Foster care is the main form of alternative care for children who cannot, for a number of reasons, be looked after in their own home. There are now approximately 4,000 children and young people under 18 years of age in the care of approximately 3,146 foster carers. Health boards continually recruit foster carers to meet demands for placements and to replace foster carers who cease fostering.
There are more than 91 children in residential care awaiting a foster care placement. The health boards are actively working towards providing appropriate foster care placements for these children. In 2003, the total funding spent by the health boards in the provision of financial support to foster carers was approximately €66.83 million. In 2001, the working group report on foster care was published. The report contains a wide range of recommendations designed to ensure that the structures and services necessary to meet the needs of children in foster care, their families and foster carers be strengthened and further developed. The Government is committed to implementing the recommendations of the report on a phased basis.
This report noted that the foster care allowance was not adequate to meet the needs of children in foster care and it recommended that the allowance be increased, alleviating the need for foster parents to apply to health boards for every extra financial need of their foster children. Before August 2001, the allowance was €90.85 per week for a child under 12 years and €108.88 per week for a child of 12 years and over. In line with the report the allowance was increased substantially and the current rates of payment are €289.50 and €316.50 per week, respectively.
Another important recommendation of the working group report was the development of national standards incorporating planning and key performance indicators for the foster care service. A committee was set up in 2001 to formulate these standards, taking into account the representative views of all bodies and individuals involved in foster care, including the children themselves. The national standards for foster care, along with a children's version, were launched in April 2003. The standards will serve as a basis for consistently promoting quality of care in the foster care services.
The standards include good practice procedures relating to the recruitment and retention, support and training of foster carers. I am confident that the standards will significantly improve the quality of our foster care services and encourage new foster care applicants. It should also be noted that, in parallel with these developments, the health boards undertake local initiatives on an ongoing basis to recruit foster carers. These initiatives include prominents displays of promotional materials, advertisements in local media and sponsorship of events organised in conjunction with the Irish Foster Care Association.
As the Deputy will be aware, foster care placements may not always meet the specific needs of individual children. A broad spectrum of services are required, therefore, to meet the needs of the children in our care, for example, family support services, foster care placements, residential placements and youth advocacy programmes.