news analysis of battle councils face to keep foster carers

In North Tyneside foster carers are voting with their

In the first five months of this year alone, the council has seen
10 of its 100 carers leave and move across to the private sector to
be employed by independent fostering agencies (IFAs).

They could soon be followed by seven more foster carers, who are
being assessed by independent agencies in the area. Paul Cook,
children and families manager at North Tyneside social services,
sees little prospect of replacing them.

“We are assessing six new carers but normally half drop out – it is
getting harder to find them.”

Over the past three years “we’ve lost one or two,” Cook says, but
puts the rising rate of migration from council to private
employment down to IFAs increasing their profile, and to those who
have already made the move “encouraging others to think about doing

The poaching of carers has been an accusation thrown at the
independent sector for several years, but it has been a shout that
has grown louder in the past six months, with local authorities
across the UK saying the trickle has become a river.

It is an issue the department of health’s Choice Protects review is
looking at, and one that is sure to be debated over the coming two
weeks during Foster Care Fortnight. At the heart of it is the
amount of money and support local authorities can offer their
carers for looking after children in state care. Some believe
councils will never be able to match the independent sector when it
comes to these two things.

“I can’t see that we can ever be on a par with the private sector
unless there is some kind of capping arrangement brought in (on
what IFAs could pay carers),” Cook says.

IFA experts estimate that around 15 per cent of the 39,000 foster
children in the UK are looked after by IFA carers. With a national
shortfall of 8,000 carers, most councils now have to turn to IFAs
to some degree, with serious consequences for their budgets. “We
currently have five children placed with IFA carers but if we have
to increase this because we have fewer carers our placement budget
will come under massive strain,” Cook says.

While pay is not the be all and end all for foster carers – nobody
goes into fostering to become wealthy – Cook believes it is a major

In North Tyneside, IFAs pay carers around £150 per child per
week more than the council to cover maintenance costs.

“We can’t match the allowances and, even if we did, the IFAs would
just up theirs tomorrow. Pay is not always what it’s about, but
carers see it as rewarding their work,” adds Cook.

In February, a Fostering Network survey showed that 56 per cent of
English councils were paying less than their recommended minimum
weekly allowances, which range from £103 for a baby to
£187 for a young person aged over 16.

Unless this “postcode lottery in allowances” is addressed, foster
carers will leave local authority employment in greater numbers and
new carers may be put off completely, says Gerri McAndrew, chief
executive of the Fostering Network.

“Councils don’t know the true cost of providing the service,” she
adds. “The majority of them still pay below our recommended levels
but what attracts carers is the whole package.”

In addition to allowances, the package can include an element of
reward payments, training, an equal say in the care team, and
24-hour support from social workers.

Most IFAs provide carers with all this, whereas some local
authorities offer little more than a “voluntary fee”, says Michael
Lovett, joint chairperson of the Fostering Network’s IFA Forum and
director of the Fostering Agency. “Some authorities go through
difficulties and carers want to leave, normally over a lack of
support,” Lovett says. “We are responding to their cries for proper
support, not poaching them,” he adds.

He says IFAs have actually “revitalised” some councils in the way
they reward and look after carers through introducing higher
standards of practice (see panel, top right).

He also believes it is unfair to say placing a child with an IFA
costs more than with a council because it is not comparing like
with like – IFAs will often include education, social worker
support and management costs in its price.

“A borough may pay £600 a week for an agency to care for a
child compared to £250 for their own carer, but if you look at
what is included there may be some positive reasons for that cost
difference,” adds Lovett.

Another head of an IFA in the South East, accuses some councils of
trying to poach its carers by bullying and blackmailing

Councils sometimes threaten carers with taking the child away “if
you don’t join us”, he says, while others will take a child out of
an IFA placement after six months “when one of their own carers
becomes available”.

Lyn Burns, director of social services at Bedfordshire Council and
fostering lead at the Association of Directors of Social Services,
says local authorities need to start seeing IFAs as partners rather
than competitors.

“There are opportunities of operating alongside the private sector,
but we are not smart enough in tapping into that,” she adds.

Burns says directors should use the Best Value framework to test
whether IFAs could provide a better service but “the overall driver
has to be what the best possible outcome is for the child”.

She says some foster carers won’t work for IFAs because they don’t
like the idea of companies making money out of them, while
looked-after children’s organisations also say they are
uncomfortable with companies making a profit out of care.

However, Lovett believes that the independent sector will continue
to play an ever larger role in providing foster care and says the
time is “not far away” when some authorities may contract out
services completely to IFAs.

“Some boroughs are already looking towards block purchasing where
they will have an ongoing need for X number of local placements,
which they will commission IFAs to find. It will provide us with
the security of knowing we’ve got ongoing demand,” he says.

“But I think this will eventually lower the cost,” Lovett says,
offering a glimmer of hope to councils.

Case studies

Local authority foster care: the positive experience:

In 1998, David Hadjicostas, a foster carer for Southend-on-Sea
Council, had a choice whether to join 20 of his fellow carers and
jump ship to an IFA or stay and fight to improve the new local
authority’s terms. Under boundary changes Southend had just split
from Essex Council.

“We went to the authority and said this is what we would like to
happen for us to offer a good service. We negotiated hard for two
years and got a service that has improved dramatically,”
Hadjicostas says.

A training package and reward payment scheme that recognises length
of service and qualifications was put in place, as was a 24-hour
helpline staffed by social workers.

“The changes said to carers ‘we value what you do’. The council
hardly loses anybody to the independent sector now and gets 25
applicants every time it advertises,” he adds.

Local authority foster care: the negative experience:

Nancy McCauley, a London-based foster carer with IFA Tact, says the
difference with IFAs is that “when you really need something, it’s
there for you”, while “it can be a battle with local

She says that, in her experience, local authorities do not provide
as good support as IFAs. “Children can come with a lot of different
and difficult issues and I need a lot of support – I can phone up
my social worker any time day or night.”

McCauley adds that IFAs offer good support if carers get
allegations made against them by children, “whereas authorities
will take children away and hold meetings without you”.

She says council foster carers often approach her to inquire about
working for Tact and she believes more will move to IFAs.
“Authorities need to be treating their carers better as they cannot
provide the best support to children unless the carers themselves
have good support.”

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