Instead, foster care was pitched as “a nice way to earn a living” that “fits in around the family.” I’m a foster carer and I earn £1.70 an hour. A third of foster carers don’t get paid at all. Ours is one of the most important and rewarding jobs in the world but it’s also one of the hardest and most undervalued.
How would you feel about welcoming a stranger into your home right now? How about a child with complex needs who requires support 24 hours a day, seven days a week? What if your boss was asking that of you in exchange for sub-minimum wage and no sick pay if you contract coronavirus?
Steve Christie, who appeared on BBC News, is managing director of the National Fostering Agency (NFA), which is owned by a private equity firm and turns over millions each year, paying six figure salaries of public money to its senior staff. It’s one of the biggest private agencies cashing in on foster care.
Few people realise that we’re classified as self-employed, meaning we have no basic rights like sick pay and a guaranteed minimum wage. My £1.71 per hour (made up of just under £575 every two weeks), as any parent knows, barely covers the cost of raising a child. To pitch it as a way to earn easy money is not only unfair to potential foster carers but potentially dangerous for the children, many of whom have complex physical or mental health needs.
I’ve been a foster carer for more than five years. My husband runs a small business, giving a combined income that just about covers our costs and gives us the flexibility fostering requires of us. I have one biological son and another who I’ve fostered for four years. That makes me a mother of two. We love them equally; they are our family.
If I become too sick to care for my foster child, it would mean I was too sick to care for my biological child – it would have to be that serious. We’d want my husband to take over the childcare so we could keep our family together, but we’d lose his portion of the household income which is far greater than mine. Already we’d be forced to weigh our financial security against keeping our family together.
I don’t know if we’d be able to keep the house and if we lost it, or if my husband got sick, our foster child could be taken away from us. With my income gone, I don’t know how we’d recover financially and there is no guarantee our foster child would ever be able to return to us. Our family would be shattered.
We’re expecting a big influx of children into care as the lockdown eases and local authorities and fostering agencies are scrambling to recruit foster carers nationwide. Caps on foster placements per household have also been lifted. I expect to come under pressure to take more children into our home. I want to be able to do my part but the lack of financial security makes that an impossible task. How can I risk everything without any promise of support or a safety net if things go wrong?
Worrying stories are already emerging. Jenny*, a foster carer with Covid-19 symptoms, was forced to decline hospital admission because she might lose her children. But this issue is not new, or specific to coronavirus. Whether it’s cancer or a car accident, any foster carer who is injured or falls ill faces the same impossible choice between splitting up our families or falling off a financial cliff edge.
What has changed is that the coronavirus pandemic is making it clear to people why the government must take responsibility for keeping foster families safe and together, especially if a parent becomes ill with the virus. And if it’s the right thing to do at this time of national crisis, it’s the right thing to do, period. That’s why we’re petitioning for foster carers to be given access to Statutory Sick Pay. It would be a vital step in the right direction.
Beyond that, what we need is not slick PR, it’s an honest discussion about why the sector is facing this shortage, while foster carers like me work in such precarious conditions that we can only speak out on condition of anonymity.
Every day, we are on the frontline providing professional, round the clock care to 65,000 of the UK’s most vulnerable children. In this day and age we should not still be forced to counter arguments that it “isn’t a real job.”
It is one of the most important jobs in the world, and if people like Steve Christie agree then he should be supporting our call for basic employment rights.
*Jenny’s name has been changed to protect her identity
The author is a foster care worker – and a member of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) trade untion – writing under a pseudonym
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