If you’ve got time, a desire to make a difference to young lives, and a spare bedroom, then you might consider becoming a foster carer. As a foster carer, your role will be to provide a safe, secure, and nurturing home for a child or young person on a short or long term basis.
As a foster carer, you could transform a child’s life for the better by providing them with the support they need to unlock their full potential. While the benefits to the child are immense, the arrangement is not one-sided. Although it’s hard work and emotionally tough at times, fostering can be incredibly rewarding…
If fostering sounds like something that you might like to hear more about, then keep reading to find out more about what’s involved and how you can get started.
Who needs fostering?
A need for foster care arises when a child or young person can no longer live with or be cared for by their birth parents, for various different reasons. For example, sometimes a birth parent might have a mental health issue that prevents them from caring for their child. Other children or young people might have experienced domestic violence in their family home or have lived with a parent who has a problem with drugs or alcohol abuse.
The aim of foster care is to place a child or young person in a stable and loving family environment, while giving them the chance to stay in touch with their birth family if they wish to.
When a decision is made to take a child into care, the child’s welfare then becomes the responsibility of the local authority (in England, Scotland, and Wales) or health and social care trust (in Northern Ireland).
Both a foster child and their birth family will be closely monitored and will sometimes reunite at a later date – but only if the circumstances that led to the foster care arrangement are significantly improved. Sometimes care will only be needed for a short time (as little as a few days, weeks, or months), while at other times, it’ll be needed on a longer-term basis (possibly years).
Foster care can be provided for children or young people from all different backgrounds from the day they are born, right up until their 18th birthday. It used to be the case that when a young person living with a foster carer turned 18, their living arrangement would no longer be classed as a foster placement.
However, in 2015 new legislation came into force in England, Scotland, and Wales which supports young people to stay living with their current foster carer up until the age of 21 – as long as both parties agree to the arrangement.
In Northern Ireland, there is also a scheme in place which provides support for young people in education, employment, and training to continue living with their current foster carer up until the age of 21.
The urgent need for foster carers
The Local Fostering Network estimates that on any given day, there are 65,000 children living with almost 55,000 foster families in the UK. But approximately 8,600 foster carers are still needed across the UK this year alone – with a child coming into the need for a foster family every 20 minutes.
Fostering agencies are appealing to people who are thinking about fostering to remain open-minded about the child or young person that they decide to foster. There is often a shortage of foster carers for teenagers, yet two-fifths of children in care are aged between 11 and 15 years old.
Agreeing to welcome siblings into your home can also allow children to stay together and avoid facing the prospect of living miles apart from their brother or sister. There are also children and young people in need of foster care who have babies themselves, are unaccompanied asylum seekers, or have specific learning disabilities or requirements.
What does a foster carer do?
The responsibilities of a foster carer can vary depending on the specific needs of the child. But generally speaking, as a foster carer, you’ll:
Provide support in all areas of a child’s life.
This means looking after their health, promoting their social wellbeing, and supporting them with their education. You’ll have all the child’s best interests at heart. This means listening to them, offering them advice and encouragement, and always being there for them when they need you.
Help the child to manage their behaviour and feelings.
Going into foster care can be a huge upheaval for a child. Not only will they have to get used to being away from their birth family and living with a complete stranger, they might also be dealing with the aftermath of any trauma that they went through at home. For this reason, they might display challenging or unusual behaviours.
Part of your role as a foster carer will be to recognise possible causes of this behaviour and help the child use suitable coping strategies to manage their thoughts and feelings. Your local council or fostering service will support you with this.
Attend training sessions and meetings about the child.
Your local council or foster service will provide you and your family with training to help you develop the extra skills needed to become an effective foster carer or foster family. Once you start fostering, you’ll also undertake ongoing professional training and development to help you maintain these skills and acquire new ones.
You’ll also attend regular meetings with social workers and schools to discuss the care of the child you’re looking after and help plan for their future. You’ll be expected to keep written notes about the child, provide frequent updates on their progress, and manage sensitive and confidential information about them.
Work as a team and maintain good relationships with all those involved in the child’s welfare.
Foster children have a range of different needs, so it’s important that you can work well with social workers, the birth family, schools, medical professionals, or anyone else that is involved in looking after the welfare of the child, in order to achieve the best outcome for them.
Commit time and energy.
