Recently, a journalist invited me to answer some questions about Ofsted's foster care data report. I was pleased to respond - it’s good to see NAFP’s voice alongside other views. I'm quoted calling for greater national recognition of the importance of local authority/IFA collaboration, which is great. Now, I don’t want to seem ungrateful (I know how this works), but, interestingly, they took only two sentences from what I sent them in answer to their questions. It’s something of a challenge in offering a number of thoughts to try and phrase each element so it still makes sense when taken out of its original context. This time it worked out fine.
One of my colleagues suggested that I nevertheless published what didn’t get used. That seemed like a good idea, so here goes:
- What action do you think needs to be taken to tackle the existing problems of capacity and retention?
Ofsted seem to focus on the large number of enquiries not proceeding to application. An enquiry to foster will only be taken forward to application if the fostering agency believes that person has the capacity to foster - that is essential for the safeguarding and well being of children. During the period covered by the report, which includes lockdown and Covid, IFAs received many more enquiries from people they did not believe had the capacity to foster. And their carers tend to care for children with higher needs than local authority foster carers. We could view the large number of enquiries not taken forward as a good thing in the best interests of children.
Local authorities try to place children with their own in-house foster carers first, so only a proportion of all children needing foster care are ever referred to IFAs. As a result, IFAs will additionally only proceed with an application if they receive referrals for children who might be a good match for that person. If they are not, they will suggest that enquirer approaches their local authority.
The key to retention is good matching, which relies on good quality referral information, and the support given to the foster carer. IFAs prioritise making sure that the match is as best it can be. However, local authority social workers are under such huge pressures that this can be a slow and inefficient process. Poor matching will mean more placement breakdowns and more burnt-out foster carers.
- Is the cost-of-living crisis connected with the low retention rates and recorded number of applications?
Undoubtedly. There are foster carers who are considering giving up because they can no longer afford to be a foster carer. And some enquirers choose not to proceed when they understand the financial implications. Neither IFAs nor local government can tackle this alone. Only a cash injection from central government will address this issue - it would be money well spent.
Foster carers have been treated as self-employed since 2003. Government should review and improve this relief as soon as possible - something that NAFP has been calling for over a number of years - but now is the time more than ever. Although not all carers pay tax, it would send a significant positive message from government that they recognise and acknowledge the financial difficulties foster care is facing. It would let foster carers know that government values them enough to try and help them.
- How can we bring in more foster carers?
A national good news campaign about foster care led by central government. Not a recruitment campaign as such, but something with a focus on how well most children do in foster care. Everywhere you look, someone is saying the care system is broken, and they’re usually saying it’s someone else's fault. If I was a child in care taking this all in, I’d believe my chances in care were poor (they’re not). And if I were thinking about being a foster carer, I’d think again. Those of us working in the sector, professionals and journalists alike, need to take more responsibility for the bad news that we constantly push out via social media. Deal with our problems, yes, but be balanced about all the positive things that happen for children in care.
- Also, as chief executive of NAFP, could you commend why IFAs continue to be more popular than LAs? Are they a better alternative to your expertise?
We only need to look at the year-on-year Ofsted ratings of IFAs (consistently around 93% good or outstanding) to understand the excellent care their foster carers give children. They respond with great customer care to enquirers, prioritise matching and offer their carers effective ongoing support. According to Ofsted, a greater proportion of foster carers in IFAs are from ethnic minority backgrounds, so IFAs are better placed to respond to a diverse group of children needing foster care. Local authority commissioners largely work well with IFAs as they look to achieve value for money. There is a place for local authorities and IFAs to work alongside each other and leave behind the adversarial approaches of old. This is happening now in many parts of the country but we need greater acknowledgement at national level that this is where the future lies.