The number of approved fostering households continues to decrease steadily, Ofsted has warned.
In a release by the inspectorate looking at fostering between 2016-17, it emerged that there were 43,710 approved fostering households at 31 March 2017, which is a 1% decrease from March 2016 when there were 44,320 approved households. The overall number has decreased by 2% since March 2014 when 44,780 household were approved.
“The number of approved foster places continues its general trend of increasing. However, while the number of places did increase, the number of places that were unavailable for children to be placed into increased at a faster rate. This in effect meant that there were fewer places for children who needed foster care than last year,” said Ofsted.
The inspectorate added that the number of children in care continued to rise at a faster rate that h number of fostering placements suggesting “the fostering sector is struggling to keep up with the increasing demand”. Ofsted warned that this is of concern because fewer places being available has the potential to lead to children being placed further away or in placements that do not meet all of their needs.
There were 83,930 approved fostering places in England at 31 March 2017, a 1% increase from the same point in the previous year when there were 83,175.
At 31 March 2017, 62% or 51,935 fostering places were filled and 20% or 16,875 were vacant. The remaining 18% were ‘not available’ (15,520). The number and proportion of places ‘not available’ increased from 13,000 in 2016 to 15,520 in 2017.
This meant that, despite the total number of approved fostering places increasing, the number of places available for children to be placed into actually decreased by 3%. There were 70,175 available places as at 31 March 2016 which reduced to 68,410 this year.
The reasons why places were unavailable included the carer was taking a break, the Staying Put initiative, the place was only available for sibling groups, the carer was under investigation or the places were reserved for short breaks or pending a placement.
Ofsted noted that the recent Commons Education Select Committee report, ‘Fostering’, noted that Staying Put ‘reduces the number of available places, further impacting capacity in the sector’. However, young people Staying Put made up only 8% of ‘not available’ places and the number actually fell this year. While it is not a large contributor to the increase in ‘not available’ places, it undoubtedly has an impact on the availability of places for children, said the release.
While the number of approved households dipped slightly, the number of approved friends and family households rose by 11% from 5,985 in 2016 to 6,615 in 2017, in line with the expectations on local authorities to place children with family and friends wherever possible.
“The increase in their number has played a significant part in meeting the demands set by the rising number of children in care and a reducing pool of available mainstream foster placements,” said Ofsted.
Initial enquiries increased by more than 10% in the year. However, applications considered increased by far less, which suggests further work is needed to ensure that those initial enquiries result in applications to become foster carers.
There were 114,425 initial enquiries in 2016 to 2017 – a 12% increase on the previous year. This followed 2 consecutive years of falling numbers of initial enquiries. This increase was attributable to the IFA sector, which rose by 20% from 65,645 in 2015 to 2016 to 78,585 in 2016 to 2017. The local authority sector reported a small decrease from 36,150 to 35,840 (1%).
The conversion rate of initial enquiries to applications was very different in the two sectors. As last year, 11% of initial enquiries nationally converted to applications. However, 18% of initial enquiries in the local authority sector converted to applications compared with just 8% in IFAs. While IFAs have attracted more initial enquiries than local authorities each year for the last five years, accentuated by the large increase this year, they have not been as efficient at converting these to applications.
Overall, there were 8,275 de-registrations in 2016 to 2017, with the majority (73%) in the LA sector. This meant that there were more approved households in 2016 to 2017 (9,320) than there were de-registrations.
The number of approved mainstream foster carers continued the trend of the previous two years and decreased compared with the previous year. The number decreased from 62,365 at 31 March 2016 to 61,415 at 31 March 2017. The number of foster carers in family and friends households, however, rose significantly from 9,525 to 10,650 – an increase of 12%.
There were 52,005 children and young people in a fostering placement on 31 March 2017, 200 more children than in 2016. Two thirds or 34,410 children were in local authority fostering places and the remainder 17,595 were placed through IFAs, in line with 2016.
There was a higher proportion of fostered children from minority ethnic backgrounds than there were foster carers from minority ethnic backgrounds. Although agencies as a whole are increasing the proportions of approved carers from minority ethnic backgrounds, Ofsted said the gap between the two “is still of concern”.
The ‘Staying Put’ initiative was introduced to give stability and support to young people when young people in care turned 18. However, young people were less likely this year compared with last to stay put with their foster carers when they turned 18. In particular, the proportion of young people staying put in IFAs fell to its lowest point since 2013.
Of the 3,430 children who turned 18 during 2016 to 2017, 46% or 1,570 were still living with their former foster carers in 2016 to 2017, a decrease of 8 percentage points from 2016 when 2,190 young people remained with former foster carers. This is in line with the Education Select Committee report on fostering, which states that many young people are missing out on the staying put opportunity due to a lack of clarity and consistency around its implementation. The recent independent Foster Care in England report or ‘fostering stocktake’ also refers to the staying put arrangement and describes ‘a lack of information regarding [the] policy’.
It is estimated that 32,765 fostered children were of school age, as at 31 March 2017. However, of those, 2,790 (9%) were persistently absent from education. In addition 2,155 had no educational arrangements during 2016 to 2017 and 2,500 attended alternative educational provisions.
There were 1,530 (3%) children and young people placed in foster care as at 31 March 2017 considered to be at risk of child sexual exploitation and 420 (1%) considered to be subject to child sexual exploitation. Although the percentages are in line with 2016, the numbers of children reported to be at risk or subject to child sexual exploitation have slightly decreased. Of the children at risk of child sexual exploitation, 55% were placed with local authorities and 45% were placed with IFAs.
Furthermore, in 2016 to 2017, a total of 3,230 children (6% of all fostered children) went missing, a total of 12,210 times, which equated to an average of four missing incidents per missing child, in line with 2016. Half of all missing children (1,620) went missing primarily due to contact, including avoiding contact, with family and friends. The percentage of children going missing for unknown reasons has increased by 6 percentage points since last year, from 13% to 19%.
Ofsted also reveals how there were there were 2,525 allegations made against foster carers during 2016 to 2017 with just under two thirds of these (1,665) being made by fostered children. The total number of allegations increased by 3% (from 2,450 to 2,525) from 2016. Over half of all allegations were related to physical abuse, with allegations of sexual abuse being least common, much the same as in 2016.