‘It’s barbaric’: Foster care system thrust into chaos amid coronavirus crisis

‘It felt like the local authority didn’t believe I was ill. It was a terrible illness. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Not being able to get your breath in was so frightening and painful,’ says foster carer

Maya Oppenheim
Wednesday 06 May 2020 11:58 BST
The pandemic has compounded the preexisting national shortage of foster carers
The pandemic has compounded the preexisting national shortage of foster carers

“I was afraid if I lost the baby, he’d never be able to come home,” says Jenny*. “I’d also have lost my whole income, with no sick pay to help me get by.”

Jenny, a foster carer who looks after a six-month-old baby, should really have been admitted to hospital after contracting coronavirus, but was forced to turn paramedics away from her front door because she didn’t want to leave him alone.

The 45-year-old told The Independent local authorities asked her to leave her baby at home in the care of her 16-year-old daughter because no respite foster care workers were able to step in over fears of contracting coronavirus. Jenny felt deserting her foster baby would be a major safeguarding issue, so refused to leave the baby alone, despite paramedics telling her the extremity of her breathing problems would have ordinarily required hospitalisation.

The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated the existing national staff shortage in the foster care system, with local authorities failing to introduce adequate contingency plans for foster carers who fall ill with the virus – despite the fact some foster carers have already died from Covid-19.

Jenny, who has been a foster carer for more than a decade, called paramedics to the house after her pain became unmanageable. Union officials told The Independent she was struggling to breathe and suffering from a high level of pain, but received zero treatment from the ambulance workers, who left her at home with the foster baby.

“It felt like the local authority didn’t believe I was ill,” Jenny adds. “It was a terrible illness. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Not being able to get your breath in was so frightening and painful. I tried to play it down and not worry the kids, but it was hell.”

Jenny, who noted the paramedics agreed leaving the baby at home would have been a serious safeguarding infringement, said the local authority has “ignored” her updates on the baby’s health and her situation throughout the Covid-19 crisis.

“I would have run out of nappies if other foster care workers hadn’t volunteered to help me out,” Jenny adds. “The local authority didn’t ask if there was anything we needed. If they can’t look after us in a pandemic, they never will. It does put me off the whole sector. They don’t care about us or the kids. Covid-19 has really exposed how bad it is. How few rights we have. How little respect.”

The foster carer, who also works as a cleaner to top up her income, says she has been bullied and threatened with being struck off as punishment for asserting her rights and speaking out for the needs of the children she looks after – with the Foster Care Workers Branch of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) saying the same is true for many of their members.

“Jenny was also afraid to part with the baby because there would be no guarantee the child would be returned to her, especially if she had been forced to take a prolonged period of time off work sick,” Jane Wright, chair of the IWGB Foster Care Workers Branch, said.

“It’s a lose-lose situation for foster care workers, because if the child is removed from their care there’s no guarantee they will be returned and the carer also loses all their income and the local authority pays no retainer to keep the foster care worker on staff after the pandemic. Her story will be one of many that speaks to the impact of the pandemic on ‘Britain’s fourth emergency service’, who are systematically denied basic employment rights such as a guaranteed minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay and protections against whistleblowing.”

Ms Wright said the coronavirus emergency has compounded the pre-existing national shortage of foster carers due to both foster carers and non-foster parents falling ill with the virus, and more children subsequently going into care. More children may also be pushed into care as Covid-19 upheaval makes life more difficult for vulnerable families, she said.

“Things are rocky,” she said. ”Coronavirus is a hugely stressful national event. Some of the normal support for families with alcohol and drug problems has gone, so parents may get back into alcohol and drugs. The rise in domestic abuse in the wake of the coronavirus crisis is likely to lead to more children going into care and increased financial and emotional strain also leads to more children potentially going into care. For a lot of children who are on the edge of care, school is a stable place. Foster care is under increased pressure. The cracks are beginning to appear. Foster carers are realising how few rights they have. We know already of foster carers who have died.”

Ms Wright added: “If carers become too ill to continue looking after children, then children need to move to another carer. The original carer will not get any sick pay. Coronavirus can make people significantly ill and it can take a good few months to recover. Forty-two per cent of foster carers are over 55 – they are an older workforce, so people are more likely to become more severely ill. There are lots of families out there who don’t have extended family who can help out. Grandparents can’t help out due to self-isolating.

“People are very committed to the children. The vast majority will want them to come back home again, but if they have no sick pay for months when the time comes around for the children to return to them, they might no longer be able to house them if they have had to move to a smaller house due to not being able to keep up with payments. Many face destitution if we develop symptoms and self-isolate. The additional, unnecessary trauma being forced on care-experienced young people and their carers is barbaric and it’s putting lives at risk.”

Ms Wright said there are also risks around children who have moved due to their foster carer becoming ill passing coronavirus onto their new foster carer – adding this can lead to the child being relocated more than once.

She said the school and nursery closures are placing foster carers under increasing pressure and noted children in foster care have higher levels of mental health issues and disabilities than the wider population due to having suffered some form of grief in their life. Ms Wright said there is a whole cohort of respite foster carers who look after children with complex needs at the weekend who have lost work and income because of social distancing measures implemented by the government to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The union official, who is a foster carer to a teenage boy, said she formerly had a social worker visit her once a month but the coronavirus crisis means they no longer come at all.

There are roughly 55,000 foster carers in the UK who look after 65,000 children, but they are classified as self-employed and not entitled to any sick pay. Research released by Foster Care Associates last year estimated there is a shortfall of 7,600 foster homes in the UK.

The IWGB union, which has launched a petition to ensure foster carers are paid for sick days if they get ill during the coronavirus emergency, argues the government’s denial of such money threatens to push thousands of fostering families into poverty if they become too unwell to carry on caring for their children.

The union says it receives phone calls from foster carers who have become unwell with Covid-19 every day. Foster carers are some of the most poorly paid care workers in the UK and have not been identified as key workers during the coronavirus crisis despite looking after the UK’s most vulnerable children.

Martin Barrow, a foster carer who has written extensively about the sector, said foster care has been “running on empty” for a long time but the “stresses and strains” are more obvious now.

He added: “The population of children in foster care is changing all the time. It is not a fixed population. But coronavirus means it is difficult for children to leave care. There is a log jam. Fewer children are leaving care. Courts aren’t in system, assessments can’t be made.“

Lisa Witter, manager of the Manchester-based fostering agency Perpetual Fostering, said they have seen a significant increase in the number of placement requests in recent weeks.

“We’re now dealing with over 1,000 placement requests, which is much higher than before,” she said. “There has been a huge increase in the number of children being removed under Powers of Police Protection orders, which are put in place to protect children who are classed as being at risk of significant harm. Over the last month, many children have also come into the care system as a result of domestic violence in their homes.”

*Jenny’s name has been changed to protect her identity

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