Roar writer Natalia Vasnier on the fostering crisis in England brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, and the difficulties fosters and regulators face in solving it.

There had been a surge in the number of children who need foster care due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The UK’s leading children’s charity, Barnardo’s, issued a statement announcing that between April and December 2020, the number of children requiring fostering in England rose by 57% compared to the same period in 2019. As the charity’s chief executive put it: “We urgently need more potential foster carers to come forwards. If you’re over 21, have a spare room and the time and commitment to support a child in need, please do consider getting in touch today”.

However, such an increase is not a surprise given the current context. Constant lockdowns have caused the closures – or even disappearances – of many businesses. Covid-19 has put pressure on vulnerable families who are facing increasing poverty and mental health problems, which can lead to family breakdowns. Barnardo’s also referenced countless testimonies by children trapped in lockdown homes, where they find themselves victims of sexual and domestic abuse. The vulnerable and tragic situations these children find themselves in are only likely to worsen as the pandemic continues.

Due to the increased number of children in foster care, the need for more foster families and carers willing to take in these children and young adults has become apparent.

First of all, it is important to understand what foster care is. Traditional foster care is aimed at providing emergency and short-term care to children in need. This would then transform into long-term care, if needed, in order to ensure the children’s safety and wellbeing. Foster care seeks to provide children the chance to live a family life when they cannot be cared for by their own families. It is also a form of state intervention used when familial circumstances endanger the child.

There are two crises surrounding foster carers today. The first it the increased need for foster carers due to the higher number of children entering care. The second is their demand to be considered a part of the social care workforce in order to receive the vaccine earlier than they would otherwise.

The Fostering Network has put forward some statistics concerned the number of children in care and in foster families. In March 2020, out of 80,080 children in English care, 72% were looked after away from home. Many of these children have experienced physical violence and trauma, making them more vulnerable to the challenges Covid-19 restrictions pose. The implementation of consecutive national lockdowns has resulted in restrictions on meetings between homes and forced children to meet online with friends, mentors, and biological relatives. As is the case for many families, being separated from family members and others essential to the lives and well-being of these children has made things overly complicated. However, the UK government has taken these difficulties into account and has allowed siblings who do not live in the same home to meet each other. This is good news for the children in care, as they can still maintain a relationship with their family during this difficult and trying time in their lives.

This issue must be dealt with at the source, and the UK has understood that. A £4.4 million support package was recently issued, intended to allow vulnerable families to access vital services. A further £4.2 million will be given to a group of charities, supporting the “See, Hear, Respond” programme until March 2021. In the situation we are currently facing, the government should privilege looking in the long-term. Indeed, supporting families before they arrive at the tipping point of family breakdown is essential. It should not be overlooked that the UK government has already provided Covid-19 contingency plans to support vulnerable people, but there is still a rise in the numbers of children in need of foster care despite this support.

This is why an appeal has been made to people over 21 years of age who have a spare room, as well as the time and commitment necessary support a child, to consider fostering. This call is very inclusive. Barnardo’s fostering services have stated that they welcome people from all walks of life: single people, those from the LGBTQ+ community, and of all ethnic backgrounds.

The latter crisis foster carers face is to the carer workforce itself. During the pandemic, the people who have stepped in to become foster carers are accepting considerable risks by taking in young people who might have been exposed to the virus. In addition, government regulations that allow children to keep in touch with their parents and to meet with social workers expose these foster families to the risk of contracting Covid-19. According to Ofsted figures, 65% of foster carers in England are over 50, and a quarter are aged over 60. They help society greatly by taking in these children and young adults. However, if carers were to be prioritised, other groups who are more vulnerable to the virus would be placed at risk longer. Either scenario is less than ideal.

The situation is undoubtedly complicated, but I think we should not focus on the risks that foster families run when taking in children. Instead, we should encourage and find people who are willing to take care of these children in foster care – children who are more vulnerable than ever before.

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