On Tuesday 27th August, the BBC covered a news story relating to fostering, and in particular, to the role of independent fostering agencies in fostering. Radio 4’s Today programme devoted a large swathe of their air time to the subject and a written article can be found on the BBC News website.
Eastern Fostering Services, as a small, independent fostering agency, were disappointed to find that the independent providers were yet again vilified as cash counting mercenaries who are only working in the fostering sector for financial gain. Such broad-based assumption feeds in to the negative associations that are held in relation to fostering more widely.
The bigger picture
We believe that there is a way for Local Authorities and independent fostering agencies to work together in the best interests of the children. Sadly, there are systemic failures that make this incredibly difficult for the small agencies such as Eastern Fostering Services.
It is fairly typical for Local Authority commissioning to weight their tender invitations to independent fostering agencies towards cost rather than quality. A common 70% onus on cost versus 30% on quality of care provision means that both measures are naturally driven down.
There have been innumerable conferences, consultations and collaborations focussing on more ‘intelligent’ commissioning but in over 20 years of our experience in the sector, little has changed. Local Authorities continue to have unmet needs and the tension between the public and private sector continues, translating to a poorer service for vulnerable children.
We well understand the enormous financial pressures that Local Authorities are subject to but whilst a view persists that the independent sector are a threat rather than an opportunity, unhelpful myths and misapprehensions will continue to fester further debilitating the system.
What do the experts say about independent fostering agencies?
As was correctly pointed out in the media, the Nairey report concluded that although independent agencies were slightly more expensive (we would note this is an average and does not reflect the huge price range that exists in the sector), the difference in cost is negligible versus the quality of outcomes for children who are living in foster care.
We were disappointed that this information was very much an afterthought rather than the presiding point and we are left yet again trying to justify our position as child-centred practitioners, rather than financial opportunists. Such a portrayal is damaging to our working relationships with Local Authorities and other professionals, to the public perception of fostering more generally and ultimately for the children to whom we have all made a commitment to serve.
Along with our carers, who are supported to provide long-term, stable placements, we are an important constant for these children.
Anecdotally as a small fostering agency, we are increasingly one of the few constants in the children’s lives. Many children experience changes in social worker on a frighteningly regular basis and often the agency social workers support and advocate for the children and carers and provide a safe base for exceptional care to be carried out by our foster carers. Along with our carers, who are supported to provide long-term, stable placements, we are an important constant for these children.
Is there hope?
Many small independent fostering agencies work tirelessly to promote the well-being of the children in their care, challenging poor decisions and speaking up for those most vulnerable children when their voices are not being heard. Equally, we work creatively to find solutions to problems that might impede the very best care, often supporting and bolstering Local Authority resources.
In short, we want to work with other professionals to put the needs of children first. We believe that dialogue, cooperation and a change in the cultural perception of independent fostering agencies would really help unlock creativity, efficiency and ultimately better outcomes for the children.