Understanding private fostering

Research reveals that practitioners reject a system of formal registration for carers, but back specialist training across the workforce.King's College researcher James Blewett reports

Research reveals that practitioners reject a system of formal registration for carers, but back specialist training across the workforce.King’s College researcher James Blewett reports

Title: Research into Private Fostering

Authors: Catherine Shaw, Isabelle Brodie, Anthony Ellis, Berni Graham, Amanda Mainey, Savita de Sousa and Natasha Willmott

Institutions: This research was commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families and was carried out by the National Children’s Bureau in partnership with the British Association for Adoption and Fostering.

Available: The research was recently published by the DSCF


There has been a growing awareness over the past 30 years of the existence and needs of privately fostered children. This is when a child under the age of 16 is cared for by someone who is not their parent or a close relative, in a private arrangement made between a parent and a carer, for 28 days or more. All parents and carers should notify their local authority of private fostering arrangements.

Bob Holman’s research in the 1970s was particularly influential in raising public and professional awareness. However, as Holman recently noted: “Despite government legislation, private foster children remain one of the most vulnerable groups of children in the country.” Concerns have included child trafficking and child exploitation as well as broader fears that the “hidden” nature of many of these placements leaves this group of children particularly vulnerable, while the carers themselves have limited or no access to services.

The Children Act 1989 attempted to construct a legal framework for understanding the range of arrangements that could fall into this category. Since 2005 there have been private fostering regulations and these placements have been covered by Ofsted inspections.


The DCSF collected statistics into private fostering and commissioned this research with the following aims:

1 Collecting evidence of the practices and procedures local authorities have regarding private fostering.

2 Improving the understanding of the characteristics and needs of privately fostered children, with a particular reference to safeguarding.


The research was undertaken using quantitative and qualitative methods. An international literature and policy review was carried out. This was then supplemented with interviews with 14 “national stakeholders” and a specialist group of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering was used to gather evidence of local practices in 55 UK locations. Eight case studies were carried out with interviews being undertaken with local practitioners and managers. An online questionnaire was also used to gauge awareness across the children’s workforce of practice fostering to which there over 1,000 responses. The authors acknowledged that had they had more time in which to undertake the research they would have also consulted with carers and children.


The authors propose a helpful classification of types of placement. These are:

1 Child centred – these are arrangements made to enhance the life chances of the child.

2 Parent centred – placements to enable parents to work or study.

3 Carer centred – placements whereby the carer’s interest are central.

4 Family crisis – Arrangements made as a result of difficulties in the family.

Like other such frameworks, many families will straddle different categories but it provides a helpful starting point for assessing the needs of these children and their families.

Under the private fostering regulations there is a duty on family members to notify a local authority in advance of an arrangement being made. However, the study revealed that this rarely happened and public awareness campaigns have been largely unsuccessful. Indeed, the workforce survey found relatively low levels of awareness across the children’s workforce although awareness was higher among staff in social care.

Inter-agency working

The study found that local authorities took a variety of approaches to the management of private fostering. Those with responsibility for private fostering were located in different parts of local authorities in different areas. Practice also varied significantly with a range of approaches to assessment taken. CRB checks were standard but otherwise many different tools were used. A wide range of agencies was found to be involved in private fostering and the quality of local partnerships largely determined the development of good practice. While the study found evidence of good strategic working between agencies, particularly around local safeguarding children boards, there was far less evidence of this consistently being replicated at the front line among practitioners in different agencies.

Support for carers and children

In terms of the support offered by local authorities there was again found to be wide levels of variation. Financial support for carers was mostly provided in the form of one-off payments for items such as school uniforms. Respondents at local authorities reported, however, that they had no specific budget to meet this need.

Some local authorities provided services that offered emotional support for carers and children while others focused primarily on providing practical advice for carers. The interface with looked-after children services emerged as very complex particularly for those placements with high support needs.

There was a range of views about specialist teams. Some of those interviewed felt that the expertise that specialist services could build up was important in offering high quality services and raising awareness among practitioners in other services. Other respondents, however, argued that there were real benefits from integrating work with private fostering placements into children in need, safeguarding and fostering teams.

Placement limits

The authors reported a variety of views about the 28-day threshold used to define a private fostering placement. However, there was a much stronger consensus about the need for an upper limit on placements and indeed concern that some “temporary” placements lasted for many years. There was, however, little support among respondents for a system of formal registration for private foster carers.

The belief among most was that a formal system might increase the vulnerability of privately fostered children by driving their carers underground. Instead, the study recognises clear notification pathways and knowledgeable staff as being the key factors in ensuring effective practice.

The study concluded that practitioners expressed a lack of confidence in their knowledge of relevant child care law and a lack of awareness of the impact of changing case law in this area.


Practice implications

Robust interagency partnerships

The quality of assessment and support including safeguarding practice for children in private fostering placements is dependent on good inter-agency partnership working. While local children safeguarding boards often have sound procedures the study indicates the need for children’s trusts to have clear and coherent policies in this area.

Good quality legal advice

Private fostering is particularly sensitive to changing case law. Practitioners will often not be specialists and also have a general lack of knowledge of child care law in this area. For these reasons they need access to specialist legal advice so that they are able to give consistent messages to families and carers and intervene decisively when necessary.

No single ideal model

The authors argue that there is no evidence to support a particular service or practice model. Indeed a theme throughout this study is the diversity of provision that exists. The danger with such a range of practices is that it can lead to a piecemeal and inconsistent approach. This is an area of work that needs to be regularly reviewed by strategic managers and commissioners.

Awareness raising and training

There have been publicity campaigns aimed at raising awareness among the public. This study argues that such campaigns do not appear to be effective. Instead, it argues for resources to be put into different levels of specialist training across the children’s workforce.

James Blewett is a researcher at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, Kings College London

Links and Resources

British Association for Adoption and Fostering has a website specifically focused on private fostering at http://www.privatefostering.org.uk

More on private foster care can be found at http://bit.ly/cU79ul

Holman, B (1973) Trading in Children: A study of private fostering, Routledge and Kegan Paul

A useful resource for children and young people is Henrietta Bond’s Private Fostering – what it is and what it means, a 22-page book available from the BAAF website at £3.95

This article is published in the 6 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Understanding private fostering

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