What Is It Really Like to Be a Foster Carer?
The life of a foster carer isn’t as different as you might suspect. It’s spent doing many of the same things that anyone does if they have the responsibility of looking after children. Making sure the children in your charge are fed and clothed properly, are sent off with their schoolwork done and ready, return home safely, and get to bed at a proper time is rather universal. The only difference with a foster carer is that the children in your care aren’t necessarily your own. It doesn’t mean you care for them any less.
That being said, being a foster carer is quite a bit of work. Not only do you have to go through a rigorous application process that necessitates you demonstrating your diligence and suitability by satisfying a number of requirements, but you also need to provide boundless compassion and patience for the children that are placed in your care. This can be difficult at times, especially when your placement is coming from a particularly challenging situation or background.
Yet even as you face these challenges, the rewards of being a foster carer are just as boundless. Yes, it is true that you do receive compensation for the crucial work you do in providing the care for children that need it. And yes, many foster carers leave their previous careers behind in order to care for foster children full-time. Yet the financial rewards are often secondary to the intense emotional fulfilment of providing a safe harbour for a child who often needs it most desperately. Knowing you’ve made a positive difference in the life of a foster child, even if just for a few short weeks or months, is a feeling that lasts for the rest of your life. Here’s what you need to know about what it’s truly like to be a foster carer.
Beginning the Process is Demanding
Applying to become a foster carer isn’t like trying to get any other job. You don’t just show up in your best outfit with your CV and have a chat with the hiring manager — if you expect to be given the awesome responsibility of providing care for children in need, you’re going to have to prove yourself thoroughly and completely.
It all begins when you make an enquiry to either a local authority or an independent foster agency (IFA). It’s often recommended to pursue becoming a foster carer through an IFA, as these agencies often have better support resources for those new to fostering. They also tend to provide better compensation, especially since IFAs tend to place children who are in more need of help. In either case, you’ll sit down with a social worker for an introductory meeting where you’ll be able to have some basic questions answered.
After this initial meeting, the process begins in earnest. You’ll have to prove a number of things to the agency if you’re serious about being a foster carer before your evaluation can go forward. First and foremost, you’ll need sufficient living space in your home or flat to accommodate a foster child — you’ll need one empty bedroom for every child you wish to foster. You’ll also have to take a trip to your GP and get a clean bill of health in the form of an NHS health check. This shows you’re physically able to care for a foster child. Next, you’ll be required to show evidence that your financial health is in good order as well, as you can’t become a foster carer if you have a bankruptcy on record.
Qualifications Are Intensive
Clearing these initial hurdles are most certainly the easy part of being a foster carer. The rest of the qualifications can be quite intensive. There is a reason for this, of course, as only those most dedicated to providing patient, compassionate care to foster children are the best suited to become foster carers. Progressing through this qualification process certainly proves that you’ve got what it takes to become an excellent foster carer!
The process involves a multitude of steps and requires you to attend meetings, provide detailed background information, and submit loads of paperwork. It begins with collecting a number of references for your agency to peruse in order to gain a better understanding of who you are as a potential carer. These references can be from work colleagues, long-time family friends, former partners that helped you raise children, or even adult children who have since moved out. There’s no minimum number of references required, but it goes without saying that the more the better.
You’ll also have to demonstrate your willingness to learn the requisite skills that come in handy as a foster carer. This often requires a weekend of your time, as you’ll be asked to attend a Skills to Foster Training seminar over a period of two to three days. These group seminars are led by experienced social workers and are attended by a number of hopeful foster carers all going through the process together. The skills you learn in such a seminar help to form a solid foundation for your career as a foster carer, and meeting others who are progressing through the process of becoming a foster carer can also be beneficial in the future.
The next thing you’ll need to get sorted is an enhanced disclosure from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS). This bit of paperwork is a requirement for anyone who will be working with children, so it’s not just foster carers that need to jump through this particular hoop — if you were to work in a school, in a creche, or in a nursery, you would also need an enhanced disclosure from the DBS. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that being a foster carer is most certainly a job — one with the potential of being quite rewarding and fulfilling, but a job nonetheless.
