Councils Face Huge Bills as More Carers Foster Through Private Agencies
An article in the Guardian has highlighted the funding challenges local authorities face. It reports that private agencies lure carers from councils with improved wages and support—costing the taxpayer millions.
In 2014 80% of council-registered foster carers said allowances met the cost of raising children. In 2016 just 42% did. This information is supported by the 2017 Commons Select Committee’s report which found that the government needs to do much more to support foster families.
But what are the differences between Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAs) and local authorities?
Local authorities have a legal obligation to safeguard and promote the outcomes of all looked after children. Although, local authorities work alongside IFAs to find the best solution for each child. This is because local authorities often do not have the resources or infrastructure to care for all the children in their care.
Children needing to be fostered through independent agencies are often older or have Special Educational Needs (SEN). This is because older children and those with specialised needs are more difficult for local authorities to place.
Agencies’ social workers have lesser workloads and are therefore able to look after their foster carers better. Carers interviewed in the Guardian’s article also cited increased financial and therapeutic support as their main reasons for switching.
So IFAs are good for carers but bad for councils?
Yes, and IFAs end up costing local authorities hundreds of millions of pounds. This is because most IFAs are run for profit and therefore it is in their interests to push up the cost of placements. In 2016 a review of residential care found that in some areas private agencies charge 92% more than local authorities spend on their foster carers. Placements with council-registered carers cost councils £17,000 less each year.
In 2012-16 the number of children placed with IFAs increased 5% to 17,410. This is compared to a 1% increase in those placed with council-registered foster carers to 34,395. The Guardian reports that figures from Corporate Watch reveal that eight IFAs made £41m in profits in 2014-15.
Advocates against IFAs argue that this money would be better spent on improving the services for children in care. It is estimated that increasing the national average of placements with council-registered carers to 85% would save councils £150m a year.
What are councils doing to fight back?
Councils do not have the finances of IFAs and therefore must think of innovative strategies to attract, support and retain foster carers. In Leeds, the Guardian reports that all foster carers registered with the council have free gym memberships and the children get free swimming lessons. The council also claims its fees and allowances are on a part with the IFAs. Carers get £142-246 per week in allowances for each child on top of fees of up to £220 per child dependent on experience. The initiatives seem to be working and 88 foster families have returned from IFAs since 2012.
In Peterborough, the council has outsourced its fostering services to TACT—the UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity. TACT was appointed in April 2017 to run all the council’s fostering and adoption services in a £126 million deal.
These are exciting innovations but more still needs to be done across the UK. In more deprived areas there might not be the funds to invest in experimental strategies.
The government’s current investment in fostering does not reflect the importance of foster carers. The UK’s system of child protection relies on foster families. 75% of children in care live with fostering families. The Fostering Network is campaigning for foster carers to earn around £20,000, in line with residential care workers. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this scale of investment will be forthcoming.