Sheffield foster carer calls for urgent reform to help ‘damaged’ young children

Foster carer Karen Taylor-Pownall, with Josh Hobson, left, aged 19, of Gleadless, and Shaun Wilkins, aged 26, of Cantley, Doncaster, both of whom were previously in foster care.
Foster carer Karen Taylor-Pownall, with Josh Hobson, left, aged 19, of Gleadless, and Shaun Wilkins, aged 26, of Cantley, Doncaster, both of whom were previously in foster care.

A Sheffield foster carer has slammed the ‘soul-destroying’ fostering system and called for widespread change to the way vulnerable young people are dealt with.

Karen Taylor-Pownall, aged 45, from Audrey Road, Intake, has been a foster carer for more than 10 years.

But she says the system is letting young people down by forcing them to move out before they might be ready.

“It starts with a care plan at 15 and a half years old – the time when kids are working hard on their GCSEs,” she said.

“It’s a really hard time for these kids as it is, and they are being asked to think about having to cook, managing budgets and look after themselves so they can move out when they turn 18.

“It robs them of a childhood.

“Some children might be ready by 18, but I don’t think we should be forcing the issue. It’s pressure these kids don’t need.

“They need to know they can stay somewhere stable.”

She said the damage some youngsters have suffered in their childhood means they may not be ready to move out by the time they turn 18 or even 21.

“A lot of kids who go into the foster system have been subjected to physical abuse, neglect, or have been sexually abused,” she said.

“I have met kids who have had problems with drugs, self-harm, and attempted suicide, shoplifted, unwanted teenage pregnancies. 
“They are scarred by that, and have all that fear behind them.”

She said that those who have been in foster care are more likely to go down a bad path.

She added: “They should be looking forward to celebrating their 18th birthdays, but they can’t because they have to be worrying about moving out to a flat, or into a hostel.”

For youngsters looking to stay on at their foster homes post-18, a law change in 2014 means a young person can stay with their foster carer until aged 21 in some cases.

Karen said: “The ‘staying put’ scheme is supposed to address these things, but there’s small print.

“You have to sign a contract and it says ‘you are now the landlord and you are the tenant’. Can you imagine how soul destroying that is for the child?

“The young person has to be in education, employment or training. If they aren’t, they cancel that agreement and the young person is put in a hostel.

“So it’s hanging over that young person’s head the whole time.”

Karen is calling on Government to support foster children for longer, not only because of the issues they face but to bring such youngsters in line with a growing societal norm of young adults being supported well after their teenage years and into adulthood.

She said: “The average age for leaving home has increased by 25 per cent since 1996, in some cases being 34 and still at home. These kids would love the chance to do that.

“We need to do more.”

Head of fostering services at Sheffield Council Jon Banwell said: “I can’t disagree with some of the things she is saying. 
“What we are trying to do is work with young people to smooth these rough edges and make sure that both foster carers and young people both feel valued.”

He said the council had set up a group of young people who it consults with to help shape its services, and it plans to add care leavers to that group.

“In the past there have been accusations that the young person doesn’t have a choice. We’re trying to bring the young person’s voice into it.

“The aim is, at the age of 15, to start talking about the future. If the plan feels regimented and ‘you have to move’ then we’ve failed.

“We encourage young people to come and talk to us and we will try to help them.”

* It is not just foster carers, but young people who are calling for changes to the foster care system.

Shaun Wilkins, now aged 25, from Sheffield but living in Doncaster, is a former foster child who moved into a hostel aged 18.

Josh Hobson, aged 19, from Sheffield, was also a former foster child who has moved out of the system.

Both of them have joined Karen in calling for reform to the system.

Shaun said: “I remember going into my own flat and just crying, feeling so alone.

“I know there will be kids out there who will be thinking about suicide because they are on their own.

“People say ‘why don’t you celebrate Christmas’ and I tell them because Christmas is for families, and I don’t have a family.

“There are so many young adults out there who have got no choice, who have no option in what they want to do.

“Families normally help a young adult and support them in what they want to do.

“What winds me up is the system. They say they care about you, but it all comes down to money from the government’s perspective.

“The Government stops paying when you turn 18 or 21. No young person should have a price tag on their head.

“If a stranger is being introduced into a family, and they become used to that family, why do they then have to go at 18?

“It all comes down to money. They can’t pay you any more, so you have to move out.

“The Government needs to look at it.

“There are foster carers out there who consider it just a job. No foster child should just be a job.

“All that foster child wants is love. I would say to foster carers who just do it for money - don’t become a foster carer.”

* Could you do something to help? A fostering agency is searching for people in Sheffield to become foster carers.

Independent agency Fostering Solutions has launched its ‘Foster15’ campaign to encourage carers to come forward.

A total of 1,825 people are being looked after by local authorities across South Yorkshire, including 535 in Sheffield.

To get in touch with Fostering Solutions call phone 0800 1601605.

To contact Sheffield Council’s fostering service, call 0114 2735075.