Improving foster carer recruitment

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, June 29, 2021

A nationwide shortage of foster carers was exacerbated by the pandemic but services are starting to see a surge in interest. Recruitment experts and local authorities discuss successful strategies.

It is important to carefully consider the tone of communication materials for prospective foster care recruits. Picture: Scott Griessel/Adobe Stock
It is important to carefully consider the tone of communication materials for prospective foster care recruits. Picture: Scott Griessel/Adobe Stock

The Covid-19 pandemic saw many local authorities and independent fostering agencies step up their efforts to recruit foster carers to provide stable homes for children.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing national shortage of foster carers, the crisis initially saw the number of people able to provide foster care placements shrink.

However, lockdown has made people re-evaluate their priorities, prompting a surge in interest.

More than 8,600 new foster families will be needed across the UK in 2021, according to charity The Fostering Network.

In the past few months its members have reported an increase in the number of people interested in becoming a foster carer.

Scottish charity Kibble, which provides an intensive fostering service for children who have experienced trauma and neglect, is among those receiving more enquiries. These have more than doubled since the pandemic began and have now hit an all-time year-on-year high.

“It’s very encouraging to see so many [people] have reflected on the pandemic as an opportunity to become a foster carer,” says Neil McMillan, Kibble’s executive director for community services.

At the start of the pandemic, research and service design consultancy Mace & Menter started working with Bristol City Council to look at ways to boost foster carer recruitment. This involved in-depth research to understand why people become foster carers and things that can get in the way (right).

Meanwhile, local authorities, fostering agencies and their partners have sought innovative ways to reach out to potential foster carers, including making the most of online and social media platforms and using data analytics (see case studies).

Understanding prospective foster carers

By Kat Thackray, service design consultant, Mace & Menter

The need to recruit more foster carers has been high up on Bristol City Council’s priority list for some time. During the first national lockdown in England, the council initially launched a social media campaign raising awareness of the increased need for foster carers. Within a fortnight, they’d had over 200 people get in touch, keen to follow up on the possibility of offering up their homes to foster children for the duration of the pandemic, or longer.

We worked with the council to build an approach to inspiring and recruiting foster carers not just during the pandemic, but long-term, by understanding the very real challenges and concerns people have.

We set about understanding what it is that stops people from picking up the phone, using a range of service design techniques to conduct and collate this research. Service design aims to make the resources we all need more usable, desirable, and effective.

We conducted interviews with a wide range of people including existing foster carers, people who used to be foster carers, those who had just decided to be foster carers, and those thinking about becoming foster carers but who hadn’t made any decisions yet.

As part of the interviews, we asked participants to review some of the council’s existing communications materials. The people who had already decided to become foster carers liked the persuasive, emotional content: it reinforced how right they were to make that decision. But the people who were still deciding didn’t like it. They said things like: “It makes me sad, I don’t want to look at it.”

This is a good example of why councils and others should be wary of anecdotal feedback. You may hear good things about the materials you put out because you’re only hearing from people who have decided to speak to you.

We also spoke to participants about their entire decision-making process. Right from the start, foster caring seems to be filed under “something I want to do…some day”. The desire doesn’t go away or change much, although people’s circumstances over time inevitably do. They might be waiting for something in their life to change – either a partner to become ready, or children to be the right age. Sometimes that’s a trigger to start the process, sometimes not.

But what potential foster carers are really waiting for is to feel confident they can actually do it.

People aren’t actively researching foster care. They are either around people who are foster carers, in which case their understanding of it is informed by real-life experience, helping them feel confident that they’ll be able to do it too, or they’re not. If they’re not, their only exposure to what it is like to be a foster carer is through the media.

Evaluating the research – key lessons learned

Our research revealed people who had phoned the council to ask questions, or start the process, had a really good experience. They easily found the answers they were looking for, the person they spoke to was “friendly, open, welcoming and supportive,” and they didn’t feel pressured into anything they weren’t ready to do.

We also found the pandemic provided a trigger for people to get in touch – it was the significant event that helped to get those already interested over the line.

But for many people, phoning the council isn’t something you do just to get information or ask questions. People worry about taking up time “finding out if it’s for you” and if you’re undecided, even going to the council’s website can feel like too big a step.

Reshaping the approach to foster carer recruitment

Our findings have gone on to help reshape the council’s approach to the recruitment of foster carers – the foster care team is currently working on being less persuading and being more reassuring and producing positive information to encourage enquiries. The information they now provide is much more focused on helping people to work out how they can welcome a child into their lives through fostering, and busting common fostering myths.

With the permission of Bristol City Council, we have since shared our findings with the fostering services in 40 different local authorities. We have also shared our findings with the Department for Education to feed into their thinking on this topic.

