The number of independent fostering providers (IFPs) is rising. There are now 260 registered IFPs in the UK, and they are expected to grow rapidly as long as the national shortage of foster carers, which currently stands at around 10,000, persists.
Demand has risen because many children have been moved out of children’s homes and approved schools
into the community over the past 20 years.
“It has been especially hard to place children with complex needs,” says Philip Sutton, development worker at charity Fostering Network.
“IFPs have plugged a hole in the system that councils cannot fill because of a lack of resources.”
The impact of IFPs has been largely positive, despite anecdotal evidence of tensions.
David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, points to “stories that councils and IFPs can’t work together as they are competing to recruit foster carers”.
He says there is evidence of foster carers moving from councils to IFPs because they pay more. “But the debate needs to move on from being about money because councils can learn from good practice in IFPs.”
Andrew Christie, chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services’ fostering and adoption committee, says that IFPs have brought “healthy competition” to the sector.
“IFPs have forced councils, who previously had the monopoly over foster care services, to review what they are doing in terms of in-house provision. They have required everyone to raise their game,” he says.
While there is as yet little research comparing IFPs and council fostering services, Christie says there is a general consensus that IFP provision is “as good if not better” than council provision in many cases.
“It’s difficult to compare because you are not comparing like with like, as IFPs have a tendency to take children with more complex needs, but there is evidence to show IFPs achieve good outcomes with stability of placements, educational attainment and healthcare.”
Another area where IFPs score highly with professionals is the support they offer foster carers.
Sutton says: “IFPs provide higher allowances and fee elements than councils, and more support to foster carers including social workers, access to therapy, and learning support.”
“Fostering is no longer just case of having an empty room for a child – it is now seen as a full-time, professional job,” he explains. “Enabling foster carers to look after children requires a lot of support that councils can’t provide.”
Martin Gilboy, partner at independent fostering provider a Fostering Outcomes, which began in October last year, says IFPs have been quick to catch on to the need for a more professional approach to foster caring.
Now more children with complex needs who were previously in residential care are being fostered, carers must be switched on to a wide range of policies and practices,” he says.
“Foster carers used to be seen as a volunteer altruistic workforce, but now they are required to be valued members of multidisciplinary teams.”
According to Holmes, higher fees, training and support on offer from IFPs are also attracting a “new breed” of foster carers. “IFPs have removed barriers to recruiting and tapped into a different pool,” he says.
By broadening the pool of foster carers, IFPs have increased the likelihood of successful matches between foster carers and looked-after children, professionals say.
“IFPs provide a choice of placements that are not available in-house to councils, increasing the chances of successful matches,” Sutton says. “IFPs are particularly good at providing specialist placements and are extremely good value for money.”
Unlike council services that have to juggle many priorities at the same time, IFPs are able to focus solely on foster carers and advocating for children, according to Gilboy.
While the advantages of IFPs are becoming clear to many professionals, there are mixed feelings about what will happen in the future.
“Councils and IFPs still have an evolving relationship, butideally they ought to work in partnership,” Sutton says.
Other professionals believe the “mixed economy” that IFPs have brought into the market is here to stay and will present a continuing challenge for councils to drive up performance.
Gilboy says it will be “imperative” for councils to improve to prevent IFPs from taking over services.
“Unless councils value foster carers more they will continue to see them move to IFPs,” he warns. Gilboy predicts that an increasing number of IFPs could bid to take over council fostering teams – although none have been successful so far.
Holmes predicts that the market could change as councils “bite the bullet” and strive for a better range of placements for looked-after children.
“IFPs are plugging a gap in the market, but this could change as councils improve their services,” he says