In recent years, foster agencies across the state and independent sectors have struggled to recruit foster carers. The average age of UK foster carers is now in the mid-50s and young people are not coming forward to replace carers who retire, mainly because of the need for guaranteed levels of income and housing realities which mean they often do not have spare rooms. Fostering has reached out to people from ethnic minorities and to people of different sexualities, but it has not reached out to disabled people, many of whom are already successful parents.
The University of Worcester, in partnership with Shaping Our Lives Service User and Disabled People Network and the Foster Care Co-operative were funded by the National Lottery to carry out a piece of research into the potential of disabled people as foster carers. This project was part of a raft of projects managed by DRILL (Disabled Research on Independent Living and Learning) and took place across England over the last two years.
An initial survey to 600+ fostering agencies returned only a handful of responses, suggesting that the potential of disabled carers was not at the top of anyone’s recruitment priorities. Undeterred, the research team followed up the positive responses and found four agencies willing to participate. Two were in the statutory sector, one private and one of charitable status. Unfortunately, the charity pulled out of the project after a year, a management takeover determining that the project was not of sufficient merit to warrant further staff time. Sadly, this type of attitude is what has partly contributed to the continuing absence of disabled people in the fostering workforce.
Each pilot site filled in a questionnaire about disability awareness, leading to a customised training package delivered by Becki Meakin, a visually impaired person who is the General Manager of Shaping Our Lives. At the same time, disabled members of the research steering group carried out an audit of the foster organisations’ websites to see whether they were ‘disability-friendly’, making recommendations about wording, font size and the absence of disabled role models. Advice was also given about accessibility to premises because an agency that a wheelchair user cannot access via the front door or a disabled toilet used as junk store do not give out the message that disabled people are part of their world.
Most websites nowadays openly encourage applicants who are from a diverse range of backgrounds but do not even mention that disabled people can be foster carers (check out your own agency website and let management know if this is the case). Phrases like you must be ‘fully fit and healthy’ and medical assessments that do not take a holistic view of a person’s potential also give out the wrong message – how many of you current foster carers reading this article are ‘fully fit’? What does that phrase really mean and how might it be changed to reflect playing to a disabled person’s strengths? The disabled champions – Jon, Linda and Alison who you will see on the research report’s accompanying video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WWJry7Pr4k&t – all talk about how they play a full role in fostering, even if they can’t do a 100-yard sprint or climb trees in the park. Whether a single carer or caring with a partner, these exceptional individuals are first-class foster carers, supported by agencies who embrace disability for its strengths. Jon, Linda and Alison are exceptional people, but disabled fostering applicants should not have to be exceptional in that they may have persevered despite been turned down two or three times by agencies, usually without interview. All disabled people who can demonstrate an ability to care safely for a child should be given equal opportunity to succeed in the fostering world and their resiliencies and insights valued as strengths. As with any foster care approval, matching is the key to success and if we had more foster carers to choose from then matching would be more of a reality than it currently is, the nationwide shortages of carers meaning that children may be placed a long way from home and sometimes split up from siblings.
The research also found that staff were sometimes uncomfortable when discussing working with disabled adults, their personal and working lives not having included such contacts. They were often unaware of the detail of the Equality Act 2010 and unaware of financial and practical support available outside of their agencies’ own resources, such as ‘Access to Work’, a government initiative designed to help disabled people into employment.
The University of Worcester and Shaping Our Lives are developing an online training package to continue the work of the ‘Mutual Benefits’ research project and hope that this will further help bring about the much-needed culture change in respect of disabled people’s inclusion within foster care. The ‘Mutual Benefit’s Report is available at http://www.drilluk.org.uk/mutual-benefits-the-potential-of-disabled-people-as-foster-carers/