It’s important to make sure that you have space in your life to invest in a child or a young person. The reason that they’ll be coming to live with you is because they were lacking the care and support they needed elsewhere – so it’s crucial that you can give them that. It’s nice to be passionate about wanting to make a difference to a young person’s life, but it’ll take a significant amount of your time and energy, so it’s important to have that to give.
Promote contact with families.
While your main responsibility will be to take over the role of caring for a child or young person, you must still be prepared to help them stay in touch with their birth family. This contact – either in person, over the phone, or via emails or letters – can be very important for them. You’ll need to be able to keep any personal feelings you have about this contact to one side and support children to maintain positive relationships where possible.
Who can become a foster carer?
If you’re interested in becoming a foster carer, then there are a few basic requirements that you must meet before you consider applying. The Government specifies that you must be:
- age 21 or over
- a UK resident or have indefinite leave to remain
- able to take care of a child or young person (often on a full-time basis)
Other requirements for fostering a child will depend on what sort of fostering you decide to do and the individual needs of the child. Before you foster a child, you’ll undertake an assessment which will determine whether or not your circumstances would allow you to appropriately care for a child. Please note that this decision will not be made based on your age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status, or religion.
Some people will be more suited to fostering than others – perhaps because they have experience working with vulnerable children or have been parents and grandparents themselves.
However, foster carers come from all walks of life and local councils and fostering agencies like to take on a diverse pool of foster carers to meet the needs of the diverse range of children that are in foster care. This gives every child or young person the best chance at finding the right home the first time around. Full training will also be given to help you prepare for life as a foster carer if your application is successful.
Can I still foster a child or young person if I’m working?
You might be able to foster a child and continue to work – but this will be decided by your local council or independent fostering agency. It’s a good idea to be prepared for the possibility that local councils or independent fostering agencies will advocate that you are able to look after a child on a full-time basis. It’s also important to note that you don’t have a statutory right to time off work to care for foster children, so any commitment you make to a child must take this into account.
Do I need to own my own home?
It’s not necessary for you to own your own home to become a foster carer, but you must have a spare bedroom so that the child or young person that you are caring for can have a space of their own. It also doesn’t matter whether you live alone or with others, as long as everyone involved is willing to play a part in doing what’s best for the child.
Is there financial support available for foster carers?
You’ll receive foster care allowance to help you pay for any child or children that you’re caring for. The total amount you receive will depend on factors such as where you live, how old the child is, and which fostering service you use. But to give you a rough idea, you’ll usually receive a minimum of between £132 and £231 a week.
You’ll also be entitled to receive qualifying care relief, which means you’ll get tax relief for every week that you foster a child and will be able to earn £10,000 from fostering before you have to start paying tax. To find out more about what financial help is available to foster carers, have a read of the Government guidance, here.
It’s also worth getting in touch with your local fostering services to ask what sort of financial support they might be able to offer. Some may offer you an additional payment on top of your foster care allowance to express their gratitude for your time, skills, and/or experience.
How long can I foster a child or young person for?
The length of time you look after a child or young person can vary considerably and will depend on the type of fostering that you choose to do. The two most common types are long and short term fostering.
If you decide to opt for short-term fostering then you’ll look after children for a few weeks or months whilst alternative plans are made for their future. Sometimes this happens when the birth family needs time to sort themselves out so that they can better care for their child later on.
Short-term fostering can also include:
- Emergency fostering – where you give a child someone safe to live for a few nights or weeks. Sometimes you might only get 24 hours notice.
- Respite or short breaks – this type of fostering will allow you to care for children with physical or mental disabilities, special educational needs, or behavioural issues on a temporary basis while their parent or carer takes a break.
Long-term fostering will see you looking after a child for a longer period of time. Often children who need fostering long-term cannot go back to living with their birth family for various reasons. In this case, you’ll often look after a child until they’re an adult.
Long term fostering can also include:
- Fostering with a view of adopting – where you’ll foster a child that you hope to eventually adopt. If you do decide to adopt a child and become their legal guardian, you’ll be entitled to adoption pay and leave when the child comes to live with you.
Other types of fostering
Other types of fostering, where the length of time that you care for a child will be determined by their individual circumstances, can include:
- ‘Family and friends’/kinship – where you’ll look after a child that is already part of your family or who belongs to a friend. It’s best to contact your local council about this type of fostering.
- Remand – this type of fostering requires specialist training and will see you caring for young people who have been remanded by the court.
- Specialist therapeutic – this type of fostering is only for experienced foster carers and will require a set of specialist skills. You will provide specialist therapeutic care for children or young people with challenging behaviour or complex needs.
