Fostering is changing. There is one question that any director of children’s services, service lead or fostering manager will have asked themselves recently. How can we address the challenge of fostering recruitment within the context of austerity, increasing numbers of children coming into care and declining fostering applications and approvals?
This question is particularly significant as we find ourselves half-way through The Fostering Network’s Foster Care Fortnight campaign. This year the message is #changeafuture, with The Fostering Network calculating that over 8500 foster families are needed across the UK.
Fostering is changing. Services need to keep up with demand for placements and remain competitive in an increasingly competitive market with growing numbers of independent fostering agencies and even neighbouring local authorities vying for precious foster carer resources. Most importantly, services need to ensure they are providing children and young people with placements that will support their unique and individual needs. In order to achieve this, fostering services need to change too.
In terms of recruiting carers, an independent review of foster care published in 2018 (www.gov.uk/government/publications/foster-care-in-england) noted “much recruitment practice looks old-fashioned with many local authorities”. The review set out some key areas requiring improvement including response to enquiry time, a need to change the focus from why enquirers might not be suitable, and a recommendation to use social media more effectively.
However, despite their commitment and best efforts, local authorities continue to struggle with managing the significant demands of the day job alongside this crucial transformation work. Budget constraints, social work vacancies and service-wide pressures and tensions all compete for attention, which inevitably results in whole service review and developmental work taking a back seat.
Over a year on from the review, I wonder how many services have actually implemented any of the recommendations? Increasing numbers of children coming into care, declining fostering applications and local authorities struggling to manage ever-increasing child protection and child-in-need referrals leaves little time for creative and innovative developmental work. The foster care system is at risk of crumbling under the weight of demand and lack of sufficient resources. The impact of this on children needing safety outside of their family and friends network will be indefensible.
Investment in fostering is badly needed.
So what are the quick wins for fostering recruitment? The following are a good start:
- Know your service need, both current and projected, then recruit carers to meet that need.
- Target marketing and advertising to attract those with altruistic values, who want to make a difference.
- Have a dedicated team that responds quickly and positively to applicants: understand they are the ‘face’ of your fostering service and need to project confidence, competence, professionalism and warmth.
- Robustly track and ‘keep in touch’ with positive applicants who might not quite be ready yet, or whose life circumstances mean the time isn’t quite right. When the time is right, you want them to come to your service.
- Use existing foster carers to support marketing and information events – nothing reassures and attracts new carers like happy existing ones!
It sounds easy doesn’t it?
But the research, and my experience as a fostering consultant, suggests that this isn’t consistently happening.
In the face of increasing pressure, fostering services (both local authorities and independent agencies) have been accused of being “inward facing”. A planned Fostering Live event was recently cancelled due to “lack of support and desire for cohesive-engagement from the majority of independent fostering agencies and local authorities”. The organisers of this event feel this was “a massive missed opportunity”. An acceptance that services need to change and modernise, alongside a significant cultural shift, is needed from the top down if we are to avoid exacerbating the crisis we currently find ourselves in.
Investment in fostering is badly needed. The Local Government Association predicts that councils are facing a £3.1 billion funding gap for children’s services by 2025.
Fostering needs to be affordable in order to attract new carers (and to retain those already in the role). Any foster carer will tell you their allowance doesn’t cover the cost of fostering.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]As a nation we rely on the goodwill of foster carers to fund the difference, which is why altruistic values in those who take on the role are so important.
Improved allowances, perhaps set at a level to account for a lost salary, would have a significant impact on fostering recruitment. That means money, but it will be money well spent. Foster carers are the ones who will get us out of this crisis.
In their State of the Nation’s Foster Care report, The Fostering Network has called for this to be “a year of action”. Fostering services need to take control where they can by reviewing and developing their recruitment practice. Alongside this, the significant hurdle that remains is convincing government to provide adequate budgets to children’s services.
Contributed by Gail Mannion, The Fostering Consultants. She and her team use focussed interventions that will bring noticeable and sustainable change to your organisation; working to improve and promote excellence in fostering provision in the UK.