- About as likely to be married (or in civil partnership) as the general population, but less likely to be co-habiting and more likely to be single
- Likely to be over 40 (in one study, 65% were over 50) and part of an ageing population
- Overwhelmingly likely to be White British (well over 90% in several studies)
- Likely to claim a religious affiliation (over 70% in some studies)
- Likely to be female
- More likely to have no qualifications or be qualified to Level 2 (GCSE) (as many as 64% in one study, compared to 40% in general population)
- Less likely to be educated to level 4 (Degree+) (approx 12-15%, compared to 38% in general population
- Earning lower than the national average (total household earnings) and sometimes significantly lower
- More likely than the general population to be in receipt of benefits such as income support
- Likely to have previous work experience involving children
(All statistics and information taken from the report "The demographic characteristics of foster carers in the UK: Motivations, barriers and messages for recruitment and retention". See the full report here.)
The statistics build a picture of the average foster carer as being a middle-aged white woman, probably married, probably with older children who may well have left home (in at least 25% of cases). It's likely that their own parenting experiences were a few years ago, and we know how quickly the advice is changed and updated.
My own experience of training for foster carers is that only the most basic attachment theory is covered prior to approval. I have learned most of what I know from books. Further training is offered, but it's worth asking how accessible books/training are for people whose own education experience might have been quite limited in scope and took place over 30 years ago. I'm not saying that people whose formal education ended early are incapable of learning, or lack intelligence necessarily, but training needs to be accessible for people who are not used to academic settings for learning.
While foster carers are remunerated, research suggests that the household incomes of foster carers are likely to be at the lower end. In some studies, significant numbers reported household incomes of less that £15,000pa. Might this lead carers to take on more children than is perhaps advisable? I know of carers approved for four 0-5 year-olds (can be more with sibling groups). They run their homes with military precision - they have to.
I have heard and read many, many observations from adoptive parents who were surprised at some aspects of their child's foster carer, or the care they received from that carer. These were, on the whole, not unkind comments, but merely observations. I wonder if there is sometimes a mis-match between the expectations of adoptive parents, and the realities of the world of the foster carer?
Maybe there is, and maybe some if that is down to differences between the average adoptive parent and the average foster carer. I can't be sure because I can't find a similar, reliable document detailing the demographics of adoptive parents, but it would be interesting to compare. Has anybody come across one?
I think the way that foster carers are told to parent also plays a part. The document cited above points out that many, many foster carers carry on the role for a number of years. Just as in regular parenting, the advice in foster parenting changes, but, as far as I know, there are no refresher courses for foster carers. I have heard from long-serving foster carers and social workers that the old advice to foster carers was not to get too attached to the children as it would make it harder for them to move on. Current advice says the opposite, but are foster carers being kept up to date on the advice? And even if they are, how easy is it to change their ways, habits and parenting styles? This is before we even start on the updates in general parenting advice, which seem regular and sometimes contradictory.
We also have rules to follow that sometimes make a normal family life (my aim for all my children) hard to achieve. For instance, there is no cosy bedtime routine in the child's bedroom. This is not allowed. There are rules around bathtimes (I'm not supposed to towel-dry my children but instead put them in dressing gowns straight from the bath! Not so appropriate with a tiny baby!), appropriate dress, health and safety, babysitters and on and on. Not to mention the incessant intervention of social workers, and the requests from birth family which need to be adhered to (as far as is reasonable and safe) until the child is released for adoption. Baby Girl's formula was chosen for her by birth mum. It would not have been my choice.
Then there is the cost of recruiting, training, monitoring and equipping a foster carer, which must be significant. Social services do not like to lose their carers. They get upset when we adopt in case we stop fostering and they have to spend all that money again finding more new carers. I wonder if that is why some carers who might be considered less than impressive continue to care?
Finally, remember that foster carers often receive children direct from the situation of neglect and abuse. Two of mine have come direct from the hospital. All the longer term children have come with only the clothes they were wearing. If a child goes to adoption who only eats chicken nuggets, chips and beans, it might just be possible that it has taken the foster carer months to coax them to add the beans.
It makes me very, very sad to hear, as I have today, of foster carers whose approach to the children in their care does not seem to be all that it could be. The report I linked to above also found that remuneration is not a significant motivator for people to become foster carers. But maybe it is for some. I don't know. What I do know is that our most vulnerable children, at their most vulnerable moment, need the very best care that can be provided, and that adopters need foster carers to support them in making the transition as successful as possible. I hope the majority of foster carers live this out in their homes and their work.