asylum seeker from Somalia, for example, needs the support and care of someone who speaks the same language, shares the same culture and can understand their experiences, just as a child from a Catholic family may be best placed with a family who shares their religion. A girl who has been abused by a male relative may feel safer living with either a single female foster carer or a lesbian couple, or a child whose first language is Welsh is likely to benefit from living with a Welsh-speaking foster family.

In short, it is essential that the diversity of foster carers reflects the diversity of the children who need foster care; it is when good matches are made that foster carers are most likely to be able to offer children stability, and to make a real and lasting difference in their lives. But unfortunately, the massive shortage of foster carers - more than 10,000 across the UK - means that it is difficult for local authorities to find the right home for each child first time.

The shortage of foster carers means that while children will be found a home that is safe and secure, they may have to move in with a foster carer from a different ethnic group, who speaks another first language or who does not share their religion. They may have to move miles from home, friends and family, and live with a foster carer more used to looking after children of a different age range or gender. Or they may be fostered by someone who is unfamiliar with the specific needs resulting from their disability, or by a foster carer who cannot understand the young person's struggle in coming to terms with their sexuality.

Recruiting a pool of foster carers with sufficiently diverse backgrounds is a challenge that exists for all fostering services throughout the UK. Although the nature of this challenge will vary enormously, the goal is ultimately the same - to successfully meet the needs of every child coming into care.

Next week is the start of the Fostering Network's annual awareness campaign, Foster Care Fortnight, running from 8 to 21 May. The foster carers featured on these pages reflect the range of people who are currently fostering. They do, however, have one thing in common - the determination to make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children.

And when foster care works well it can really help children to thrive. During this Foster Care Fortnight we are also focusing the spotlight on the achievements of those who spend time in the care system, with our theme of fostering brighter futures. Our hope is that when people see and read about the success stories of children in foster care, more of them will be encouraged to explore fostering. And the more people who step forward, from all backgrounds and walks of life, the brighter the future will become for children in foster care.

Robert Tapsfield is Chief executive of The Fostering Network, the UK's leading charity for all those involved in fostering. The organisation exists to ensure the highest standards of care for fostered children and young people. For more information, visit www.fostering.net



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