Experienced foster carers for young people with severe behavioural problems or health issues will see their fees cut by up to 50% unless they agree to promote Solihull council’s services and take placements out-of-hours, Community Care has learned.
The council will scrap its agreement to top-up baseline care fees with an extra £56 per week during placements to foster carers with an NVQ level 3 qualification, under a revised fees scheme being imposed next month. A training fee payment of £33 per household per week will also be ended.
Both payments will be replaced by a two-tier ‘skills fees’ system. This will see foster carers paid extra if they meet targets for their professional development.
The highest top-up payment, of £76 per week, will only be paid if carers agree to complete tasks “to support and develop the fostering service” such as recruiting more carers and committing to taking placements from emergency duty teams (EDTs).
Fostering couples where both hold NVQ qualifications and have one child on placement will be hardest hit by the changes. If they fail to meet the skills fees requirements their income will drop from around £281 per week during placements to £138 for children aged 0-11 or £152 for young people aged over 11 – a cut of between 45% and 50%.
Modelling on the revised fees scheme completed by the council prior to its introduction found these couples would still lose between £56 and £69 per week even if they met skills level two targets. However, it found they could increase their income if they took three children at a time.
The skills fee system has been optional for existing foster carers for the past two years but will become mandatory next month. The move will impact 28 households.
Impact of changes
The council said the scheme aimed to better reward the skills of foster carers and will improve recruitment and retention. But foster carers who will see their income reduced hit out at the plan.
A leading fostering charity said carers deserved to be “fairly paid” for their roles and fees should not be reduced to cut costs.
One foster carer affected by the changes told Community Care: “The rhetoric has been about giving foster carers a more professional status but the reality is they’re reducing what they’re paying us and demanding a lot more from us. They’re using us to recruit more carers, who they can pay the lower level fee, while threatening us that if we don’t do it we’ll face going down to the lower fee too. It’s pure exploitation.
“Even if we can do everything they’re asking to get to skills level two, we’ll see our fee drop. And that’s if we can manage that, because they’re not giving us any relief from your current fostering responsibilities to do the work. We often foster young people who are out of school and have extreme behavioural problems. You can’t just leave them unsupervised or go out all day.”
‘I feel undervalued’
The carer also criticised the council for telling foster carers they could increase their income by taking more children: “The majority of people won’t be able to accommodate three children at a time. Each needs their own bedroom, so the council’s claim falls down there. Aside from that, nobody should ever should feel under pressure to take more placements than they’re comfortable with or feel compelled to take on EDT placements.”
A second foster carer impacted by the plan said: “The new scheme, they say it’s going to reward skills but it’s basically a cost cutting exercise. The people who are going to lose out are carers with the most experience and the most qualifications.
“I just feel very undervalued and disrespected to be honest. I’m doing my job as a carer and I’m doing it well. I want to be recognised for my experience, the quality of care I provide and my qualifications – not for ticking a few boxes that I feel are designed to keep people on a lower rate of pay.”
A Solihull council spokesperson said: “The aim of the changes are to support carer recruitment and retention, increase occupancy and better reward the skills of foster carers and the contribution they make to peer support and learning.
“The scheme was introduced following a series of consultations and discussions with foster carers, as well as consideration by Cabinet and Scrutiny Board.
“Since implementation in April 2014, the skills fee element has been reviewed. In response to feedback from carers and staff it has been amended so that it is no longer a requirement to contribute to the service or support for other carers at Level 1, but remains a requirement at Level 2.
“After completing modelling of the impact of the scheme, most carers were not affected or slightly better off as a result. A small number would receive less payment; however there are options to increase this, for example through providing more placements.”
A spokesperson for The Fostering Network said: “Foster carers are professional child care experts and they all deserve to be fairly paid for undertaking their role on behalf of the state, much like social workers, children’s services staff, and others are. Those fostering services who have led the way by introducing a fee for foster carers should ensure that this is protected and increased with inflation, and not seen as expendable when looking to cut costs.”