An internal review of Bradford council’s fostering service has warned that recruitment of new carers is “declining at an excessive rate” and will start to break down within two years unless action is taken.
The report, a copy of which has been seen by Community Care, found that Bradford’s conversion rate of potential new foster carers was less than a sixth of the national average. While the review found Bradford was currently providing “an effective service in challenging circumstances” it flagged up a series of concerns raised by carers.
“In the last three years it was felt there has been a downward spiral of support and respect [from the council]”, the review said.
While a recent controversial decision by Bradford council to cut carer allowances to the national minimum had created animosity, the report also said that foster carers felt there was a lack of empathy and consistency from social workers.
Among a series of other concerns, the review found:
- Bradford’s recruitment marketing was poor, with inadequate budget and out-of-date materials that failed to emphasise the positives of fostering and struggled to compete with “slick and well-resourced” independent fostering agencies.
- Fostering enquiries had been inadequately followed up, with little in the way of longer-term relationship management by the council.
- The grading system applied to foster carers was confusing and ‘not fit for purpose’.
- Delays in referrals by social workers were leading to poor placement choices.
- Reasons for placement breakdowns were not being properly captured, making it harder to identify ways to improve the system.
‘Reduction in capacity’
Challenges faced by Bradford, the review found, reflect the national picture in which fewer people are coming forward to become foster carers. But it added that “the decline seems to be greater” locally.
“The current trend is that the number of foster carers leaving the service is greater than new foster carers joining resulting in a net reduction of capacity,” the report said. Decisions taken by the council had “exacerbated the situation” by reducing resources, both in terms of staff and funding, allocated to the recruitment process.
Bradford’s conversion rate of potential new foster carers in the first nine months of the 2016/17 financial year stood at just 1.7%, compared with a national average of 12%, the document said. During that period, only five out of 295 who expressed an interest in fostering subsequently went to panel for approval – while 15 carers de-registered, resulting in a net loss of 10 carers.
The review noted that “retention is cheaper than recruitment” and needed to become part of Bradford’s overall strategy to increase the supply of foster carers. However it also acknowledged that Bradford’s recent decision to reduce allowances “clearly… may impact on the supply of in-house foster carers, with some choosing to leave the profession or moving to an independent fostering agency”.
Tristan Chard, Bradford organiser for the GMB union, which represents some of the city’s foster carers, said that this was already happening.
“We warned the council about foster carers leaving,” he said. “I know people who [since the cuts] are making enquiries with agencies, with a view to moving. And the publicity around the cuts will only have put [new applicants] off.”
Part of Bradford’s argument for reducing its payments was that, when various add-on fees were factored in, the overall package was still attractive compared with neighbouring authorities. Foster carers contacted by Community Care earlier in the year criticised the council’s calculations as not being like-for-like, a perspective that the service review acknowledges.
“The comparison of data is challenging because the grading of foster carers is not universal,” it said. “In order to secure transparency a clear comparison needs to be made with an agreed methodology. Regardless, the issue has created tension between the council and some foster carers.”
Confusing the situation further, the review said, was that the current grading system for carers, based on skills and experience, was widely deemed to be not fit for purpose. “More systematic approaches can be seen in Leeds and Calderdale and should be examples of how the system can be improved,” it said.
Lack of empathy
But concerns with the overall fostering setup were not the only issue driving a wedge between the council and foster carers, the service review found. Sixteen carers were interviewed as part of review the process; while anger towards the local authority was “not universal”, a number of “key themes, which need to be resolved” were identified.
Carers said that senior management had become much less approachable and that regular meetings with Bradford Association of Fostering and Adoption (BAFA) had ceased. Similarly, they said that long periods often elapsed without supervising social workers in place, with high levels of sickness among staff being one factor.
A lack of experience among practitioners was also contributing towards problems, notably an overall “lack of consistency” in practice and on occasion “unintentional disrespect” in their actions towards carers.
The review said that carers also reported social workers had become “less empathetic and more businesslike”. In one instance, a carer complained that “during their assessment the social worker asked questions from behind a laptop and never made eye contact – it seemed to be a tick-box exercise”.
Carers, the review noted, appreciated the extra stresses practitioners were being put under but felt that the relationship between the parties needed to be reviewed, with more latitude in decision-making being given to them.
“Bringing children’s services and the foster carers themselves together as partners could dramatically improve the outcomes for our looked-after children,” the report said in its conclusion.
Michael Jameson, Bradford council’s strategic director of children’s services, said: “As is the case with all fostering services nationally, there are challenges with recruitment and retention of carers that we are proactively responding to and significantly strengthening these arrangements.”
Jameson added that the council is already in the process of implementing changes and responding to recommendations made in the review.
Chard said that the GMB and foster carers were due to meet senior council officers and that he felt “communications are improving”. But, he added, “this may be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”.