Recruiting and retaining sufficient foster carers with the right skillset to support vulnerable children continues to pose a problem for local authorities, trusts and independent fostering agencies, the State of the Nation’s Foster Care 2021 has said.
The pressures within the system, and the lack of availability of foster families, results in poorer outcomes for children, with some young people living a long way from family, friends and school or being separated from their siblings.
All but six services reported having a shortage of foster carers to meet the needs of the children in their local population. Teenagers, large sibling groups, children with disabilities and parent and child placements were the areas where there is higher areas of need.
“Retaining enough high-quality foster carers is equally as important as recruiting the right foster families. Recruitment and retention link closely to the issue of status, covered in the foster carer section of the report, and services and foster carers agreed that improving status is key to addressing sufficiency,” said the report by The Fostering Network.
Foster carers need to be committed and competent, with the skills, capacity, motivation, resilience and support to provide children with what they need to thrive.
According to The State of the Nation report, around three-quarters of the 97,000 children looked after in the UK are cared for by foster families. The State of the Nation’s Foster Care Survey heard from 3,352 foster carers and 99 fostering services across the UK. Foster carer respondents were caring for approximately 5,669 children, around 9 per cent of all children living in foster care in the UK.
Matching helps to find children the right foster family, which makes a huge difference to their stability, the success of the placement and future outcomes.
Too many looked after children are experiencing multiple moves, which impacts on their attachments and development. Half of foster carers had experienced one or more children leave their care in the past two years and over a third of foster carers stated that the last planned move for a child they cared for was not preceded by a care planning review.
In each country of the UK, there are valuable schemes in place that enable young people to remain living with their former foster carers until they are 21 (or older in certain circumstances). However just under three quarters of foster carers said they experienced a drop in income as a result of offering a post-18 arrangement as young people in these arrangements are no longer considered looked after which can mean that foster carers have their approval status removed.
The report highlights that these are key barriers to more young people entering post-18 arrangements and may explain why up-take has not increased across the UK since our last survey in 2018.
Valuing the role
Foster carers provide care to children every day and hold a unique and valuable skillset. Improving foster carers’ terms and conditions would help to demonstrate the value of their role as part of the team around the child and ensure the best possible outcomes for the children they care for, says the report.
Foster carers’ income is from an allowance and a fee. The allowance is designed to cover the full costs of looking after a child, yet over a third of foster carers said their allowance does not cover those costs, leaving them out of pocket. There are national minimum allowances in England, Northern Ireland and Wales but there is currently no recommended national minimum allowance for foster carers in Scotland.
The fee recognises the time and skills of the foster carer. The report found that 63 per cent of foster carers who responded stated that they receive a fee payment and this has risen by 6 per cent since the 2016 survey. There is no statutory requirement for fees to be paid by fostering services.
Just nine per cent of foster carers reported receiving more than the National Living Wage per calendar month. This remains the same as when we last surveyed in 2018.
Training and support
Foster carers provide children with 24/7 care within their own homes, and while it is an immensely rewarding role, it can be challenging and complex. Foster carers therefore need support, for example assistance and advice, mental health support, short breaks or peer support.
To meet the needs of children in their care, foster carers should also have access to ongoing learning and development. While 65 per cent of foster carers have an agreed learning and development plan for the next 12 months and this figure has been steadily rising since the 2016 survey, apart from in Wales, there are no national learning and development frameworks for foster carers.
The pandemic has impacted on all parts of society, including foster care.
The report makes a number of recommendations to government including sharing standards for children’s placing authorities, to ensure appropriate information is shared with foster carers to support positive matching. Information from reviews about why children moved care arrangements must be gathered and shared to ensure lessons can be learnt and fed into individual and wider practice learning.
The matching process for long-term foster care should be reviewed and clarified. Governments should also review the approach and processes involved in long-term foster care to ensure children in these types of placements are afforded similar protections and stability to other forms of permanence.
Governments across the UK should undertake a comprehensive review of the minimum levels of fostering allowances set in their respective countries using up to date evidence to ensure that they cover the full costs of looking after a child. Foster care should also be appropriately resourced to ensure foster carers, at the very least, receive regular fee payments in line with the national living wage for a 40-hour week, which recognises their time, skills and expertise regardless of whether they are currently caring for a child. The amount foster carers should receive needs to be reviewed in conversation with foster carers.
The report also makes recommendations for authorities placing children including how the child should have the opportunity to meet the foster carers before they move in. Foster carers should be empowered and confident to have an ongoing dialogue with social workers about the stability of placements. They should also be confident that action will be taken to avoid placement breakdown following any concerns raised. Information from reviews about why children moved care arrangements must be gathered and shared to ensure lessons can be learnt and fed into individual and wider practice learning.
Finally, in relation to recommendations for fostering services, the report urges fostering allowances to be sufficient to cover the full costs of caring for a child and foster carers should receive regular fee payments which recognise their time, skills and expertise and the role they agree to undertake as a foster carer.
All services should have a mental health and well-being support offer for foster carers, the foster carers’ family and the children they look after and fostering services should engage with their foster carers to understand what they need to support their mental health and how these needs are going to be met. Learning can be taken from other sectors such as the support offered to adult social care workers following the pandemic.
Edwina Grant, Chair of the ADCS Health, Care and Additional Needs Policy Committee, said: “Foster carers provide invaluable care and support to children who cannot live within their families. They should absolutely be recognised and valued as a key member of the ‘team around the child’ and should, wherever possible, be able to make day to day decisions about the child they are looking after.
“As the number of children in our care increases so too does our need for more foster carers. It’s crucial that any increase in capacity reflects the profile of children currently in our care, as the report notes there is a particular need for carers who are willing to care for teenagers, large sibling groups and children with complex needs as well as a need for parent and child placements. I would encourage anyone who believes they can offer a loving home and have the right skills to foster to get in touch. We need to retain foster carers too; ensuring foster carers receive high quality training and feel well supported so that they can continue to offer the loving families that children need is a crucial part of this. Local authorities are committed to doing this in the best way we can but the impact of years of austerity and rising need on our services cannot be underestimated. Most local authorities are investing in local and regional recruitment campaigns to encourage more people with the right skills to foster to come forward, however, we need more support from government to do this. The benefits are clear: greater placement choice would in turn lead to greater placement stability for children, closer to home. ADCS members are not convinced of the benefits of a national register of foster carers as a means to address the capacity issues in the system or to match children, for example. Where possible children should be placed locally enabling them to maintain the relationships that are important to them, including contact with birth parents and wider family members.
“For some children fostering will be a short term solution to a specific problem, other children will be in foster care for much longer. However, long term fostering hasn’t received the same policy attention or investment as adoption has in recent years, despite these children generally having the same needs. ADCS is fully engaged with the national review into children’s social care and the CMA’s inquiry into children’s social care provision which should help to further highlight and address these issues. This includes the significant profits being made by a small number of organisations from fostering. Such practices result in money being lost from the system which could otherwise be re-invested into improving the outcomes for vulnerable children,” she concluded.