The government’s Big Society ethos demands greater use of both voluntary and private adoption and foster agencies. But what if budget cuts force councils to take the work in-house, asks Natalie Valios
When children’s minister Tim Loughton visited Harrow Council earlier this year he urged local authorities to learn from the council’s adoption partnership with the charity Coram (see below).
But, while Loughton was calling on councils to make better use of voluntary adoption agencies (VAAs), particularly for harder-to-place children, chancellor George Osborne was planning budget cuts that pushed local authorities to use the voluntary and private sectors far less for both adoption and foster placements.
There are two contradictory factors at work, says Matt Dunkley, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services: “In trying to control their fostering and adoption budgets over the past few years many local authorities have aggressively moved to an in-house option because it is almost always cheaper. But the number of children in care continues to rise and, with that, the need for more specialist placements. Often those specialisms can only be found in the independent and voluntary sectors.”
In East Sussex Council, where Dunkley is director of children’s services, over 80% of foster placements are in-house but, even so, he sees the sharp increase in demand as a growth opportunity for independent providers. “There are niches for the independent sector but we probably need a better planned and commissioned system where local authorities work out with the private sector what [foster placements] they can provide themselves and what they need to procure, rather than just using it as a safety valve or competing against it.”
Bringing more foster placements in-house has saved his council money. However, Dunkley adds: “I can’t see any scenario where a local authority meets all its own needs in terms of fostering and it is probably right that there is a mix of local authority and independent providers to keep some degree of diversity in the market.”
Yet the government, with its Big Society agenda, is keen for more services to be provided by the private and voluntary bodies rather than the public sector. With such political push, as well as austerity cuts, some are surprised that fostering is being outsourced less, rather than more.
Clive Sellick, reader in social work at the University of East Anglia, says: “If councils are laying off staff because of cuts, how can fewer staff find more placements internally? I don’t think moving more in-house is sustainable financially or in terms of quality. How can you provide at least an equal service [to the one you have now] if you are doing it with fewer staff and where the implication is that you are going to require your existing foster carers to have more children or look after them for longer.”
These push and pull factors make for a complicated picture. Another tension, for adoption, is the end a couple of years ago to ring-fenced local authority adoption support money. This has resulted in many councils cutting support services to families adopting traumatised children from the care system, says Jonathan Pearce, chief executive of Adoption UK.
“Not all local authorities can provide this support as part of their standard adoption service so they commission it. But, over the past year, they have been cutting back and it is having a direct impact on families being able to access services that will improve the outcomes for the children placed with them.
“Some local authorities have said they are bringing the service in-house because they think they can do it more cheaply. But quite often the service is being cut altogether because they don’t have the money.”
At the same time other local authorities have started to outsource support services. “It’s a real mixed bag which makes it hard to know what’s happening,” says Pearce. “There is limited strategic thinking behind it and it is very much driven by finances.”
In-house adoption placements appeared to cost councils far less because they paid an interagency fee to a VAA to find adoptive families. But in 2009, the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol calculated the true cost of both types of placement and found they were virtually the same. However, it also revealed that the fee paid to VAAs did not cover their expenses and they were subsidising placements by about £4m annually. This conflict is at the heart of whether local authorities will increase their use of VAAs.
Julie Selwyn, director of the Hadley Centre, points out that about 20% of children who have an adoption recommendation in England are never found a family. “This means poorer outcomes for children and eventually much higher costs for local authorities because they will remain in care. It is short-sighted.”
‘Third way’ saves Harrow £440,000 a year
While many local authorities are trying to work out whether it is best to keep their adoption and/or fostering services mostly in-house or outsource them, they may be interested to know that there is a third way: partnership.
In September 2006, Harrow Council agreed a partnership arrangement with voluntary adoption agency Coram.
Under the agreement the local authority retains responsibility for the adoption service and the children in its care, while Coram is responsible for finding adoptive families, assessing them and supporting them before, during and after the adoption process.
Two Coram social workers and a part-time administration worker are co-located with Harrow’s in-house adoption support team.
The partnership has had several successful outcomes, including a 100% success rate in finding adoptive parents; no placement breakdowns; and a faster process where children recommended for adoption are placed within an average of four months.
Peter Tolley, service manager for children’s placements at the council, outlines the reasons for these results: “Coram has a wide pool of its own adopters that we can access. Also, by being co-located, cases are talked about at an early stage. We have a permanency tracking panel which identifies all the children where adoption could be a plan. Coram then starts looking at possible families for them so that, when a permanency plan is finalised, a family has already been identified.”
Under the partnership, the number of children in care who were recommended for adoption or special guardianship increased from 3% in 2006-7 to 20% in 2008-9.
Unlike other local authorities, Harrow has managed to avoid an increase in the numbers of children coming into its care, says Tolley, because children are moving out through adoption and special guardianship as new children come into the system. This leads on to the critical outcome for Harrow – financial savings. The partnership is saving the council £440,000 a year because fewer children stay in care for long periods of time.
“The standard view is that if you engage with VAAs it is an expensive way for local authorities to manage their service,” says Tolley. “But think about more creative ways of working with them.
“There is a cost to start with but our core costs were for 2.5 staff so it is not a significant amount. It is the ‘invest to save’ argument – look at things holistically and costs in the wider sense.”
Pictured above: Peter Tolley and Hellan Timothy James, the Coram Harrow partnership
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