There are 70,000 looked-after children in the UK and 50,000 live with foster families.
Fostering Network estimates that 10,000 more carers are needed, a figure it has campaigned on for some time, following a 2004 survey.
The charity is concerned because it believes a shortage of carers means children may not be placed with foster families who can best meet their needs, they may have frequent changes of placement and live far from home, friends and family including siblings.
A lack of a plentiful supply of carers may be why two thirds of foster children are given no choice in the family they live with, according to research by the children’s rights director published by the Commission for Social Care Inspection in 2005.
But Mo O’Reilly, policy and practice lead for fostering at children’s charity Barnardo’s says voluntary and private sector agencies, including her own, have foster carers on their books waiting for children to be placed with them.
“We have spare capacity and local authorities are not using all our carers,” says O’Reilly. She suggests that councils could use more voluntary and private sector providers.
“Local authority commissioners may have longstanding key relationships with certain providers but making family placements should be about meeting the needs of children, not down to who you have contracts with,” she added.
Tower Hamlets Council in London, which received a glowing CSCI report on its fostering services earlier this year prefers to keep the service mainly in-house to retain full control.
Fostering teams at Tower Hamlets are described by inspectors as “unanimously committed to promoting innovative, child focused, creative practice”.
Grow your own workforce strategy
The service received 26 commendations including plaudits for foster carer support, commitment to staff and foster carer training and a “grow your own workforce strategy” that has led to a large proportion of social workers and managers being drawn from local Bangladeshi and other black and minority ethnic communities.
Work with Bangladeshi, black African and Caribbean, Asian and Vietnamese people is praised in the inspection report.
Recruiting local staff to reflect the community in the workforce is key, says Ian Wilson, corporate director of social services and deputy chief executive at Tower Hamlets.
“We can talk to service users in their own language and about their own culture and get accurate information about care needs. For example, recruiting carers for Somali children can be done better by social workers who speak Somali,” he says.
Tower Hamlets is also commended in the CSCI report for its innovative recruitment strategy for foster carers.
But Wilson says the authority still needs carers for certain groups including children with disabilities, sibling groups and older children.
Running a national campaign throughout the UK is a good platform for councils and agencies to highlight local carer shortages, says Helen Clarke, Fostering Network’s recruitment campaign co-ordinator.
So wouldn’t more national campaigns be a good idea and stop a lot of duplicated effort?
Opening a local paper and seeing a range of different agencies recruiting carers in the same area is “not good”, agrees Clarke.
But because fees and support for carers “vary so dramatically” Clarke thinks that one campaign for all fostering providers is impossible.
However regional pooling of effort and resources can be useful, and three authorities in the north west of England – St Helens, Warrington and Halton have joined forces to promote fostering.
New thinking on fostering comes in an adoption bill published earlier this year by the Scottish executive. It proposes a permanence order, in between adoption and fostering. For many children adoption is too final and inflexible but permanence orders could offer children more stability than fostering, and give greater responsibility to foster carers.
As foster care fortnight continues, new research will be published next week. Fostering Network launches a government funded study on recruiting and retaining foster carers and CSCI has a new report on long-term fostering by local authorities.
Fostering is far from perfect but it does offer many children who would previously have lived in institutions the chance of family life.
The children’s rights director’s survey that included views from over 400 foster children showed how important it is for children who cannot be with their birth parents to live in a family.