Foster carer shortages are deepening in England with one in eight fostering households having quit, and more leaving than joining, over the past year.
Ofsted’s latest fostering statistics, released earlier this month, showed that in 2021-22, 5,435 mainstream fostering households deregistered compared to 4,035 that were approved to care and still active as of 31 March 2022. Those deregistering represented 13% of all those who had been approved during 2021-22.
This was combined with 2021-22 seeing the lowest number of applications to foster in several years, at 8,280.
The number of newly approved mainstream households still active as of 31 March 2022 was 18% lower than in 2018, while there were 4% fewer such households, and 5% fewer available places for children, than four years ago.
The results reveal a worsening picture for fostering since the release of last year’s figures, when Ofsted national director for social care Yvette Stanley warned the sector would reach “breaking point” if more carers weren’t recruited.
In its final report, published in May, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care urged the government to recruit 9,000 more foster carers over the next three years, to tackle “an immediate and pressing shortage”. However, since then, charities have warned that retention problems are getting worse due to the cost of living crisis.
Fewer enquiries leading to applications
A contributing factor to the decline in capacity was the sharp drop in the annual number of foster care applications, with those received by councils falling by 22%, and those to independent fostering agencies (IFAs) dropping by 21%, since 2017-18.
This was partly due to a low translation rate of initial enquiries to applications. While the number of prospective fostering households was 18% higher than four years ago, at 138,075, only 6% became applicants, falling from 9% in 2017-18.
The agency sector received most initial enquiries (78%), but only 4% progressed to applications, compared to 12% for local authorities.
Two-thirds (68%) of applications were completed during the year, but only 28% of the completed ones were approved – down from between 35% and 39% in the preceding four years. Most of the remainder were withdrawn by the applicant.
‘Lack of support’ behind carer shortages
The founder of fostering advice and information service FosterWiki, Sarah Anderson, called the current situation a “ticking timebomb”, driven by a lack of support for carers and children.
“We need support – the team around the child and the carer being fully enabled to carry out everything, ensuring that we’ve got the right mental health support for our children and enough respite for carers,” she said.
A FosterWiki survey earlier this year showed that the cost of living crisis had put significant strain on foster carers, with over half (54%) reporting they were considering resigning as a result. Of 1036 respondents, 89% had resorted to cutting back on essentials, including food, heating, and fuel, to get by.
Fostering Network research published last week raised similar concerns about the impact of rising prices on carers’ ability to continue in their role.
‘Carers turning to agencies due to higher fees’
Despite both sectors facing a relatively similar number of deregistrations, local authorities have struggled more with capacity, losing 1,770 households over the past four years, over which time IFAs gained 440.
Since 2018, the proportion of filled mainstream places held by IFAs has grown from 40% to 45%. This is despite the Competition and Markets Authority calling for a shift in placements from agencies to local authorities on value for money grounds, in the final report of its study of the children’s social care market, issued in March.
Anderson said the trend towards increased use of IFAs was partly because of the higher fees they offered carers.
“Foster carers are not going to come to you for £130 a week when agencies offer £450,” she said. “Who can survive on £130 a week and be at home all day?”
Anderson said carers she had spoken to reported long waiting times for responses to enquiries and poor matching, support and pay when fostering for local authorities.
Call for better training and pay
Though the Department for Education is yet to formally respond to the care review, it has accepted the need to recruit more carers.
The Fostering Network’s director of external relations, Kate Lawson, said the government should deliver on this pledge to ensure children can choose “where they want to live”.
“Now is the time to ensure foster carers have the right terms and conditions to enable them to do their job properly, are valued for doing so and remain fostering for as long as they are able,” she added.
“This includes being fully trained and supported, having the authority and status to make day-to-day decisions about the children in their care, their knowledge and skills being valued in the team around the child and being adequately paid for their time, skills and expertise.”
In response to Ofsted’s findings, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services president, Steve Crocker, urged the government to invest in a national campaign to recruit and retain “the foster carers we desperately need”.
“A wider pool of foster carers is a good thing for children because greater placement choice means greater placement stability,” he said.
“We need the government to commit to centrally funding a national foster care recruitment and retention campaign without delay. It should focus on the value of foster carers and the difference they make, so we can ensure the right foster home is available at the right time for every child.”
Councils and IFAs ‘should collaborate, not compete’
Crocker further highlighted that councils’ reliance on IFAs was a significant cost pressure on children’s services.
However, Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers chief executive Harvey Gallagher insisted that the way forward was for the sectors to collaborate.
“Local authority commissioners largely work well with IFAs as they look to achieve value for money,” added Gallagher, whose organisation represents IFAs.
He added: “There is a place for local authorities and IFAs to work alongside each other and leave behind the adversarial approaches of old. This is happening now in many parts of the country, but we need greater acknowledgement at a national level that this is where the future lies.”
New approvals driven by friends and family carers
Alongside the 36,050 mainstream households registered as of 31 March 2022, there were 7,885 family and friends households, who made up 18% of all fostering households – up from 14% in 2017-18.
These households, who tend to care for specific children and mostly do not offer other placements, also cared for 20% of all fostered children as of the end of March.
For local authorities, 60% of newly-approved households last year that were still active as of 31 March 2022 were friends and family carers.
Ofsted said this was in line “with the expectation that [councils] will place children with family and friends wherever possible”.
“The increase in their number has played a significant part in meeting the demands set by the rising number of children in care and a reduced pool of available mainstream foster placements,” the report added.
Allegations of abuse
In 2021-22, there were 3,010 allegations of abuse made against foster carers, with the proportion of emotional abuse allegations rising from 19% to 24% since 2017-18, though alleged physical abuse continued to account for most of the cases, at 51%.
Two-thirds (65%) of allegations were made by foster children, which mirrors previous years, and half resulted in no further action being taken. But there was a four percentage point increase, from 26% to 30%, in the number referred to fostering panels for further review since 2017-18.
Findings from a Fostering Network research paper published in April reported that, in these situations, investigations were often not appropriately followed up and led to disrupted placements for children, despite most allegations being unfounded.
The network found that this had exacerbated the sector’s retention problem.
“We see a lack of information, protracted timescales and a lack of emotional support for foster carers, leaving them feeling abandoned and ‘guilty until proven innocent’ with many leaving the workforce,” said its report.
“This is particularly challenging considering the national shortage of placement choice for children in care, and the majority of services across the UK failing to meet their recruitment targets.”