Foster carers have raised concerns about Norfolk council’s plans to change payments for placements, with some planning to leave the role as a result.
Norfolk has said it will invest £700,000 more each year in fostering services generally, but carers have disputed its claim that most of them will receive higher allowances as a result.
The council’s proposals, approved by its cabinet today, concede that some carers, particularly those with more experience, could lose more than £100 a week from the changes, which will be introduced next month.
But it has claimed that 77.5% of foster carers (285 households) working for the council “will receive the same or more money than they do now”.
However, some foster carers have challenged this claim, arguing that many who have achieved the maximum “level 5” accreditation, as have most of the council’s in-house carers, will lose out.
Currently, the council remunerates foster carers based on their accreditation level, but the new system will instead centre on each child’s assessed level of need.
In the new system, the authority intends to incentivise foster carers to take children with more complex needs, for whom finding a home is particularly challenging.
It also proposes to pay the same amount to carers fostering a second child, as opposed to offering a reduced rate as it does currently, to better encourage them to care for the number of children for whom they are approved.
The new payment structure will apply immediately for foster placements beginning after April but fees will remain the same for children already with carers for another 18 months.
Norfolk also plans to apply the changes in payment to any independent fostering agencies (IFAs) it uses and is re-tendering all nine of its IFA contracts.
Payments by need
Under the new system, accreditation levels will be ignored and foster carers will instead be paid according to whether the child they care for is assessed as having “standard”, “enhanced” or “complex” needs.
Children will be assessed against 13 ‘valuing care’ criteria, which determine whether a child has additional health, safety, education, resilience and independence needs, and how difficult it would be to support these needs.
Placements for children assessed as having fewer additional needs with be classed as “standard”, and payments for their placements with foster carers will be more than £100 a week lower than current level 5 fees. Level 5 carers currently earn between £479 and £546 a week to care for one child depending on their age.
Payments for children with “enhanced” needs will be similar to current level 5 accreditation payments, while those for children with “complex” needs will be over £250 more.
The council also plans to put children into two age groups (0-10 and 11-17) instead of four (0-4, 5-10, 11-15, 16-17), as it does currently.
John Fisher, cabinet member for children’s services at Norfolk council, said that the changes will benefit most foster carers but will also encourage them to “step up” by taking on more children or those with higher needs.
“Many foster carers would receive higher payments for the care they are currently providing – in recognition of the level of complex needs they are managing,” he said.
“The majority of foster carers working for Norfolk Fostering Service will receive the same or more money than they do now.”
‘Many different reasons’ why placements not filled
Norfolk currently has 340 in-house fostering households, approved to care for more than 700 children, but just over 50% of the placements are currently filled.
To encourage carers to take on multiple children, the council plans to offer the same rate for second placements as it does for first.
The council said in its proposals that it recognised that some foster carers were unable to offer a placement to more than one child “for many different reasons”, but that its changes were intended to “support and encourage carers to be able to care for the number of children they are approved for”.
Rosie, a foster carer in Norfolk, said some households approved for multiple placements might be prevented from taking on a second child due to their first child having “individual needs” or the social worker who arranged the placement “wanting them to be the only child”.
She said the changes to payments had put her off from taking more children and that she had “lost all faith in Norfolk Fostering Service”. She said: “I just feel like we’ve completely been thrown under the bus.”
‘Disincentive to train’
Simon Hook, a foster carer for 15 years in Norfolk, said he was concerned the changes to payments could lead to children with complex needs being placed with underqualified foster carers.
“There is a disincentive for carers to continue their learning and training,” he said. “A lot of time goes into that. There’s almost an acceptance that they don’t need to train anymore.”
He said the decision to stop recognising accreditation levels would “drive a lot of people out of the profession”.
Hook said he had applied for other jobs himself, but he might continue to do some more short-term, task-based fostering.
Many foster carers expressed concern at the way children would be classified under the new system, with some not liking it in principle and other distrusting its accuracy.
Leanne Roper, who has been fostering younger children for five years, said she would lose around £450 a month under the proposals as those she cares for would not be classified as complex or enhanced.
“The way that they are scaling children in terms of pay based on a child’s needs is completely backwards,” she said.
“I don’t think under tens will be scaled on this new system anyway. Even if we end up with a drugs withdrawal baby, which are extremely complex, and you have to look out for so many different things.”
Jane Collins, director of Foster Support, which supports carers, said Norfolk’s proposed payment structure could have perverse effects as an experienced, skilled foster carer might be able to support a “complex” child to the point where they were no longer considered complex. As a result, payments from the council would reduce.
She also argued that it was immoral to give children “price tags” based on their level of need.
“When those children turn 18, they can and do access their records. Can you imagine growing up in care, and seeing that you’ve been graded and given a price tag every six months?” she asked.
‘More work will go to external agencies’
Mike Smith-Clare, Norfolk Labour’s lead for children and young people, said the changes brought by the Conservative-led council would benefit IFAs over in-house carers as it would be easier to outsource services when in-house qualifications were not required.
“So many of those young people that have benefitted from that type of nurturing support from families like those that have been doing this for 30 years, suddenly it is like putting a label, a price tag on individual lives,” he said.
“And they are seen as monetary units rather than lives that need that nurturing framework and care. And I think that’s where business starts talking instead of actual individual support and framework of love.”
‘No magic pot of foster carers’
Smith-Clare said he believed the council would struggle to achieve its aims of creating more placements for children through the payment structure changes.
“Children with complex needs need understanding and I think however much they say there is an initial increase in financial gain for that, it is not just about finance. It is about having enough people that are able to work with and support those particular group of young people and children,” he said.
“Norfolk has struggled to get appropriate social workers, particularly those with a young person background into the county. How they suddenly think they will magically have [foster carers] that are able to work with children with complex needs. Where is this magic pot of those?”