Future of foster care: innovation in recruitment and retention

Three out of four children in care are fostered, but the recruitment and retention of foster carers remain key challenges. Charlotte Goddard examines some of the latest pioneering practice.

The number of children in foster placements in England has risen by nine per cent over the last four years, a greater rise than the number of looked-after children overall. It is a sector facing a number of challenges, but also one with a great appetite for new ideas, according to Jackie Sanders, director of public affairs at The Fostering Network. It runs Foster Care Fortnight, the annual campaign to raise the profile of fostering, which this year takes place from 1 to 14 June.

“There is a thirst for innovation across the sector, among independent providers, the third sector and local authorities,” she says. Budget cuts have hit councils hard, but there is some money available. The Department for Education launched its £100m innovation programme for children’s social care in 2013, which is funding a number of fostering pilots. Sheffield and South Yorkshire councils, for example, have been given £1.2m to recruit and support specialist foster carers to provide safe placements for young people who experience or are at risk of sexual abuse.

Recruitment is always an issue – The Fostering Network estimates an extra 8,370 foster families are needed across the UK this year. But targeted recruitment is the current challenge. Professor Judy Sebba, director of the Rees Centre for Research in Fostering and Education at the University of Oxford, says: “We need to recruit foster carers for certain types of young people – teenagers, sibling groups and young people with mental health problems. We know those with experience of working with children or in caring services are more likely to be interested in fostering. Contact with existing foster carers is also important in motivating people to foster.” Retention is another problem, so looking at ways of improving support for foster carers is a key priority for research.

Foster carers themselves flag up the impact of the high churn in social care staff as a challenge. Important decisions can be delayed because a new social worker wants more time to get to know a child but then leaves, to be replaced by another. Foster carers also want more power to make day-to-day decisions for the children in their care, such as allowing them to attend an outward bound course. Ealing Council is currently building multi-disciplinary teams with smaller caseloads that aim to offer 24/7 support to foster carers. Young people will choose the team member they want to be the lead professional, and this person will do some statutory social work as well as being supported to make more challenging judgments about risk.

Some areas are looking abroad for inspiration. The Fostering Network is turning to continental Europe for its Head, Hearts, Hands programme of social pedagogy while the NSPCC is using a New Orleans programme to transform delivery and joint commissioning in child and adolescent mental health services and children’s social work for infants in foster care. Sebba says: “The review of more than 100 studies we undertook for the NSPCC about mental health interventions for those in care showed the importance of high-quality ‘ordinary’ foster care in both preventing the escalation of mental health problems and in increasing the effectiveness of interventions to alleviate them.”

UK tests ‘hub homes’ to support nearby carers

The Fostering Network has turned to the US in seeking to replicate a proven model of support, known as the Mockingbird Family Model, here in the UK. Backed by £1.6m from the Department for Education’s children’s social care innovation programme, the pilot scheme aims to establish dedicated “hub homes” of specially trained and recruited foster carers. The hub home carers are able to offer services such as respite care, peer support, and joint social activities to a “constellation” of six to 10 families of foster and kinship carers living nearby. The idea is the young people around the hub gain a sense of community while their foster carers can draw on the support they need to look after them.

Melissa Green, director of operations at The Fostering Network, says the model is particularly suitable for sibling groups and children with additional needs, as well as adolescents – all groups that have traditionally been hard to place. “There may be a situation where a group of siblings can’t be housed in one home, but they could be in two that work closely together,” she says. The model also provides a way of helping young people maintain contact with their birth family, through community events such as barbeques.

Eight local authorities and independent providers are taking part in the pilot, with Leeds, Stockport and Calderdale councils and independent provider Acorn Care and Education in the first cohort. “We could have filled the programme a couple of times over,” says Green. “The fostering sector’s commitment to innovation is extraordinary.”

Things are moving very quickly as the programme only has a year to get up and running, following its launch in March. The first cohort is starting to identify suitable hub carers, who need not only to be experienced approved foster carers with skills in peer support, but also to live near a number of other foster carers. The first hub and “constellation” should be live by June or July this year, and The Fostering Network anticipates 120 families will be involved by the end of the project.

The aim is to replicate the model exactly as it is run in the US in the first instance, to see how well it works. This has caused some issues – for example, American houses tend to be more spacious than those here, making the requirement for the hub carer to have two spare bedrooms challenging to meet in some areas. A team from Loughborough University is evaluating the impact of the programme as it is set up. In the US, placement stability for young people involved in Mockingbird is at 98 per cent, with 23 potential placement disruptions avoided in the past 15 months because of the support offered by the hub carers.