Some people decide to foster a single child for many years, while others might foster many different children on a short-term basis over many years.
What are the benefits?
Making a difference
The number one benefit of fostering a child or young person is that you get to play a significant role in helping to give them a better life, which is incredibly satisfying. They might be recovering from trauma, struggling to find their place in the world, or feeling completely lost and bewildered.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to fix these issues overnight, but with time, patience, and perseverance – you’ll stand a good chance at improving a child or young person’s prospects and helping them to come to terms with what they are or have been going through.
Many of the children that go into foster care have little understanding of what it’s like to receive love, attention, and support. These are things that many of us take for granted, but they can make the world of difference to a child or young person in foster care.
Learning new skills
You’ll also be given plenty of opportunities for training and development to help you learn new skills and become the best foster carer that you can be. Many foster carers have found that these skills have been useful when parenting their own children or grandchildren too.
Fostering also gives you the chance to meet new personalities, which can offer you new perspectives on life and help you develop as a person.
Foster carers often form strong bonds with a child or young person that they are caring for, which can bring both of you a lot of joy. Some foster carers also end up deciding that they would like to adopt their foster child, meaning that they end up gaining a permanent family member – which comes with a lifetime of benefits, such as friendship and companionship.
What are the challenges?
Fostering can be tough and this is usually because children or young people in foster care can display challenging behaviour as a direct result of their life experiences so far. It’s important to be prepared for this to happen and to try to understand why it’s happening and how you can help them to channel negative thoughts and feelings in a way that won’t be harmful to themselves or others.
You won’t have to deal with this alone. You’ll have ongoing support from your local council or independent fostering agency and will receive training on how to approach and resolve issues related to challenging behaviour.
Sometimes this behaviour improves and settles down as a child or young person adjusts to their new circumstances, but other times it doesn’t – so it’s best to remain open-minded about how things are going to turn out. You should, however, be prepared not to give up on a child easily and to be patient.
Forming a strong bond with a child you’ve been caring for is a wonderful thing, but it can also make saying goodbye quite difficult, if and when they leave. This isn’t something that should stop you caring for a child whole-heartedly though, as the bond you create can be a real blessing and you’ll usually be able to stay in touch.
Your local council or fostering agency will also help you develop coping strategies for saying goodbye to children that you’ve cared for – so you’ll be supported with this.
How can I apply?
The process of becoming a foster carer usually takes about 8 months to complete. This might sound like a long time, but caring for a child or young person is a big commitment, so it’s important to take the time to make sure that it’s right for both of you.
The first step is to apply to become a foster carer – either through your local council or an independent fostering agency. You will only be able to register with one fostering service. It’s best to have a look at a few different ones and read about what they do and what sort of help they’re looking for before you register.
When you first apply to your local council or independent fostering agency, you’ll usually be invited to have a discussion about your reasons for fostering and your current circumstances. You’ll also be given more information about fostering – often in the form or a short course or information session.
If you decide that you’d like to go ahead with your application to become a foster carer once you have been given all the relevant information, then you’ll need to ask to be assessed by your local council or chosen fostering agency. You’ll need to fill out an application form, and you and any other adults in your house will also need to get an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) certificate.
If you have any preferences over the age or gender of the child that you’d like to care for, then you’ll be able to submit these. It’s important to note that while you’ll be given preferences, you will not be given a trial period with a child, nor will you be able to pick a child out of a group of other children. If your application is successful, your local council or independent fostering agency will match you with a child.
Once you have submitted your application form and preferences, a social worker will then carry out a detailed assessment of your suitability to become a foster carer. During this time, you might also be invited to attend training sessions to help you develop the skills you need to deliver the best service to children and young people as possible.
The assessment can take several months to complete and you’ll need to meet with a panel before a final decision is made. Once you’ve been approved as a foster carer, a child might be placed with you straight away or there might be a wait.
You’ll usually have an annual review to make sure that things are going well and that you’re still able to care for a child. Support and training will also be provided on an ongoing basis throughout your fostering career.
In short, becoming a foster carer is an incredibly awarding experience that’ll allow you to make new connections and bonds, learn new skills, and most of all, make a huge difference in the lives of children or young people.
However, foster caring is an immense responsibility and should not be taken up lightly. Make sure you have the time and attention to give, as well as the capacity to listen, learn, grow, and be patient.
Have you ever fostered a child? Or are you currently going through the application process? We’d love to hear from you! Join the conversation over on the Rest Less community forum or leave a comment below.