Fostering – the basics

Are you considering permanent (or long-term) fostering? Perhaps you are ready to take the first step and contact an agency, or maybe you just want to find out a bit more…

Introduction to fostering

When a child’s birth family is unable to look after them, the local authority may decide that the best option is to place the child in foster care. In the UK, it is estimated that there are over 70,000 children in care, and of these, and over 50,000 are living with foster families. Most children will be able to return to their birth families within a year, but some will stay in foster care longer.
Fostering represents a chance to make an important difference to a child’s life, whether for a short period of time, or a number of years. There are many different types of fostering, and the term also applies to people who foster members of their own family, for example nieces, nephews or grandchildren.
careThe Be My Parent service features children who need permanent (also known as long-term) fostering. For this reason, this section will concentrate on permanent fostering rather than other types such as emergency or short-break fostering.
For more information on other types of fostering, please refer to the Fostering Network or the BAAF website.
Fostering differs from adoption because foster carers do not have full parental responsibility for the child, as adoptive parents do. Unlike adoption, fostering involves shared caring, and the child remains the legal responsibility of the local authority and/or their birth parents. The child’s foster carer will usually have ongoing contact with social workers and other professionals involved with the child, as well as the child’s birth parents, in many cases.
Although many children benefit from the security that adoption offers, permanent fostering may be the best option for others, particularly older children over the age of seven, who may need more ongoing contact with their birth family, or children who have complex care needs.

The types of children waiting

There are children of all ages and backgrounds across the UK who need permanent foster families, as can be seen by looking at some of the children’s web profiles in Be My Parent. (To read more, search all the children and make enquiries, you will need to register your details and go on to subscribe.) Some of the profiles you can see by subscribing to our service have short video clips, which really help to show more of a child. Below is a sample of what these short films can look like (the children featured are actors).

However, families are particularly needed for the groups of children who wait the longest. They include:
Groups of brothers and sisters who need to stay together
For most people who are part of a sibling group, they benefit from a lifetime of comfort and support that siblings provide for each other.
Over half of all children waiting for new families are groups of brothers and sisters and the majority need to stay together. A placement in a permanent foster family may enable the children to remain together. For most siblings, it is important that they stay together, where appropriate or possible. Most of these children are in sibling groups of two and three, although there are also larger groups of four or more.
Sadly some brothers and sisters are separated because their needs cannot be met together, or because a family does not come forward for them.
If siblings are not placed together, the issue of ongoing contact between the children, either direct or indirect, is considered by the agency. If separated, most siblings have some form of contact with each other when they are permanently fostered.
Black and minority ethnic children
A child’s well-being is linked to who they are, and feeling comfortable with their identity. This is built up through their ethnicity, religious, cultural and linguistic background, community, relationship with their birth family, and current and past experiences.
Ideally, a child’s new family should meet all their emotional, identity, health and development needs. In BAAF’s view, practice experience indicates that children do best when brought up in a family that reflects their ethnic and racial identity as closely as possible. In part, this is informed by reports from black and minority ethnic adopted adults who grew up with families who did not match their ethnic and racial identity, describing difficulties in belonging to any community outside of their immediate family.
What this means in practice is that vigorous efforts are made to find a family that matches the child’s individual identity. Given the profile of prospective foster carers, this is not always achievable. In these instances, social workers will have to make a decision about when to consider alternative families in order to minimise delay for the child. Children would then be placed with families that best match most of their needs, even if this means they are of a different ethnic group.
Children who are black Caribbean or black African, Asian (particularly Asian Muslim), and of mixed ethnicity (black African and white, black Caribbean and white, or Asian and white) wait much longer for a permanent foster family in comparison to white children.
More black and minority ethnic adopters and foster carers are urgently needed across the UK, and particularly in London.
Older children
Children over the age of seven wait considerably longer to be matched with a new family compared to younger children. Permanent fostering may be considered for older children who may have been waiting a long time for an adoptive family or who have stronger ties with their birth family, and need to have more frequent contact.
Children with special needs or disabilities
Many children waiting to be placed with a permanent family have special needs that can range from health conditions, to learning or physical disabilities, and emotional or behavioural difficulties. For some children, their future development may be uncertain, or they may be too young for a prognosis to be made. Read more about children with disabilities, developmental delay, special educational needs, and emotional and behavioural needs.

Who can foster?

Can you provide a safe, secure and loving home? Thousands more foster carers are needed in all parts of the UK. People from all backgrounds can be foster carers; there is no official age limit; and you do not have to be married or own a large house. Foster carers of all ethnicities, languages and religions are needed, as well as people who can care for children who have complex needs.

There is no official age limit for fostering, although a fostering agency would expect you to be mature enough and have the health and stamina to meet the demands of caring for somebody else’s child, and to be able to work with a range of agencies and professionals. For these reasons, more mature adults are usually preferred, and some agencies tend not to recruit carers beyond retirement age. Similarly, a 19 year-old may be considered as a carer for a younger sibling, to keep the family together.

Although agencies encourage all types of people to consider fostering, it is important for fostered children to have a stable family life without any preventable disruption, such as a foster carer parent becoming seriously ill due to a long-term health condition. For these reasons all prospective foster carers have to have a full medical examination carried out by their GP, and provide a medical report to the assessing agency.
Being overweight should not affect your chances of being approved as long as it does not cause you to have serious health problems, which could affect your care of a child. Agencies are not keen on placing children with carers who smoke, due to the risks of passive smoking. But if you do smoke, or have any other uncertainties about your suitability to foster, it is still worth contacting your agency for a discussion.

Home and garden
You do not need to own your home to foster, but for reasons of stability you should not be on a tenancy or lease that is due to expire. The agency will check that your home and garden are safe and suitable for children. Make sure your home is child-friendly by, for example, fitting covers over plug sockets, and covering over or filling in garden ponds. They will also ask you about any pets you have, and will pay particular attention to any dogs, as some are not safe to be left with children.

Criminal record
People who have a criminal conviction, or have been cautioned for specified criminal offences against children, or some sexual offences against adults, are not able to foster. It is important to be honest about a criminal record, including offences or cautions that happened many years ago. If you are not honest from the beginning, this will be taken very seriously by the agency, and may affect their decision to assess or approve you.

Financial support
You do not have to be wealthy to foster a child. As a foster carer you will receive a fostering allowance from the agency to cover the costs involved in caring for a child and you may also receive a fee for your work, depending on the payment scheme offered by the agency.
Ethnicity, culture, religion, and language
Studies show that children grow up best in a foster family who shares or can help a child to develop an awareness of as many aspects of their culture, religion and ethnic origin as possible. This can help the child to have a positive sense of their own identity and to feel connected to their heritage and their ‘roots’.

What next?

Fostering a child can be extremely rewarding, particularly seeing a hurt child begin to thrive and make progress, but it is also very demanding of the time and space in your life. It is a big commitment and you need to be able to work in partnership with a wide range of people involved in the child’s care, including the child’s social workers, your social worker, and other professionals such as teachers, medical staff and counsellors, as well as the child’s birth family.
Do not worry if you do not have all the skills required to be a foster carer – fostering agencies are usually happy to train people who have commitment, enthusiasm and the right outlook. Good foster carers like children, can see the world through their eyes, are patient and calm, and prepared to support children through difficult times and emotions, even when it feels like little, or no, progress is being made.
If you are interested in fostering it is a good idea to find out as much as possible about what is involved before making a decision. You should contact a local social services team, social work department (Scotland), or Health and Social Services Trust (Northern Ireland) at your local or neighbouring authority, or a voluntary organisation or independent fostering agency (IFA) for further details. They may invite you to attend an information session.