As well as offering a new model, the programme puts in place a career path for foster carers, who could see the role of hub carer as a “next step”. Hub carers receive more money than general foster carers, and are paid even if they do not have foster children with them on a permanent basis. In return they have to be available for support almost constantly.
In the future, The Fostering Network is thinking about extending the model to cover children on the edge of care, possibly offering clusters of birth families support in a similar way. “We want to see if there is innovation that can prevent children being taken into care in the first place,” says Green.

Council offers major grants for committed carers to improve facilities

The team at Cheshire East Council’s fostering service wanted to ensure children going into care were able to stay in the local area, while still making certain they were getting the best care and support available. Cheshire East has a roster of established and trusted foster carers, and wanted to help those families expand or enhance the accommodation and facilities they could offer.

So the Fostering Capacity Scheme was born in 2013, providing loans and grants of up to £30,000, which carers can put towards home improvements, extensions and adaptations, or towards the purchase of additional or larger vehicles to meet the needs of their foster family. The local authority has funded the scheme to the tune of £550,000 over three years. While carers do have to pay the loans back, the amount reduces every year they remain a foster carer by 10 per cent or £1,000, whichever is larger. If they are still a carer after 10 years they no longer have to pay the money back.

Although all Cheshire East foster carers are eligible, those who have committed to provide enduring placements have priority, reducing the likelihood carers would be induced to enter the sector purely to get an extension. “We let people know about the scheme in our advertising and foster carer communications, but we would probably have a debate about investing in someone who hadn’t fostered before,” says Keri Payne, practice manager at Cheshire East.

The local authority payments team works with foster carers, supervising social workers and social workers to identify the households most in need, while independent safeguarding chairs can also sometimes identify children who would most benefit from having their own room. Applications will often include the views of the children involved. The team also works closely with the strategic housing department, which can assess the feasibility of proposed extensions and alterations. “One lady lives in a housing association property and she had her home refitted to provide short breaks for children with physical disabilities,” says Payne. “She now has a downstairs bedroom with a shower room, and access to the garden.”

Eleven families have so far taken up funding under the scheme. One foster carer was able to fund an extension, allowing the family to take in a sibling group of three children, while another was able to buy a vehicle big enough to hold the family, foster children and bikes, allowing them to enjoy family cycling trips.

Fostering young offenders as an alternative to threat of custody

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that alternatives to custody must be found for children in trouble with the law. But intensive fostering schemes, which can help to turn around the lives of vulnerable young people with more extensive criminal histories, are few and far between in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. That is why the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), funded by the European Commission, joined up with six European partners to set up a good practice model for intensive and remand fostering programmes for young offenders.

“We’re not talking about children removed from their families as punishment,” explains Jeffrey Coleman, BAAF project programme director. “It’s about children in trouble with the law at risk of a custodial sentence with all the associated negative outcomes such as self-harm. We’re proposing an expansion of the use of foster care in England. At the moment there are so few intensive fostering placements it is not a serious option for a judge.”

As part of the Alternatives to Custody for Young Offenders project, the association has come up with a six-week training scheme for foster carers, which it published earlier this month alongside recommendations for how the UK can develop more intensive fostering schemes. The goal is now to test how the training works in practice. “We are looking for delivery and funding partners to see if we can pilot it as it stands,” says Coleman.

The course aims to give those who have been approved as intensive foster carers the skills they need to meet the challenges presented by children in trouble with the law. However, it stresses the need to view the children’s needs holistically, rather than over-emphasising issues arising from their status as young offenders. “I’m concerned about the divide between youth justice and children’s social care – there is a need for a more holistic approach as in Scandinavia,” says Coleman. “Labelling and stigma, seeing young offenders as dangerous and not relating to them as children, is still a big problem in the youth justice system and for us in terms of recruiting more foster carers.”

Prospective foster carers on the course will learn about behaviour management and gain a deeper knowledge of the legal and youth justice system, but will also work on listening skills, attachment, helping to develop a child’s social skills and supporting them with their vocational and educational needs. The course incorporates a variety of teaching and learning approaches, including presentations, discussions, exercises and short film clips, to engage and motivate participants, stimulate their interest and promote participation. Each session lasts for between three and four hours – including a break – and will take place on a weekly basis with groups of between eight and 12 prospective foster carers. Time for reflection is hugely important, so the course should not be run on consecutive days, and BAAF recommends it is delivered by two trainers, or a trainer and an experienced foster carer working in tandem.

Foster care: key statistics

The number of extra foster families needed across the UK in 2015.
That breaks down to 6,900 in England, 750 in Scotland, 550 in Wales and 170 in Northern Ireland.

The percentage of looked-after children in foster care in England in 2014.

The total number of looked-after children in foster placements in England in 2014.

The increase in numbers of foster children in England since 2010. This compares to a seven per cent increase in the overall looked-after children population.

Sources: Department for Education, The Fostering Network

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