A chronic shortage of foster carers in the wake of the Baby P case may spell a return to Oliver Twist-style children’s homes, experts warned.

Figures reveal there are 10,000 fewer foster families than are needed after an “unprecedented rise” in the number of youngsters being taken into care. 
But while the number of children needing placements soars, the rate of people applying to become carers is plummeting. 
In total, 53,934 children in the UK needed a foster home in 2009, compared with 51,009 in 2007. 
With looming public sector cuts expected to put more pressure on local government resources, the country’s fostering system is straining at “breaking point”.  
The crisis is now so acute that experts fear the Government will have no choice but to build “Dickensian” children’s homes to cope with the shortfall.

Cathy Glass, one of Britain’s most prolific foster carers and an established author on the subject, said it was “only a matter of time” before such institutions were needed. The UK’s fostering system is in dire straits,” she said.

Put simply, there are an increasing number of vulnerable children needing residential placements, and a serious shortfall of foster parents available.

“Following the Baby P case, this number will continue to rise and, if left unabated, the authorities will have no option but to house them in children’s homes like those of the 19th century.”

Eight out of 10 local authorities reported an increase in foster children last year – a total of about 70,000 children nationally – on top of a five per cent rise in 2008-09. The rise has been blamed in the number of babies and toddlers being taken into care following the case of Peter Connelly, or Baby P, in 2009. 
Local authorities urgently need at least 5,250 foster carers to come forward this year alone to look after children who cannot live with their own parents because of abuse or neglect. The shortage is most acute in Manchester and the North West of England, where 760 carers are needed by the end of the year. There are also severe problems in London, the South East and East Anglia, according to research by the Fostering Network charity.

Although there have previously been reports of a shortage of foster carers, this is the first time that the exact shortfall has been calculated. 
The shortage of carers often results in brothers and sisters being forced to live apart if the carers available can take only one or two children. 
It also causes unsuitable placements, such as teenagers living with carers who specialise in looking after babies. 
The only “escape route”, experts fear, is the creation of a series of gigantic children’s homes capable of housing hundreds of youngsters. 
Glass – whose latest book Mummy Told Me Not To Tell tells the story of a damaged toddler in care – blames the Government and local authorities for the shortfall.

“Successive governments have played lip service to funding more foster placements without actually giving local authorities the cash to do it,” she said.

“With a shortage of foster carers Local authorities are forced to place children through expensive private fostering agencies to ease the pressure – rather than investing in long-term strategies. Also local councils lose foster carers faster than they can recruit them because of lack of support and parity with other professionals working in social care. Time and time again I receive emails from new foster carers who are enthusiastic and committed but a year into their role and they are disheartened and are thinking of resigning largely because of the shoddy treatment they have received at the hands of the Local Authority. With no funding to improve the situation councils will have to look for alternatives which may be the creation of large-scale children’s homes.”

She added: “By placing children in such buildings, we run the risk of insitutionalising youngsters from the outset.”

Speaking earlier this year, Robert Tapsfield of the Foster Network appealed for more people to come forward.

“Without these much-needed new foster carers, too many children will continue to be denied stability in their home and school life, which is key to success later on,” he said.

Foster carers are the backbone of the care system for children and foster families care for 68 per cent of ‘looked after’ youngsters. On any one-day, more than 50,000 children are living with 43,000 foster families. Placements vary from a few months to several years.

For more information visit:  cathyglass.co.uk

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