AN INCREASE in people working from home because of the pandemic could affect the drive to recruit more foster carers in Dorset.

Dorchester councillor Molly Rennie made the claim at a meeting of Dorset Council’s people and health scrutiny committee on Tuesday.

A lack of space is already one of the reasons why people do not sign up for fostering – and Cllr Rennie believes that is likely to get worse as many people switch to home-working, often taking up the only spare bedroom.

READ MORE: Dorset foster carers praised

"Because of all the changes which have come about because of Covid, people's spare bedrooms have become an office and a lot will never be going back into the office, at least not full time... it could be a huge drawback," said Cllr Rennie.

The annual fostering report reveals that the average age of a foster carer in Dorset is now 57 with many continuing to work well past normal retirement age.

At the end of March 2021 there were 453 children who were being looked after by Dorset Council. Of these 326, or 72% of all children in care, were being looked after by foster carers either through an Independent Fostering Agency (IFA) or with Dorset’s own in-house fostering service.

The figures show that the 207 fostering households had 369 bed spaces between them – yet only 218 children were being cared for with 151 fostering beds not in use.

In ‘mainstream’ fostering places there were 286 bed spaces – with only 144 children placed, less than 50per cent.

Children’s services executive director Theresa Leavy said in an ideal world each of those spaces would be used, but in practise this seldom worked out for a range of reasons.

The committee heard that the situation had been made worse this year by the number of fostering households with beds on hold due to fostering families shielding or other covid-19 related issues, including waiting for a second vaccine.

Other reasons include beds being deliberately held vacant to cope with short-term fostering and difficulties in matching children and other personal or health care issues.

Despite the pandemic the majority of foster carers have continued their duties and from April 2020 to the end of March this year there had been 248 enquiries from the public seeking information about becoming a foster carer. Of these 131 underwent and initial visit and 20 new fostering households were approved.

Since the end of March another 19 mainstream fostering assessments are underway with another 28 “connected persons” assessments in progress. These are often relatives of a child who is being considered for fostering.

The meeting heard that the budget for in-house fostering, fees and allowances for 20/21 of £5.2million has been underspent by £1.1m. It had been based on an average of 231 placements for the year which was below normal levels, mainly because of the pandemic.