Coping with the increase in demand for foster care services

Fostering agencies are under severe pressure to meet referral demands in the wake of the baby Peter case. By Sally Gillen

“The question we’re asking every day is ‘when is it going to stop’?” Jenny Kelly, like many working in fostering, has been dealing with a flood of referrals for placements since the baby Peter case broke in November 2008. Kindercare, the fostering agency where Kelly is business development director, received 242 referrals in September, double the number in October 2008.

The hike, of course, was not entirely unexpected, given the public outcry surrounding the case and the inevitable focus on social workers’ actions. But the sheer number has been a surprise. “Before this year we had peaks and troughs in demand for placements but it has been steadily rising,” says Kelly. “Of course we anticipated an increase following the baby Peter case but I never expected it to be this high.”

The pressure on the core system has not relented in the year since the trial of Peter Connelly’s mother, boyfriend and his brother began. Family courts’ body Cafcass has been struggling to deal with care order applications, which rocketed by 66% in December 2008, the month after the scandal broke. In June this year they reached a record 774 and, despite a drop to 755 the following month, that was still 270 more than in the same month for the previous year.

Kindercare, which has offices in England and Northern Ireland, is not the only agency to see a dramatic rise in referrals. Foster Care Associates has had a 36% rise, an increase chief executive David Oldham says “seemed to happen overnight”. But thanks to what he describes as a “drip, drip” approach to continuously recruiting foster carers it has managed to cope with the 21% of those referrals that have turned into placements.

Oldham says there have been notable increases in referrals from certain areas, such as the southern regions, including London, Kent, Bristol and Gloucester. The North West and North East have also seen increases and between January and September of this year the number of children under 10 who have been referred has grown by 4%, a rise Oldham attributes to the baby Peter case.

Other agencies have also seen a jump in the number of young children placed with them. Kevin Williams, chief executive of Tact, the largest fostering and adoption charity in the UK, says the agency has traditionally handled referrals for teenagers. “There have been a large number of young children, babies and those aged up to five. Traditionally our referrals have been for older children, which suggests to me children are coming into the care system younger, rather than going through a cycle of family support first. Professionals are being over-cautious.”

Removing the right children

For some children it has been positive, he says. “In the past, too many children have stayed at home for too long, increasing the level of damage and the complexity of problems later on. But we have to be careful we are removing the right children,” he warns.

All agree that more children are being placed with them and returned home soon afterwards. Kelly says there has been an increase in the number of short-term placements – those for between a month and three months.

“There are children who are being returned home and who did not necessarily need a foster placement in the first place,” she says. Research shows that numerous short-term placements affect children’s mental health.

A sign that risk-averse councils may be choosing to take children into care more quickly can be seen by the erratic numbers this August. Oldham says referrals were significantly higher in August compared with the same month the previous year and there had been a lot of movement. Williams agrees: “In August we had 100 moves. That’s 50 children in and 50 children out, which is extremely high. Some of those children will have gone to a long-term placement but the vast majority would have returned home.”

One possible explanation is that social workers may have felt nervous about leaving children who would usually have been at school and therefore monitored by another set of professional eyes.

But, like FCA, Tact has had no problem providing carers, having launched a recruitment campaign for foster carers at around the time the baby Peter case became public as part of its UK expansion. Williams says: “We are not finding it difficult to recruit carers – and they are of a good calibre. We are getting a number from different professional backgrounds, such as teaching and youth work. I think part of that is down to the recession, but not all of it. More people from different professional backgrounds are seeing fostering as a career choice.”

Nevertheless, matching carer and child, remains important if placements are to be sustainable.

Boom time

It may be a boom time for fostering agencies but Kelly says Kindercare has had to turn down several referrals because it simply did not have the carers to match to children. “I had a meeting at a London council recently and they said ‘it seems like you’re saying you can’t help a lot’. We have carers and obviously we want to help but we can’t do that if there isn’t a suitable match. We want them to work out for the child. We’re not in the business of providing placements just to get another pay packet.”

But when councils run short of their own carers or those provided by agencies there are other alternatives, including friends and family placements. Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas says there has been an increase in these. Councils are encouraged within the Children Act 1989 to consider placements with family and friends but Douglas says some local authorities are being forced to use them because of a lack of alternatives.

Councils doing this should note that Haringey social workers were lambasted for allowing baby Peter to stay with a young, childless friend of his mother, he says. Unless friends and family carers are used following a proper assessment, a child is no safer with them than if they had remained at home.

But pressure to remove children continues and has been heightened by the comments by Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey that more children should be taken into care at a younger age. Andrea Warman, a fostering development consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, advises that rushing headlong into decisions about children is a mistake. “We need to just slow down. Let’s make sure we have the resources and we are keeping children safe. We must slow down,” she says.

Free reference manual

Email to receive a free copy of our expert-written reference manual on Developing a Professional Foster Care Workforce – the Recruitment and Retention of Foster Carers from Community Care Inform, Community Care’s online information service for professionals working with children and families. Find out more about Community Care Inform at

Published in 15 October issue of Community Care under the heading: ‘Where are we going to place her?’

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