There's a lot of chat in the fostering community on Twitter and the blogosphere about the publication today of Action for Children's research into popular conceptions (or misconceptions!) about fostering.
The detail can be found on Action for Children's website here, but suffice it to say that plenty of people think that if you're over 55, gay, living in a rented house, etc., you wouldn't be approved as a foster carer.
I'm not really surprised by this. The survey also showed that a lot of people confuse fostering with adoption, and we all know the mythology that surrounds the whole adoption scenario. It's not surprising that people who aren't directly involved in fostering and adoption would have little idea of what really goes on, especially as most 'information' given by the media seems to rely almost entirely on anecdotal sources.
But not all myths are entirely myths. For instance, my local authority assured me that fostering was open to absolutely everybody, before proceeding to tell me that I wouldn't be allowed to go out to work as a single foster carer and then disclosing the eye-wateringly low financial package, designed, as they said, to ensure that people aren't doing it 'for the money'.
The reality is that although it's perfectly acceptable for single people to become foster carers, it's actually quite a precarious existence in real life if fostering is your only source of income.
We do, of course, receive a financial package. This is not a salary, and is not taxable until you reach a certain (quite high) level. It's not really expenses either, as it covers more than the basic costs of feeding and clothing a child, and some additional expenses can be claimed on top. It's somewhere in between - you could perhaps call it a stipend.
For the first six months I was fostering, I received £150 per child, per week. So, with the one child I was approved for, I received £600 or thereabouts per month. Yeah, not exactly life-changing amounts of money - well, not life-changing in a good way anyway! We managed. That's the best I can say.
During that time I underwent additional training, both on training courses, and by completing an online course. This, coupled with my prior experience and training (I have an MEd and lots of experience in teaching and voluntary youth work), ensured that I was reclassified as a Level 3 after six months, with an accompanying decent-sized rise in the financial package.
So, when I have children placed with me, I have no need to worry about money. It's not monopoly money, but I can pay the bills, buy the shoes, enroll them in swimming and other fun stuff, and have the occasional treat. But, and it's a big 'but', when I don't have children with me, I don't necessarily get anything at all. In every year, I can claim a retainer worth half a child for up to 4 weeks, but once that's gone, that's it.
At the end of June, I transitioned NB onto his new family. Immediately afterwards I was moving house (at Social Service's request) so I knew I wouldn't be able to take anyone else on straight away. I claimed my 4-week retainer during July. In August I was away on holiday with OB. My retainer had run out by then but there's no point putting myself back on the list when I'm about to go away - no child arrives with a passport, even if you could sort out an extra ticket with a couple of days notice! Anyway, the new house wasn't really fit to live in for a traumatised child. Middle of August, we came home and, after some frantic decorating efforts by some very good friends, I was able to put myself back on the list. It has now been nearly a month and I haven't heard anything.
How many people can manage nearly two months with no income? Of course I know that this can happen, so naturally I save in the fat months to offset the lean months, but with my recent house move, my savings have been sadly depleted. Even without the building and decorating work I've had done on the new house, just the costs of moving are enough to contend with and, despite initiating the move, SS had nothing to offer in the way of financial support there.
Thankfully, fostering is not my sole source of income. We won't starve, but things are tight, and necessary expenditure is having to be postponed. When you're the only breadwinner in the household, it's not a comfortable position to be in to know that your main source of income is so unreliable.
I'm not claiming that fostering is unique in this regard, but with a shortage of foster carers in the country, we perhaps need to do more than 'mythbusting' if we are to persuade people to give up their jobs and foster for a living.
Of course, pay and conditions for foster carers vary from place to place and agency to agency. Some agencies pay all foster carers a basic 'salary' that does not vary, and then add a weekly amount for expenses for each child in care. This seems eminently sensible to me. Even when I'm not actually caring for a child, I have extra expenses associated with being a foster carer. For instance, I live in a much bigger house than I need for just the two of us, with the accompanying bigger mortgage, higher council tax and inflated utility bills. I have to tell my house and car insurers what I do, so I pay for that on all my insurance premiums. At some point, I'll probably be getting a bigger car with, again, higher running costs. None of these costs go away just because the children do.
Foster carers don't need to be made rich. Nobody thinks that foster carers should be doing it for the money. But we do need to know that we will be on a secure financial footing so that, when all the families in our towns are doing a great job with their kids, our own kids won't be wondering where their new shoes are coming from.
Mythbusting is good, but while the financial situation is so precarious for many foster carers, a lot of people will quite rightly be put off the whole thing.