Most local authorities in England are failing to meet their statutory requirements to assess their future demand for fostering placements, according to a report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF).
The think-tank asked all 151 local authority fostering agencies in England what they knew about their provision of places for sibling groups and what they expected future demand from these groups to look like.
Almost three-quarters of respondents to the freedom of information request said that the data was not available or that it was not possible to calculate the demand for placements for sibling groups.
Just 6% of councils provided detail on the numbers of sibling groups that they expected to provide placements for in future years and a further 12% gave broader information on expected demand.
Failure to meet sufficiency duty
SMF said this meant most local authorities were failing to meet their “sufficiency duty” under the Children Act 1989, requiring them to take steps that secure sufficient accommodation within the authority’s area for looked-after children for whom this would be consistent with their welfare.
“The overall findings point to a systematic lack of strategic planning with regards to meeting the needs of what is an easily identifiable group of children entering the fostering system,” the report said.
“Beyond this, many of the responses also raised real questions over the extent to which any meaningful attempt is made to project future demand, either in terms of the overall number of children needing foster care, or the specific needs that they might have and how these might change over time.”
The think-tank said local authorities’ failure to assess future capacity requirements would make it difficult to “undertake effective recruitment or design training or the provision of wider support services to meet these needs”.
The report estimated that, based on the growth seen in the last five years, the number of children in foster care could rise by more than 30% by 2030 to around 77,000 children. This would require a growth of 2.9% per year in the number of foster families, a rate not reached in any of the five years from 2015-16 to 2019-20.
Lack of appropriate placements
But the report said that it was not the overall number of places that mattered but their appropriateness, and that, currently, the system was not meeting children’s needs, citing:
- The instability demonstrated by the fact that 51% of placements that ceased in 2019-20 lasted less than six months.
- 2019 research from the Fostering Network that found that half of foster carers surveyed had been asked to take children from out of their age approval range.
- Data showing one in eight children needing foster care as part of a sibling group were not placed together with their siblings.
Social care review ‘must lead to action’
The SMF said that it was vital that the government-commissioned children’s social care review led to action to improve outcomes for children in foster care.
The review’s case for change report, published last month, setting out its initial ideas for reform, highlighted the challenges of foster carer recruitment. It noted figures from Ofsted for the year to March 2020 which showed that while more people were making initial enquiries about becoming foster carers, a small fraction of these went on to apply, and this number was decreasing.
The case for change report said the figures “raise serious questions about the fitness of our current approach to recruiting prospective foster carers – an area that has been given less national focus than adopter recruitment”. The review is due to issue its final conclusions next year.
At the same time, the Competition and Markets Authority is running a review of the children’s social care market, addressing questions including the sufficiency and appropriateness of foster care placements.
In its initial report, it said there was an adequate supply of foster carers nationally but said there were “significant constraints on supply in particular geographical areas and when placing children with more complex needs, perhaps related to the age profile of foster carers”.
Alongside these, the SMF report said the Department for Education (DfE) should lead a review into the country’s fostering capacity and future needs, working with Ofsted, local authorities and independent fostering agencies (IFAs).
It said this should be used to develop a new measure of effective fostering capacity that assesses the extent to which needs can be met, leading to a national strategy for defining, measuring and delivering effective capacity that would support local strategies.
It said a key focus of the proposed review would be to ensure a significant increase in the number of short-term and flexible care places, on the grounds that this would both meet needs and attract new foster carers into the system.
Its other recommendations included:
- For the government to produce updated guidance on the sufficiency duty, setting minimum standards on the information councils should collect, which would then be published, and providing authorities with support to predict demand.
- The development of a national register of foster carers setting out their skills, training, availability, approval range and experience. Alongside defined training standards, this would enable carers to move between agencies without having to be reassessed.
- Adopting regional commissioning of foster placements, building on existing local authority consortia, to help authorities shape the market, lower prices charged by IFAs, while also reducing the bureaucracy they faced.
A DfE spokesperson said the department had already made it easier for local authorities to recruit foster carers.
“We are investing in different approaches to help councils provide the right kind of foster care places, including through new research and by trialling different ways to planning and commissioning placements,” they said.
“During the pandemic we have also made it easier for councils and fostering agencies to identify potential placements, and to assess and approve new foster carers, so that children get the support they deserve without delay.”
Call for national recruitment drive
However, the Local Government Association (LGA) said that it was becoming “increasingly difficult” for councils to provide fostering services, with authorities caring for 16,000 more children than 10 years previously, and the complexity of their needs increasing.
“As the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has rightly highlighted, there has been a lack of national focus on the recruitment of foster carers and we continue to call on the government to work with councils on a campaign to encourage more people to come forward,” said Teresa Heritage, vice chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board.
Association of Directors of Childrens Services (ADCS) president Charlotte Ramsden echoed Heritage’s concerns and her call for a national foster carer recruitment campaign.
She added: “ADCS members also remain concerned about the significant profits being made by a small number of organisations from fostering.
“Such practices cannot be justified, and we reiterate our earlier call on government to replicate the Scottish legislation which prevents for-profit operations in this area. We hope that the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care addresses this issue and offers solutions.”
In its response to the SMF report, the Fostering Network backed its call for government to provide councils with more support with commissioning and recruitment planning.
It also called on local authorities to work with IFAs to regularly assess their capacity requirements and “stop general recruitment”.