The biggest and most intensive step in the process, though, is most certainly the last. You will need to undergo a fostering assessment administered by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF). This BAAF assessment is an intensive process that begins with an in-depth conversation with a social worker. This step in the process is slow, as it takes anywhere from four to six months to complete an assessment.
The last thing that’s required of you comes after your BAAF assessment is completed, and it’s related to it: you’ll have to face the music. A Fostering Panel will review your complete application and will ask you any questions they have about your assessment. It’s not an adversarial situation, as the panelists simply want to ensure you’re the best fit for the job, but it can be nerve-wracking. Once the panel is concluded, it will submit its final recommendation to an Agency Decision Maker, who ultimately either selects you for a role of foster carer or not.
Moving from Applicant to Fully-Fledged Foster Carer
Being notified that you’ve been selected as a foster carer is always a cause for celebration. It’s an exciting time to be sure, especially as you could receive your first placement at any time. Typically you’ll receive that placement within a few short weeks. If you’ve become a foster carer through a foster agency, you may be waiting a bit longer, as agencies often invest more time and resources in matching foster children with carers that have the appropriate skill sets to provide them the proper support.
When a foster child arrives in your care, it’s only natural for there to be some adjustment on both the part of you and the child. This depends largely on the age of the foster child and their previous experiences, but there are a number of factors at play as well. A foster child with special needs requires extra care, whether that comes in the form of physical accommodation or emotional support. Regardless of the specific particulars, your new foster child will need plenty of compassion and patience from you and any other members of your immediate family.
You’ll soon notice, though, that once your foster placement finishes settling in, it will soon become business as usual. Even if you do have a foster child with special needs, you’ll fall into an easy daily routine, revolving around providing for your placement. You’ll take him or her to school, to outside appointments with GPs or specialists, take them shopping for the things they need or want, and spend quality time with them, just as you would with a biological child. It won’t always be smooth sailing, but that’s to be expected; no caregiver can say otherwise.
You’ll Have A Full and Robust Support System
Being a foster carer is a demanding job, even when the children in your care are doing well. That’s why agencies provide full and robust support systems to ensure everything goes well. While the specifics of what type of support you can expect can differ from one agency to another, there are some commonalities that are relatively universal, and they include the following.
- Your social worker is your first point of contact. You’re likely to have the same social worker throughout your career as a foster parent, which means that you’ll develop an excellent working relationship with him or her. They will be able to answer any questions you have about a given situation. If they can’t, they will know where to direct you for more specialised help.
- You’ll get crucial skills support. In addition to being your first point of contact, your social worker will also provide you with opportunities to develop the skills important to you as a foster carer. You’ll work together to formulate a long-term skills development plan that you can progress through at your own pace, on your own terms, with their aid.
- You can benefit from an experienced mentor. Agencies often have mentorship schemes where new foster carers are matched with more experienced carers in order to provide one-on-one support. The insight these experienced mentors provide can offer you unique perspectives or strategies that help you grow into your role and become a more effective foster carer.
- You’ll have access to a wide network of fellow carers. One-on-one mentoring from an experienced carer is highly beneficial, but a network of peers to pull support from is an added benefit. Agencies often organise monthly meet-ups of foster families in your area to build relationships between foster children and their carers, as no one knows the unique circumstances of fostering like fellow foster families.
- You will have access to advanced support when needed. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances occur; it’s just a fact of life. If your social worker and your mentor can’t help, and neither can your fellow foster families, you’ll need the support of an advanced kind. Whether this means at-home visits or other types of extended support, your agency will ensure you and your foster child are provided for.
- You’ll be given respite opportunities. Being a foster carer is still a job — and you’re still entitled to some time away from work. With foster carers often not having the same resources as biological families in the form of having relatives that can provide a bit of relief from the rigors of parenting, you’ll receive two weeks of paid respite a year to help you stay fresh and performing well in your role.
Yes, You’ll Also Be Compensated for Your Time and Effort
In addition to all of these support services, foster carers also receive generous compensation for their time and effort. Yes, you are paid to take care of foster children. How much you earn, however, is dependent on a number of factors, all of which influence the final amount of compensation you receive for the important work of providing a safe haven for children who need it, sometimes quite desperately.
