Last week in Bournemouth, I presented at the annual National Children and Adults Services Conference about the rising numbers of children in care in England. I talked of the implications for future service provision and along with other sector leaders, highlighted the worrying set of ‘insufficiencies’ in the care and family justice systems currently. This includes shortages of social workers, foster carers, adopters, judges, therapeutic help and secure accommodation beds, to name just a few.
I said – and think – that we need to approach some resource shortages by re-visiting some of our current assumptions. An example I gave was positive recruitment of suitable foster carers and adoptive parents in their fifties and sixties. By and large these are an excluded group, with older carers only being approved as an exception. My view is that there are many older experienced parents with a proven track record in caring for children and who understand children. Training and mentoring can help potential older carers understand the needs of children who have been neglected, abused or traumatised, just as new younger carers are helped.
Older parents can often bring a network of support with them – relatives and friends – who can become a family, team or community raising a vulnerable child or young person. With the busy lives parents lead today, all children benefit from having a small pool of caring adults who can help to look after them. An isolated nuclear family model is a far more difficult caring proposition. Inclusive parenting is a safeguard for children, which is why disputes in private law cases are so unfortunate for children – the children involved would benefit dramatically from an absence of conflict and building up relationships with a wide adult network of families and friends.
To recruit the foster carers and adoptive parents we need in the future, agencies have to reach out to groups they have ignored before or not communicated effectively with. Older parents as a group in society have a seriously untapped capability. We should actively seek their engagement and put them through the same rigorous process as everyone else, but without a bias against age. With 50% of babies born today likely to live to 100, we need to think of fifty and sixty somethings as at the tail end of middle age, not as being on the edge of old age or well into it. Becoming foster carers or adoptive parents could be a positive retirement option, for those who would like to spend two decades or more helping some of the most vulnerable children in the country.