Profile of foster carers

Key findings

Who are the carers?

In most studies the majority of foster carers are married couples who have school age children, but there are considerable variations between and within agencies. Campaigns which target certain groups, such as minority ethnic carers, can be very successful.

Successful foster parenting includes:

What young people want

Young people want carers to listen, to be caring, and to encourage them. They resent harsh discipline, so foster carers must draw a fine line between this and providing them with boundaries.

Practice points

What we know from research

Who are the foster carers?

Most foster carers are married couples and most have school age children. There are fewer single carers, working mothers and families with children under five years old. This is true for carers working for local authorities and independent fostering providers and does not appear to have changed much over the years (81-84).

In a national study of independent fostering providers in 2002 (85), the great majority of the total number of 1819 carers surveyed were couples (1416), and most of these were married couples (1268). Comparatively few were single carers (403), and unmarried couples (134), and very few were same sex couples (13).

The majority of carers in this survey were white. There are, however, considerable variations between and within agencies. In one study half the carers were single (86) and in another current research study (82), the proportion of carers in different agencies from an ethnic minority background varied between 0 and 75 per cent. The success of schemes targeted at certain groups, for example black and minority ethnic carers (87), means that recruitment campaigns which target certain carers can be successful.

Successful foster parenting

A central characteristic of successful parenting is providing guidance and control without appearing to be rejecting and undermining self-esteem. Theories suggest that some parenting styles, particularly a style which combines setting boundaries with warmth, work better than others (3).

When children and family and placement social workers were asked to rate carers along a number of dimensions used to measure this parenting style, the carers who scored highly were much less likely to have placement breakdowns.

Research from the specialist fostering schemes suggests that successful carers concentrate on the relationship with the child and on solving problems flexibly within it. They expect their relationship with the young person will survive and they avoid criticism of birth parents and promote contact. Key qualities are the capacity to provide clear limits with empathy and to ensure that the child does not feel rejected (3).

Other research has described the characteristics of successful foster carers in similar ways (17), (27). Carers need to be:

Link: See 'Attachment' by John Simmonds

The section on education and school shows that in order to achieve and to enable children to have a positive school experience, foster carers must support and encourage the child’s schooling (46).

Young people’s views about foster carers: