Cost of living crisis could force many foster carers to quit, exclusive survey finds

Lucy Watson heard from two dedicated foster carers who feel they cannot give any more

We travelled from the south-west to the north-west and ended our journey in the capital to find out just how the cost of living crisis is affecting those who foster, those at the heart of our care sector.

It is a drained and tired system that was already at breaking point, but the cost of living crisis is pushing those on its frontline to the point of giving up.

Mandy Worsley has been fostering babies for five years. John Stokes has been a single, foster dad to different teenagers for more than three decades. Both think their next household bill will force them to decide if it is all too much and they have to give up.

John has made his house a home for more than 100 children over 30 years in Gloucestershire. He told me how fostering opened his eyes to what young people often endure.

"I grew up in a household where there was plenty of love, plenty of support. I thought everyone lived like that until I went into fostering. You just see the lives they've had."

Fostering teenagers is his full time job, but he's paid barely the minimum wage to do it. He told us that in six years, his allowance has gone up by less than a pound a week.

John Stokes has been a single, foster fad to different teenagers for more than three decades. Credit: ITV News

He said: "It's cut to the bone. I've looked after car thieves, I've looked after burglars, I've looked after all sorts of young people and it can be stressful, but nothing is a stressful as thinking we can't afford to pay the bills."

His voice faltered, he took a deep breath and sighed when he told me just how tough things are at the moment.

"In the last three weeks I've had two youngsters who left me 20 years ago, who've never rung before, ringing up for help, saying 'we can't feed the kids'.

"As a carer, you have to do something about that."

He had tears in his eyes. Next month he expects his rent to rise again. It will likely stop him fostering all together.

"The biggest thing we offer as a carer is safety, security and sanctuary. If you take that away, after you have given that to somebody, that's the worst. If I give up, they've lost."

In six years, John's fostering allowance has gone up by less than a pound a week. Credit: ITV News

We then drove 180 miles north, where, while the home was a different one, the situation wasn't.

We went to visit Mandy who fosters a 16-month-old boy she looks after round the clock, as well as having two children of her own, and she is struggling with the cost of everything. She dreads it when the post comes.

"I'm getting a letter from my mortgage company every week. And you are panicking, thinking 'how much is it going to go up by because your fostering allowance hasn't gone up'."

Her mortgage has increased by £200 a month, her electricity risen by another £100, but the fostering allowance hasn't changed in more than a decade, she says.

"It can't go on. Just the basic figures don't add up," she said. For local authority foster carers it ranges between £1 and £1.50 an hour, and that £1.50 an hour hasn't changed for 12 years. 12 years!" And in every region in the country, different councils provide foster carers with different allowances.

John has pictures of those he has fostered over the years hanging on his wall. Credit: ITV News

The government recommends a foster carer gets from between £137 - £240 a week, but the Fostering Network - the UK's leading fostering charity - says that carers actually need between £215 to £324 per week.

Their needs are hugely underestimated, they say. Carers are dipping into their own pockets, their own savings and getting other jobs to survive, or simply stopping doing it.

Mandy is deeply worried. Every tiny aspect of looking after the baby boy in her care has gone up in price, from the nappies he wears, to the food he eats, to the milk he drinks, to the fuel she needs to take him five times a week to see his birth parents. I asked her what her biggest fear is.  

"It's the fact that I will have to stop," she replied.

"That is the biggest fear. There are so many children out there who need foster carers. The need is growing but the foster caring community is shrinking."

And she's right. There already was a recruitment and retention problem within the fostering system that is now worsening.

About 70,000 children are looked after by foster families in the UK, all young, vulnerable lives.

When the state decides a child should be in foster care, it becomes the state's responsibility to pay for it. All UK governments agree to that principle, but in practice children, right now, aren't getting what they need, and those who give them what they need are finding it difficult to manage.  

Mandy Worsley has been fostering babies for five years. Credit: ITV News

"Seventy per cent of foster carers have said they've considered giving up fostering," the Fostering Network told me, after they carried out an exclusive survey for us.

Their head of policy is Vicki Swain. She has worked with foster families for 21 years, and wants the government to step up to its responsibilities, and support carers much more financially.

"Foster carers are in it to make a difference to these young people and governments are exploiting that. They are the corporate parents of these children and yet they are relying on foster carers to essentially subsidise the state. That is not right."

We pressed the Department of Education for an interview, to ask them why they can't help foster parents more.

They didn't grant us one. Instead, they said: "Foster carers make a lifelong difference to the lives of vulnerable children, and we encourage more people to come forward so there are enough carers available to provide them with safe, loving homes.

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"We are working with councils to help boost the number of foster carers, so that children have access to the right placements at the right time.

"Eight million of the most vulnerable households will get at least £1,200 of cost-of-living support this year on top of benefit from the Energy Price Guarantee - meaning they will be eligible for support which exceeds the average rise in energy bills by hundreds of pounds."

But a carer's investment in a child - of course - is more than just financial, as John explained to me.

"You come into this to care and it's not a tap, you can't switch it off."

As he speaks to me, behind him on the wall are photographs of the many children he's looked after, who've benefitted from the life-changing act of fostering.

Marcus Stout was sitting beside us. He's 24 and was fostered by John at 13. He has Asperger syndrome, and, as an adult, no longer lives with John, and John no longer gets paid to look out for him but he does.

He buys him his weekly shop, he comes round to the house regularly. I asked Marcus what John has brought to his life. He had one word.

"Joy." He then said, "A lot of joy. He gave me a reason to live at a time that was darkest for me."

Every tiny aspect of looking after the baby boy in Mandy's care has gone up in price, Credit: ITV News

The conversation then moved on to Christmas plans, who was going to cook the big dinner, who was going to make the pudding. It made me smile. There were four people in that room, on a wet night, watching television and none of them were related but they were a family, like any other.

Young people and children deserve an environment like that to grow and to thrive. It is kindness and human connection that get us through hard times, but this crisis is depriving young lives of both.