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Local authorities ill prepared for future growth in foster care

The number of children needing foster care is set to increase by 30% by 2030, but many local authorities are already failing to fulfill their legal obligations to children in foster care, the Social Market Foundation has warned.

The cross-party thinktank predicts a 30% rise in the number of foster children by 2030 meaning 77,000 children will need foster placements. However the thinktank says many local authorities are failing to fulfil their legal obligations to provide foster care that meets children’s need and are not planning for the predicted future increase.

Matthew Oakley, Senior Researcher at the Social Market Foundation, said: “Children requiring foster care are some of the most vulnerable in society. With the right placements, providing the support and care they need, these children can be given the same life chances as children without care experience.

“But this is not happening. Local authorities are abjectly failing to meet their legal duties to plan for and provide foster placements that meet the needs of children needing foster care.”

Failure to provide appropriate foster care can mean that siblings are split up when they are fostered. Ofsted data reveals that one in eight (13%) children needing foster care as part of a sibling group are “not placed to plan”. In total, there were 8,360 instances of children in England being not placed to plan between 2015/16 – 2019/20.

The SMF highlights that local authorities have a legal requirement to “…ensure that there is sufficient accommodation for [looked after] children that meets their needs and is within their local authority area”. This includes being able to “…predict demand for both the quantity and quality of services, drawing on a wide range of available national, regional and local data including individual care plans and individual assessments.”

To this end, the SMF sent out Freedom of Information requests to all 151 local authority fostering agencies, asking them what they know about their provision of places for sibling groups and what they expect future demand from these groups to look like.

  • 9 provided a numerical response
  • 12 failed to provide a response
  • 18 gave a direction of travel/broad assumption
  • 112 said it was no possible/unavailable

A failure to forecast future needs was contributing to thousands of children not being placed “to plan” due to a lack of adequate available placements which meet the needs of foster children, said the SMF report.

Official statistics on capacity in the foster care system are disguising the problem, the SMF said, as they only measure the number of children requiring placements and the number of placements available.

The thinktank slams the figures as “misleading and inaccurate” as they say little about whether these placements can actually meet the needs of children requiring foster care (for example, whether they are able to meet the needs of specific sibling groups, disabled children or those with specific support needs).

The report urges the Department for Education, Ofsted, local councils and independent foster providers to produce a nationally coordinated measure of “effective capacity” – based on needs and circumstances.

Local and national officials must recognise that it is not the overall number of places available that matters but the appropriateness of those places and whether they meet the needs of children who need placing with foster families.

Matthew Oakley added: “The Department for Education and local authorities must work together urgently to turn this around. We need a new national strategy for ensuring the foster care system has effective capacity and much more support for local authorities to meet their legal duties.

“There can be good reasons for separating siblings in some cases, but doing so because the council has not planned enough appropriate fostering provision is inexcusable. These are vulnerable children who have already faced trauma and turmoil, so it is appalling that the state should then inflict additional strain on them,” he concluded.

President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services Charlotte Ramsden said: “The majority of children in our care live in foster families and ensuring that we find the right placement, at the right time with the right support is one of the highest priorities for all local authorities. We are all ambitious about improving outcomes for these children and we cannot do it without the vital support that foster carers provide. However, there remains a national shortage of foster carers while ADCS research shows that the number of children in care has risen by a third in the past 12 years. At the same time, the needs of the children and young people who we support are becoming more complex. We therefore call on the government to work with councils on a campaign that encourages more people to come forward and become foster carers.

“ADCS members also remain concerned about the significant profits being made by a small number of organisations from fostering. Such practices cannot be justified, and we reiterate our earlier call on government to replicate the Scottish legislation which prevents for-profit operations in this area. We hope that the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care addresses this issue and offers solutions,” she added.

Fostering the future: Helping local authorities to fulfill their legal duties

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