Foster carers receive compensation for every week they foster a child. This compensation is figured individually per child in your care, as the particulars of one foster child, such as their age and their specific needs, will differ from another. There are minimum figures that the government has set in order to standardise the practice, though. These minimums are generally higher if you live in the South East or in London due to the higher cost of living in these regions. The baseline minimums are as follows:
- For babies, weekly minimums begin at £127 if you’re located outside of the South East or London. This figure increases to £140 and £146 respectively.
- For pre-primary-aged children, the minimum rate begins at £130 and increases to £144 and £149 for carers located in the South East and in London.
- The pattern continues for primary school-aged children, with the three compensation tiers being £143, £160, and 168.
- Foster carers with children between the ages of 11 and 15 are entitled to weekly minimums ranging between £164, £182, and £190.
- Finally, a foster carer looking after 16 or 17-year-olds will earn a minimum of £191, £214, or £222.
These are the figures for the 2018-2019 financial year. The government reviews minimum compensation guidelines every April, which means they are subject to change periodically. At the same time, these minimum guidelines are just that — minimum — and you’re likely to receive more than that every week, sometimes substantially more, depending on a number of factors.
Earning More than the Bare Minimum
If you are a foster carer, you’re likely earning more than bare minimum allowances, especially if you foster through an agency. Depending on the specific skill set you bring to the table your compensation will increase a commensurate amount, as this enables you to provide much more specialised care to foster children who need it. Additionally, foster children with especially demanding needs, such as intensive medical care or who have specific accommodation requirements, also provide foster carers with higher compensation amounts to ensure any financial requirements of that care are provided for effectively.
The end result is that foster carers almost always earn much more than the minimum. In some cases, such as with Perpetual Fostering, foster carer compensation can range from £300 to as high as £650 per week per child. In instances where your foster children need especially intense care it makes sense to be compensated so well, as it’s likely you will be providing foster care as a full-time job at that point.
On the subject of benefits and compensation, it’s also important to note that foster carers receive some substantial tax benefits as well. You receive a tax exemption on the first £10,000 you earn as a carer every year, plus up to a maximum of an additional £10,400 to £13,000 per child you foster. This second bit of tax relief is dependent on how many weeks of the year you foster that child, which makes the figure variable.
The Final Word on What It’s Like to Be a Foster Carer
There’s a lot that goes into being a foster carer. It begins with the process of becoming a carer in the first place, which requires you to prove to a local authority or foster agency that you’re a good fit for the job. Since fostering is a long-term commitment, it’s only fitting that this process can take up to six months as you provide your agency with all the information they need to make an informed decision as to your suitability.
Being a foster carer also means seeking out training for the skills you need to help the children you’re looking after effectively. This skills training begins during your application process and continues throughout your tenure as a foster carer, as you’re likely to run into situations that will require you to gain specialised knowledge and expertise.
Meanwhile, just as anyone who cares for their own children, you’re likely to run into situations that getting advice from others would be beneficial. Foster carers can turn to their agency social workers, their experienced mentors, and their fellow foster families nearby for advice or aid, and doing so regularly helps you become a better foster carer. It also provides a better life for the children that are placed with you.
The fact that you are compensated so generously for being a foster carer is a major benefit. Knowing that you’re unlikely to run into any financial difficulties whilst providing care to a foster child makes it easier to provide that care as effectively as possible. This helps your foster child grow as you aid in preparing them for adulthood without any distractions.
There is always a measure of uncertainty when it comes to fostering children. While you will work closely with your social worker on placement preferences, the social dynamics that arise between you and your foster child are always different. Some foster children may only be in your care for a few days or weeks; others may be more longer-term, lasting for several months at a time. Eventually, though, your time together is bound to come to an end as the child you’re fostering moves on to the next phase of their growth.
This can be an emotional time for all. It’s common for foster children to integrate nearly completely into an existing foster family, growing close to other adults and children already in your home. Moving on is never easy, especially in these situations where bonds have been established and run deep. By the same token, however, parting ways with a foster child that has become part of your family can leave some of the warmest and most cherished memories behind. These memories can easily last a lifetime, making the act of being a foster carer one of the most deeply rewarding jobs you will ever have.
It takes a lot to be an effective foster carer. You need compassion, patience, and diligence in spades to open your heart to children in need. The rewards, though, are worth every moment. That’s what being a foster carer is truly like.
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