Better relationships with children’s social workers ‘key to tackling foster carer crisis’

Latest state of fostering report finds vast majority of services have shortage of carers but highlights value of supervising social worker role

Research results post-it note on mouse
Photo: Artur/Adobe Stock

Better relationships with children’s social workers is a key factor in tackling a foster carer recruitment and retention “crisis”, says The Fostering Network.

That was among the findings from its latest  State of the Nation’s Foster Care report, this year based on a survey of 3,352 carers and 99 fostering services.

All but six of services surveyed reported a shortage of carers to meet local needs, particularly for teenagers, large sibling groups, children with disabilities and parent and child placements.

This chimes with Ofsted’s annual fostering statistics, which found “too few carers with the right skills” to support the number of children needing placements. When family and friends carers were discounted, the number of approved fostering households had fallen by 3% over the past five years amid a growing care population.

The Fostering Network said that its research showed that “the need to value and recognise the foster carer role is at the heart of the crisis”, with relationships with children’s social workers a key area for improvement.

Among carers surveyed the biggest problem in fostering was instability among, and poor relationships with, children’s social workers, which left them feeling insufficiently communicated with and undervalued.

While 45% of foster carers rated the support they received from children’s social workers as excellent or good, 23% said it was poor or very poor.

Social work turnover concerns

Both carers and fostering services also raised issues about the impact of social worker turnover on children.

Services said it and the quality of referral information provided by children’s teams contributed to instability for children within their foster families.

And carers surveyed cited better communication from social workers with children and consistency of social worker support for them as two of the three most pressing areas for improvement in fostering.

Carers also said poor communication – from social workers to foster carers, between social workers and between departments within the child’s placing authority – was one of the main problems facing the sector.

However, the report found strong support, among both carers and services, for the role of supervising social workers in fostering teams.

Among both groups, social worker support for carers was the biggest positive in fostering, with carers also citing the support they received from peers. Three-quarters of carers rated the support they received from their supervising social worker as excellent or good.

Need to boost pay

In terms of what would most improve the current system, the top factor among carers and services was raising the status of foster carers, with the latter saying this should involve being treated as an equal in the team around the child.

For both groups, this was something that needed to be reflected in foster carers’ pay.

Over a third of foster carers that responded to the report said their allowance did not cover the full costs of looking after a child.

Sixty three per cent of foster carers said they received a fee payment in addition to their allowance, despite almost all services agreeing they should receive one. And only 9% reported receiving more than the national living wage each month, despite the fact that 61% of carers who responded did not combine fostering with other work.

In relation to learning and development, 65% of carers said they had an agreed plan for the next 12 months, up from 46% in 2016, and 71% rated the training they received as excellent or good. However, carers identified gaps in learning provision in relation to mental and physical health needs, managing allegations and trauma.

Ageing pool of foster carers

Despite the network’s retention concerns, 46% of carers said that they would continue to foster as long as they were able, a five percentage point increase from the previous survey in 2018.

Half of respondents were aged between 55 and 74, up from 42% in 2018 and continuing an ageing trend since 2014.

The service respondents had recruited 1,498 new households between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021, 57% of which were aged 45 or over and around 10% of which had transferred from another fostering service.

National register called for

On the back of the report, the network made 36 recommendations, including that:

  • UK governments should introduce a national register of foster carers to “improve the portability of the workforce, provide a standardisation of pre- and post-approval learning and development and drive up standards”.
  • Governments should introduce information sharing standards for children’s placing authorities, to ensure appropriate information is shared with foster carers to support positive matching.
  • Governments should review fostering allowances to ensure they cover the full costs of looking after a child.
  • Fostering services should ensure that they provide retainer payments to carers between placements – until regular fee payments are in place – including to ensure they feel more valued.
  • Learning and development frameworks for foster carers, similar to that in Wales, should be introduced in all four countries.

Fostering Network chief executive Kevin Williams said the “gap between the needs of children and the number of foster carers with the skills to meet those needs growing wider than ever”.

“Foster carers have told us they choose to foster because they want to make a difference to the lives of children, but find it increasingly difficult to do so without the tools they need or the status that their role requires,” he added.

Austerity impact

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said foster carers should “absolutely be recognised and valued as a key member of the ‘team around the child’ and should, wherever possible, be able to make day to day decisions about the child they are looking after”.

Edwina Grant, chair of the ADCS’s health, care and additional needs policy committee, said local authorities were committed to ensuring foster carers received high quality training and felt well supported but said the impact of years of austerity and rising need “cannot be underestimated”.

“Most local authorities are investing in local and regional recruitment campaigns to encourage more people with the right skills to foster to come forward, however, we need more support from government to do this,” she said.

But the ADCS disagreed with the network’s recommendation of a national register.

“Where possible children should be placed locally enabling them to maintain the relationships that are important to them, including contact with birth parents and wider family members,” said Grant.

Councils ‘must be more consistent’

In response to the report, Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, called for more consistency in the way different councils worked with independent fostering agencies (IFAs).

He said: “There are thousands of referrals flying round the system and IFAs cannot study all of them properly in the time they have. There needs to be much higher levels of consistency and coordination across neighbouring local authorities to address this.”

Gallagher said there were some examples of good collaborative working between local authorities and IFAs, but this that it was not yet the norm.

He called for Ofsted to include a review of the effectiveness of authorities’ external placement commissioning in their inspections of councils.

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