news analysis of problems of a growing shortage of foster carers and the impact of new standards for children’s care homes

number of children placed with foster carers is growing. But, as Jonathan
Pearce reports
, local authorities cannot find enough carers and have to
turn to agencies.

adoption taking centre stage in government family policy in recent years,
fostering has been left in the wings, although it is a key part of any
council’s permanency plans for looked-after children.

the number of children being looked after in residential care declined during
the past 10 years, placements with foster carers have increased substantially –
from 34,548 in 1990 to 37,900 by 2001.

the same time the number of independent foster care agencies has grown, so that
there are at least 125 in the country. Little is known about the relative
quality and merits of the different providers, but all that will change in
April when the National Care Standards Commission starts inspecting and
regulating foster care services in England against national minimum standards.

this growth in the independent sector, councils still want to be the
"primary providers of fostering services for their looked-after
children". But a report published last week by the Social Services
Inspectorate says councils have failed to develop "sufficiently radical
strategies" to tackle the problems that everyone knows exists.

on inspections in seven councils, the report is a way of making children’s
services departments look critically at their foster care services provision.

have struggled for a long time to find sufficient appropriate foster care
placements for children in their care, and the reasons are
"well-rehearsed", says the report.

proportion of children needing foster care has increased and their needs are
now more diverse. But at the same time, changes in women’s working patterns and
families’ lifestyle expectations mean that fewer people are willing to foster.
Also, some existing foster carers have moved to independent agencies because
they did not feel sufficiently valued and rewarded by councils.

a result, councils find it hard to make suitable placements for all the
children needing foster care using their own resources. This leads to them
placing children with foster families who fall outside their terms of approval
or pay more for placements through independent agencies.

SSIreport reflects concerns we have had about the fostering service for
years," says Gerri McAndrew, executive director of The Fostering Network.
"The report shows a lack of strategic planning for fostering which is
crucial. We are very concerned about the piecemeal approach that councils are

the awareness of pressures on foster care services, and on looked-after
children budgets, the SSI finds that most councils do not have good information
about the relative costs and benefits of their own services compared with those
of the independent sector. There is also insufficient attention to the support
and recruitment packages required to attract and keep appropriate carers. In
addition, the report says children’s services have not learned lessons about
commissioning services from adult services.

fundamental step changes" are needed, says the report. "This
inspection shows that the traditional ways of delivering foster care do not
adequately meet children’s needs."

councils had difficulty in recruiting and retaining carers, in terms of numbers
and in offering sufficient diversity.

majority of councils placed children with independent agencies out of necessity
because of an absence of choice, rather than because of demonstrated benefits,
says the report. Although some councils were working with agencies to identify
what services they could provide, generally the agencies are not regarded as
potential partners but as necessary providers during times of crisis or
shortage, it adds.

the SSI has concerns about the arrangements to safeguard children in foster
care – including inadequate checks on carers, poor handling of complaints or
allegations against carers, and quality issues with statutory visits by social
workers and care planning.

Rob Hutchinson, chairperson of the Association of Directors of Social Services’
children and families committee, does not quite see it that way. He denies many
of the charges in the report, particularly those alleging a lack of awareness
of the costs and benefits of council foster services. He says many, if not most
councils carry out Best Value analyses of their services.

welcome the focus on fostering because over two-thirds of our children looked
after are placed in foster homes and priority must be given to examining how we
can ensure the stability of this vital service," says Hutchinson.

of the main reasons is the "general underfunding of children’s services
nationally" he says, adding: "It should be recognised that it’s not
just local councils that can resolve these resource issues. There simply isn’t
sufficient cash to invest as much as is needed in fostering."

he acknowledges the need to for "radical strategies which can consolidate,
attract and retain our foster carers so foster parent payments and rates,
pensions, wrap-around services to support children, are all put in place".

wants a far greater priority to be given to fostering. "The government
should provide resources for the foster care service and investment in addition
to Quality Protects money," she says. "The Fostering Network would
like to know what plans the government has now, in light of a report which
demonstrates the ineffective framework and policies they have put in place over
the last few years coupled with insufficient resources." 

Fostering for the Future from 


Residential homes fear impact of new standards

new standards for children’s care homes have revived fears of closures and
increased charges. Rachel Downey reports.

Department of Health cut it very fine. The new minimum standards for children’s
residential care were issued at the end of last week – just four weeks before
they are due to come into force.

suspect the delay was due to fears that many small and medium-sized homes will
either be forced to close because they cannot meet the standards or will have
to put up their charges to local authorities.

a time when the number of children coming into the care system is rising,
councils could face a shortage of residential places.

Williams, principal officer (children in public care) at the National
Children’s Bureau, says local authorities and providers are worried the closure
of smaller homes will leave social workers with less choice in where they can
place children.

children’s homes will need to make substantial changes to adhere to the new
regulations. Mary Walsh, director of specialist provider SACCS, complains that
the way in which certain local authorities are interpreting the new standards
is putting some homes under pressure.

are insisting on single rooms for all children whereas the standards state that
a child’s "own area in a double bedroom" is sufficient. To meet this
requirement, Walsh’s organisation will have to purchase two additional premises.

despite the delay the final version of the standards has not been substantially
altered from the draft version. The only watering down, according to Williams,
was the recent statement by health minister Jacqui Smith that if homes are
working towards meeting the standards, the incoming National Care Standards
Commission will work with them. That appears to give providers some time to get
up to the minimum standard.

argues that private children’s homes should not be closing down because of the
new inspection regime. "We knew that the standards would increase
expectations and costs."

the additional costs could be laid at the door of social services departments
already struggling to keep within their budgets. The result could be social
workers desperately trying to find cheaper placements and these can only be
offered by larger organisations which can benefit from economies of scale.

observers have warned that the children’s residential sector will begin to
mirror the adult residential homes sector, with larger providers expanding and
buying up smaller ones, leaving fewer specialist organisations.

Williams believes that gloomy predictions are extremely premature. "People
are looking at adult care as the role model but I’m not sure that will happen
in children’s residential care. The markets are different: it’s more favourable
for smaller units to be in the children’s sector than in the adult

Carol Lander, managing director of residential care provider Five Rivers,
maintains the move towards a monopoly market is already happening. "There
are a lot of people who are thinking they have done their stint and they want
out – it’s a demanding place to be. And it’s hard to recruit people who want to
come in."  

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