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"Being a foster carer is the best thing that I've done with my life" - The Guardian

Disabled people say they are rarely used as foster carers, despite a nationwide shortage – even though they are often well placed to fill the gaps

Jon Powton might not fit the image of a typical foster carer. The 44-year-old is a former engineer and has a mild form of muscular dystrophy.

But for the last eight years, he and his wife Denise, 60, have provided a loving home for children who need it in Burnley.

It wasn’t an easy start. When Powton first looked into fostering in 2011, his local authority and an agency rebuffed him. “They thought I was too disabled and my wife was too old,” he explains. But after approaching the National Fostering Agency, he was encouraged to apply. Four days after he was approved as a foster carer, he was assigned his first placement – a teenager – to care for.

Soon afterwards, Powton and his wife started fostering other children. He says he’s never looked back . Powton beams: “It’s the best thing that I’ve done with my life.”

His own positive experience has led him to question why there aren’t more disabled foster carers like him. “I watched an ad campaign about a general shortage of foster carers a few years ago,” he tells me. “It said ‘you can do it if you’re LGBT or black and minority ethnic. The only one that wasn’t mentioned was disability.” Concerned, Powton began to investigate whether anywhere in the country was actively aiming to recruit disabled people into fostering – and nowhere was. “I mean, literally nowhere,” he says.

The University of Worcester has launched groundbreaking research into the nationwide shortfall of disabled foster carers. It aims to discover what barriers stop disabled people from applying to become foster carers, and how these can be overcome.

Initial findings from the research, which is funded by the Drill programme (Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning) and the National Lottery, have identified attitudes, fear of benefit loss, wording used by foster agencies, and lack of role models as barriers to disabled people fostering.

“There’s a stigma attached to disability that determines how agencies view disabled people who might apply to be foster carers,” says Peter Unwin, principal lecturer in social work at the University of Worcester and the project’s lead researcher. “They tend to see only the disability and what you can’t do. It’s a very negative mindset that is robbing children of a caring environment and a potential new home.”

Overcoming these barriers is all the more pressing in light of the current shortfall in foster carers. Latest figures from the Fostering Network show that 8,500 more foster carers are needed across the UK.

Yet when the University of Worcester surveyed almost 500 foster agencies to ask if they had any disabled foster carers on their books, only six responded, of whom only a couple had limited experience of working with disabled people.

The deficit in disabled foster carers reflects the wider exclusion of disabled people from society, not least from employment. Just under half of disabled people aged 16 to 64 are in work, compared with more than 80% of non-disabled people. This gets even worse for some disabilities: just 16% of people with autism are in full-time paid work, while less than 6% of learning-disabled people are in full-time employment. A recent ComRes survey found one in four UK employers are less likely to hire someone with a disability.

Powton knows this all too well. After being made redundant, he was repeatedly rejected for jobs, despite being a qualified engineer. “As soon as the word disability is mentioned, you can hear doors closing,” he says. Fostering was his way into gaining employment but it evolved into something more.

“It isn’t just a job,” he says. “It’s a vocation.”

Jennifer Luton, from Shropshire, who has been a foster carer for almost 20 years, feels the same: “They end up as part of the family. Some call us ‘mum and dad.’”

Luton (who uses a pseudonym to protect her foster children) has a rare form of arthritis, which means she uses a crutch to walk, but it was a damaged spine following a car crash in 2000 that meant she needed to leave her physically demanding job as a social worker. One young boy she was helping at the time inspired what she did next: she retrained as a foster carer to look after him. He’s now 32 and Luton is still in contact with him.

Luton now works full time as a lecturer and is looking after a 14-year-old, as well as an 18-year-old (she doesn’t receive funding for him but keeps a room for him). “He can come home whenever he wants,” she says.

Far from inhibiting her role as a foster carer, she believes her arthritis helps – from teaching children the ups and downs of life (“Regardless of who you are, we all have bad days,” she says) to empathy for other people.

Sometimes the children will do extra chores for her during a flare-up of her arthritis. “And it bonds us as a family,” she explains.

This empathy works both ways: disabled people often know what it is to struggle and are well placed to understand children who are going through their own difficulties, adds Luton. She remembers a 15-year-old boy with learning disabilities who she fostered who was upset he couldn’t be an astronaut when he grew up. “‘I’m going to be a ballerina!’ I said to him. He thought this was hilarious with my crutch. It helped me talk about that fact that, we can’t all do everything, but to ask, what can we do?’”

Her experience neatly demonstrates that having more disabled people fostering can be a win-win situation, from finding an as yet untapped pool of foster carers to helping challenge perceptions of disability and creating positive role models for fostered children. As Luton puts it: “There are lots of young people who desperately need care. And there are lots of disabled people who have a lot to offer.”

Back in Burnley, Powton is hopeful some progress is being made. His agency has moved the training venue for his area to a more local and accessible venue for him (foster carers are required to have continual training), and he knows of 15 other disabled people in the group.

Responding to the new figures on the shortfall in foster families, Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, says: “We encourage everyone who’d like to find out more [about fostering] to get in touch with their local council”.

Powton stresses the maths: there are more than 13 million disabled people in the UK, meaning that “recruiting 0.01% of us” could more than solve the problem of the national shortfall in foster carers.

First, he says, we are all going to have to start talking openly about disability – whether that’s in foster caring or any other walk of life. “The only way this is ever going to change is a frank conversation about how society treats disabled people and what disabled people can do to change things.”

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