Beginners welcome in foster care

The average age of foster carers is 53 – and rising. Kate Hilpern reports on the pressing need for new recruits

Gloria Samuel was 29 when she started fostering: "Back then, I looked after three babies, plus my daughter. But I never felt like it was really hard work. I guess it was because I had so much energy, because of being young. Actually, fostering never felt like work at all, because I wasn't having to rush out of the house in the mornings or anything like that. I could do everything at my own pace, which you can't do in most jobs."

Prior to fostering, Samuel had been a psychiatric nurse but, such was her love of children, she always found herself drawn to working in the mother and baby unit. "Another motivation for fostering was that my job involved shifts and that impacted on the time I had with my daughter," she says. "Then there was the fact that I'd enjoyed giving my sister respite by looking after her severely disabled child regularly. And finally, I'd seen how much my mum and dad had got out of fostering."

Fourteen years on, Samuel has looked after 72 children, including many with physical and learning disabilities, and yet she is still at the lower age range of foster carers. Indeed, new research from the Fostering Network shows that two-thirds of the fostering workforce is aged 50 or older. The average age of foster carers was 46 in 2000; it is now 53.

While older foster carers are just as valuable to the profession, the ageing fostering population is a problem, says Helen Clarke, development worker at the Fostering Network.

"First, all foster carers need to retire," she says, "so we could wind up with a deficit of foster carers in the near future, causing more disruption and instability for children in care. Second, diversity is just as important in this profession as any other."

Clarke believes many younger people, whether in their twenties, thirties or even forties, may assume they need more childcare experience under their belt before applying – perhaps even waiting until their own children are grown up. "This isn't the case. In fact, people can foster even if they don't have children," says Clarke. "All foster carers get intensive training."

Other people, she adds, may be put off by low payment levels. "But in certain areas of fostering, you can get a good fee – for example, through specialist work such as looking after children with challenging behaviours, taking in young people who have offended, or through therapeutic schemes where you have a child for a set period of, say, two years in which time you achieve certain goals with them."

At Islington Council, campaigns and marketing officer Laurence Prieto has been busy trying to address the shortage, not least because they've found people under 45 make particularly good foster carers for teenagers. "Because they're closer to the issues teenagers face, they tend to be able to act more like a mentor than a parent – which is often just what is needed. We need people who aren't going to be shocked if the young person smokes a bit of pot, and who won't chastise them the whole time," he explains.

The first set of advertising posters the council produced had pictures of people, such as a black youth or a teenage white girl, accompanied by the text: "We're not always trouble".

"It worked well, but because we were worried we were giving people a rosy picture, we decided to be more brutal in our campaigning," says Prieto. "One of our latest posters is a boy frowning harshly, with the text 'He needs help, are you going to be there?', and another is a girl looking melancholy, with the text: 'She needs to talk, are you going to listen?'

"What we're saying is that there will be problems with this age group, but with your support, they can be helped," says Prieto. "It seems to be working – last year, the average age of our carers was 45; this year it's 40."

Like many younger foster carers, Vilma Watt, 37, decided to give up a high-flying career – in her case as a barrister – in order to foster. "You'd be surprised how many of the skills from that job come in useful with fostering, particularly in working alongside other professionals, managing review meetings and keeping a formal record of my experiences with each child," she says.

She and her husband, who have five children between them, take on up to three further children at any one time through fostering. "I love it," she says. "To be part of a young person's surroundings is humbling and often you see changes in that young person very quickly. Just through healthy food and set bedtimes, you see them become happier. Just through turning up to a child's sports day – when nobody has ever done that for them before – you see them build confidence. The hardest part is when I have newborns and they move on, but you always take with you the knowledge that somewhere in there, there's a little part of you," says Watt.

But while many foster carers come from professional backgrounds, Andrea Warman, foster care development consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), points out that people from all groups of society are needed so that the best match can be found for each child.

"Clearly, qualities such as building relationships with young people can come from a career in teaching or youth work, while being a barrister can help with other areas of the fostering process," says Warman. "But it would be dangerous to suggest this level of professional history is essential – it isn't."

But whatever background you come from, fostering is a lifelong learning process. "There is always some different issue you haven't dealt with before," says Samuel. "And because you get so much support from other foster carers, as well as through your agency, there's always someone to guide you through. That's one of the things I love most about fostering."

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