Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Does fostering fail too many children, despite the efforts of their carers?

'There is a shift away from residential care to the fundamentalist view that family life is best'
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Rosie (not her real name) re-entered my life again last week at the Whitechapel Gallery where I was discussing the gallery's exhibition of pictures of Aids victims in Africa by the brilliant photographer Don McCullin. Laughing and joyful, she told me that she was now running a special project for young people in South London and was fostering a number of teenagers, mainly Africans who had lost their families to the disease here in Britain. Rosie's father was murdered by Idi Amin; her husband by President Obote's men in front of her baby boy.

Then Aids took her only daughter and seven siblings and later some of the wives and children too. Two years ago, she was utterly beaten down. This fostering, she says, has filled that "horrible hole, like an open grave in my life." I marvelled at her generosity. She told me not to be foolish and sentimental. It's life, she said, that's all: "I have this thing I can do. So why waste it?" Most foster parents I have talked to over the years are similar to Rosie. They are practical people who don't see themselves as especially noble. They have surplus parenting capacity and some compassion which they use to look after children and young people who are in acute need.

They get paid for this, but the amount is barely enough to meet additional expenses. I find this modesty hard to understand, perhaps because I work in a profession which always inflates its effect on society. The job of foster parents is hard, often thankless and unrecognised and yet they are becoming increasingly indispensable as record numbers of children end up on child protection registers and in care. The Department of Health and Social Services periodically takes a snap shot of the number of children with foster families on a given night in England, Wales and Scotland. The last one in March 2001 revealed that 67,442 children were in care and that two thirds of these were living with approximately 37,300 foster parents.

Local authorities and national fostering agencies say that there is a serious shortage of foster families in many areas and that the number of new applicants is dangerously low. Changes in lifestyle, working women, lone parenting are all possible causes. A government recruiting campaign costing millions has resulted in only one thousand extra applications.

This is National Foster Care Week and the hope is that more people will be persuaded to try and take into their homes some of the many children who are removed from birth families either because the parents cannot cope or because they are abusing or failing the children. I wish them armfuls of luck.

However, I have some serious reservations about fostering, notwithstanding my admiration for those who are able to provide this service. A number of people share these doubts, among them children who have been through fostering. But raising these with spokespeople from the major national fostering agencies is well nigh impossible especially during this week which is all about positive marketing and whipping up enthusiasm. You get licked and patted back into shape by warm tongued press officers if you suggest that you are worried about failed foster placements or abuse in foster families or that this arrangement may be damaging for some children or simply that this must be a very hard thing to do.

Peter White, the Radio 4 presenter of In Touch, recently made a terrifyingly honest programme about his experiences as a failed foster parent to a troubled young girl who was also on the programme. They all tried, but there was just too much trauma and the girl was returned to social services with everyone coming out shattered and worse off than before. Here, good intentions, love and enormous sensitivity were not enough and you came away understanding better how complicated foster relationships are.

The current shift away from residential care to the fundamentalist belief that family life is best needs to be critically assessed. As before with community care, there is a mad rush to shut down homes because they are all presumed bad for children. Call me a cynic, but am I the only one who thinks that this may be yet another cost cutting initiative hidden under a bouquet of virtuous words? Some social workers are saying that residential facilities are being shut down before proper alternatives can be arranged. Note that no high-profile politician has made stirring election speeches about social work and the need to invest more in this most undervalued of our public services. Residential homes cost money, serious money if they are any good, which they could be if they were properly funded, which they are not.

Now a radical new report, A Sense of Purpose, by Save The Children in Scotland reveals that many looked after children prefer residential care to foster care. Some hate the instability of frequent moves from family to family. Others said that with foster families they felt that they had to form emotional bonds which somehow betrayed their birth parents. I have spoken to foster parents who say the opposite ­ that they find it very hard not to bond with the children in spite of strict instructions not to do so.

Many of the placements come about as a result of an emergency so it is not always possible to find the most appropriate match. Biological children can react in unpredictable ways and fostered children find this very hard. One young man wrote to me last year describing how the daughter in the family, then a precocious 14-year -old started sneaking into his bed at night making his life hell. He ran away and lived on the streets for six months after that. Then there are birth families who get or claim back the children. Some are grateful to foster parents; others can get angry, and resentful and even violent. According to the National Foster Care Association, the best carers are those who can develop non-judgemental attitudes towards inadequate or failed parents.

All this makes successful foster carers such as Rosie all the more extraordinary. The care they provide saves and makes lives. But fostering should never be allowed to become the only show in town. For some children it is too uncertain and risky and we will never have enough foster carers who have the range of qualities that are needed. We must continue to provide and improve state run residential care too and make sure that children are not pushed into family life when they would fare better in institutions.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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