Following some major successes, the Independent Workers of Great Britain's Foster Care Workers Branch is setting up a base in Northern Ireland.
The IWGB has been representing foster carers since Sept 2016, with a branch in Scotland since April 2018. We are still so young but are already transforming the working lives of foster carers.
In May 2017, we launched and won Jimmy and Christine’s Johnstone’s case against Glasgow City Council. The Johnstones had been extremely hard working and dedicated foster carers for a number of years, in a specialised scheme which gave children and young people who were experiencing extreme reactions to their situation the chance of living in a family environment.
This was tough, as these young people had complex needs yet the Johnstone’s had always been praised for the very high standard of care they provided. However, after a management change much of the previous support was withdrawn. The Johnstone’s found themselves scapegoated.
This case was hugely significant for all foster carers across the UK, as it was the first time that a UK court had recognised that a foster agreement was also a contract of employment. They, and the other members of the scheme, were awarded employee status by the judge. Glasgow City Council are currently appealing this decision – and we continue to defend the Johnstone’s right to be treated fairly and honestly.
While this was a high profile win, every week we support our members when they are facing difficulties in their fostering career. Our experience has shown that difficulties tend to arise for our members when they have a change of social worker or when something has gone wrong but the ‘system’ needs to find a scapegoat.
Foster carers often have by far the least rights, making it much easier to deregister or dismiss them than a social worker or other employee. Often our members are the ones who take the flak for a series of failures to provide a child with the support they need. We have represented carers who have had received absolutely no training but are blamed for not knowing what they have never been taught. And we have represented people who have had their words subtly altered to place the blame on them rather than an employee. We we represent those who have been kept in the dark about a situation only to find out after it is too late.
Sadly, even after being exonerated people often feel so demoralised after a complaint or unfounded allegation that they often resign rather than return to fostering. Until this stops, there will always be a shortage of skilled foster carers which means that a child is much less likely to be placed with a knowledgeable and well trained foster carer.
On a national level, we have founded the All Party Parliamentary Group on Foster Care Work. We regularly meet the 20 MPs and Peers in this group so they can hear unfiltered voices from the front line of foster care. We have worked closely with John Hendy QC to write our very own draft Foster Care Workers Bill, which he presented to the group. This would bring workers’ rights to all foster care workers across the UK.
We also believe that we need to establish a central licensing body to regulate our profession as a matter of urgency. At the moment there is no overall list of foster carers and each local authority and Independent Fostering Agency can and does decide on what training is given and what standards their foster carers work to.
Foster care needs and deserves the kind of oversight that every other regulated profession has from their licencing body. We are in constant dialogue with MSPs and Counsellors from every political party, as well as civil servants with a view to bringing this change into force. Recently in the Scottish Parliament, Iain Gray MSP gave a speech where he praised our work as a union and called for their to be a central register for foster care workers. In January, we are hosting an event in Scottish Parliament where all our members will have a chance to come and speak to their MSPs.
Our membership continues to grow – and we are now supporting foster carers from the length and breadth of Scotland as well and will soon be entering into collective bargaining agreements with a number of Local Authorities and Independent Fostering Agencies.
That’s why we are now bringing all this expertise to Northern Ireland, where we will be supporting individuals and couples who dedicate their lives to this important task and we look forward to having a constructive working relationship with the Health and Social Care Trusts and the independent agencies who oversee the work of their foster carers.
The IWGB firmly believes that whilst foster care is of course rooted in family life, it is also a job, one that we get paid to do, and one that deserves the stability and security that only comes with recognition as a worker. At the moment children can be removed from our care with no notice for them or us and their lives disrupted yet again because their foster carer is seen as a troublemaker.
This usually happens when a foster carer has been advocating for a child who needs additional support, which the social work department either won’t or can’t provide so we are silenced by the threat of deregistration – in effect dismissal.
If we start valuing those families who look after children who have placed in state care, then we will undoubtedly improve the system.
We are a fighting force for all who work as foster carers, and we’re expanding.
Jane Wright is Chair of the Scotland and Northern Ireland Foster Care Workers Branch of the IWGB.
Find out more here or come to a meeting:
Scotland – Thursday 5th September 10 am. Hillside / Earnock Community Centre 121 Hillhouse Road, Hamilton ML3 9TX. Guest speaker Jason Moyer Lee, General Secretary IWGB.
Northern Ireland – Thursday 19th September 11am: Newcastle Centre 10-14 Central Promenade Newcastle County Down BT33 0JN
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