Finding their place

Foster carers are often the oldest, lowest-paid and least trained people in childcare, and obtaining parity across the workforce should be addressed, writes Henry Hepburn

the failure to pay foster carers is a "scandal" that should be addressed by the introduction of professional qualifications, it was suggested this week.

Bryan Ritchie, director of The Fostering Network Scotland, described the country's ageing population of foster carers - the average age is 49 - as a "time bomb". He said that they were the least well-trained, most isolated and lowest-paid workers in childcare - despite being the most important factor in improving the well-being of children in foster care. He proposed the professionalisation of the foster care workforce as the answer to this "paradox". This would include payment of carers, a code of conduct, training, registration, and support in dealing with allegations: "It remains a scandal that less than half of all foster carers in Scotland receive a fee," he said.

Mr Ritchie explained that registration would create equal status with other social care workers and increase public confidence. He added that dealing with allegations was a "very real risk" for many foster carers, and that failure to set up a support system could make some people give up fostering. He suggested a limit on the number of children placed with carers, explaining that the stress of multiple placements could lead to the loss of fosterers.

The proposals were presented at a one-day conference in Edinburgh this week and prompted one delegate to ask whether paying foster carers might undermine their relationship with children. In response, Mr Ritchie asked if anyone would question the validity of paying other people who perform important roles with children, such as teachers.

Meanwhile, an announcement of pound;7 million funding from the Scottish Executive means that vulnerable children in care and fostering could see their homes improve. Residential units and schools across Scotland will receive pound;5 million to improve decor and provide facilities that encourage learning. Foster carers and kinship carers can apply for a share of pound;2 million to make it easier to care for children.

Deputy Education Minister Robert Brown made the announcement at the conference. "To fulfil their potential, children need to feel safe and secure at home," he said. "They need high-quality care and access to facilities that can help them flourish socially and in education. It is our responsibility to ensure that the often vulnerable children who are in care have everything they need to succeed. We must invest in them and their future.

"Whether that means providing essential equipment to families to help them care for foster children, or buying computer equipment and building outdoor play areas at residential schools, we know it makes a difference. That must be a priority for everyone involved in their care if we are to ensure that every child gets the best start in their lives."

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