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Could disabled people be the answer to the fostering crisis?

08 October 2020

Many disabled people are prevented from fostering children due to negative attitudes and unnecessary barriers, a study published today suggests.

The report, Mutual Benefits: The Potential of Disabled People as Foster Carers, concludes that thousands of disabled people could help relieve the long-standing recruitment crisis in the sector – if they are given the chance. Figures suggest there’s a need for an additional 8,500 foster carers across the UK.

Significantly, the report says, Ofsted collects data on the age and ethnicity of foster parents but it does not monitor the numbers of disabled people involved in fostering.

The two year project included surveys, accessibility audits and training workshops with staff from four fostering agencies and with 21 foster carers – including twelve disabled people.

Most agency staff recognised that – with appropriate support – disabled people could be good foster parents and act as role models for disabled children and young people.

However, they acknowledged that everyday practice in the sector put avoidable barriers in the way of disabled people. During initial surveys, several questioned the ability of foster parents with significant disabilities to care for children, fearing the child could take on a caring role for the foster parent.

The report says that agencies are doing little to encourage disabled people to apply to foster. Disabled people face unnecessary barriers – such as inaccessible buildings, information systems and support structures – that could be easily addressed at little or no cost. Foster agency websites do not often mention disabled foster parents and rarely have positive images of disabled foster parents.

One disabled foster parent told the research team that she initially felt ‘pushed aside’.

After two training sessions delivered as part of the project, agency staff recognised that disabled people’s life experiences equipped them with significant skills that would be important in fostering. These include empathy, understanding and awareness of disability and discrimination, overcoming adversity and resilience.

The agency staff recognised the need for additional training for colleagues and changed practices in their workplaces. Acknowledging they know little about the social model of disability, several said that despite placing disabled children with foster parents they have little experience of working with disabled adults.

Participants felt that the training had helped them change attitudes and practice in their workplace and made them more confident about working with disabled people – looking at what they ‘can do’, rather than what they can’t do. One pledged to ask colleagues to look beyond the medical assessment that forms part of the application process. 

However, the report cautioned: “This begs the question of whether others will change their approaches and practice.”

The project also identified uncertainty around benefit rules and the central role of medical assessments in the application process as significant impediments for disabled people seeking to foster.

The project was led by the University of Worcester and the disabled people’s organisation Shaping Our Lives, along with the Foster Care Co-operative. It was supported by a grant from the £5 million DRILL programme (Disability Research on Independent Living & Learning) – the first user-led disability research programme in the world. DRILL is fully funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.

Dr Peter Unwin, principal lecturer of social work at the University of Worcester said:  “Recruitment to foster care has been at crisis point for some time. The huge pool of disabled people in England could make a significant difference to closing that gap, if only they are given the opportunity. Yet disabled people appear to be largely absent from the fostering workforce and the foster parents we interviewed reported initial difficulty during the recruitment process.”

Becki Meakin from Shaping Our Lives said: “Professionals in many fields lack the confidence and knowledge to work effectively with disabled people. Disability equality training is essential to overcoming the exclusion disabled people experience when using services."

Kamran Mallick from Disability Rights UK, which manages DRILL in England said: “Fostering can provide many rewards and a sense of purpose for disabled people. It’s disappointing that this research reveals the sector needs significant cultural change if disabled people are to be given genuine equality of opportunity in this field of work. 

“Social workers and the organisations they work for need to educate themselves about disability, legislation, benefits and the support available for disabled workers through schemes such as Access to Work.”

The report calls for a proactive approach from local authorities and foster agencies to try and encourage more disabled people to consider becoming a foster carer; and more inclusive practices in the foster carer recruitment process.

To find out more about DRILL, or to download a copy of Mutual Benefits: The Potential of Disabled People as Foster Carers, go to www.drilluk.org.uk

Listen to an interview on disabled people fostering on Woman's Hour here: 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000n5dg