Our work with Bristol City Council showed us potential foster carers need help working out how to reconfigure their life to welcome a child in. They need reassurance that fostering isn’t as terrifying as they imagine, and they could also do with some help to get them over the finish line and into the world of foster care. We are hoping more local authorities adopt these design techniques to help make services more effective. Involving users in co-creation and throughout the redesign of a service will mean you create a service that is effective at making a real difference to people’s lives.

FOSTERING IN NUMBERS

  • 8,600 Number of foster families needed across the UK in 2021

  • 55,000 Number of families across the UK who provided foster homes to more than 65,000 children in the past year

  • 7,695 Number of newly-approved foster households in England in 2019/20

  • 65% Proportion of foster carers in England aged over 50

  • 31% Proportion of single-carer households in England

  • 72% Proportion of foster families in England approved to care for 2 or 3 children

  • 82% Proportion of foster carers in England who are white, including white ethnic minorities

Sources: The Fostering Network; Fostering in England 2019 to 2020: main findings, Ofsted, November 2020

CHESHIRE
FOSTER HOMES FOR MOTHERS AND CHILDREN

Foster4 recruits foster carers on behalf of Cheshire West and Chester Council, Halton Borough Council and Warrington Borough Council. In March 2021 the organisation launched a campaign to recruit foster carers for its Parent and Child programme, which involves caring for a parent, often a young mother, and their child, often a newborn baby.

“We get about two to five requests a month for this type of care,” says Foster4 marketing and recruitment manager Tara Falcous. “We have approximately 10 parent and child carers and are in the process of training around 10 more. The length of parent and child arrangements means carers are ‘full’ for a long time, so we need to keep recruiting to meet demand.”

The campaign, which launched on International Women’s Day in March was one of the most successful the organisation has ever run. A Facebook ad reached 59,700 people, 23,000 more than the previous month’s ad, and 7,290 people engaged with the post, up 5,900 on the month before. There were around 70 enquiries in March, directly from the campaign.

The campaign was targeted at women between the ages of 34 and 60, with some relevant experience – a more defined demographic than usual. “We aimed to use images that resonate with parents, such as baby toys, and existing and prospective parent and child foster carers shared their stories on the Foster4 website and through local radio interviews,” says Falcous. “I made a conscious decision to remove stock images where possible.” The team also promoted the programme to existing foster carers through internal communication channels, including supervision meetings.

The campaign elicited a large number of responses from midwives, and future recruitment efforts will build on this by focusing on hospitals, says Falcous. “We reached a key group of people who would be ideal for this job,” she says. “We hope to target those thinking about early retirement.”

One challenge was the fact the campaign’s emotive imagery attracted many who did not have the right skills, as well as many who did, so the team had to spend time sifting through applications. “Social media is a great tool but it reaches everyone,” says Falcous.

HERTFORDSHIRE
CAMPAIGN SAW NUMBERS DOUBLE

At the end of 2019, Hertfordshire County Council decided to re-launch its fostering recruitment strategy to make it more focused. After surveying existing foster carers and looking at what had worked in the past, the team planned to launch its first big campaign in 2020, centring on face-to-face events. “We planned to have foster carers talking in the community, but with the pandemic had to change things completely,” says Shivaunne Booth, senior communications officer, adoption and fostering.

The resulting campaign, Recruiting Now, was hugely successful. Before the campaign there was an average of 1,500 visits to the county council’s fostering website each month. But the first two months saw visits shoot up to 24,694 in November and 28,644 in December – an increase of more than 1,000 per cent. The team recruited 54 carers in the financial year 2020/21, double the amount from the year before. Given the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, marketing focused on supermarkets and petrol pumps – since that was where people were – and online. Virtual information events attracted more people than the usual face-to-face events so the team plans a mixed approach going forwards. “Holding events online removes that barrier of leaving the house, and travelling somewhere on a set day,” says Booth.

A digital dashboard allows constant evaluation of online campaigns, prioritising what works and moving away from what doesn’t. For example, digital monitoring has shown videos of real foster carers get the highest engagement. “A big thing we learned is to have an evaluation method for all communications, not just digital, even if that’s just making sure staff taking inquiries are asking people what prompted them to get in touch,” says Booth. Going forward, the team has an even greater focus on online, and is now working with digital marketing agency CAN.

Now is a really good time to reach out to potential foster carers, says CAN sales director John-Paul Danon. “We’re in a behaviour and lifestyle change window, the likes of which we’re never going to see again,” he says. “The next few months are really important for recruitment with people planning their next decade. Being in front of them is key.” Using digital marketing allows councils to have a constant online presence, targeting people with videos, online events and Facebook posts. “Facebook accounts for so much of people’s consumption and has to be part of every campaign,” says Booth.

The pandemic has seen Recruiting Now target people re-evaluating their lives, or with more flexibility or time. The team commissioned photos and videos of existing carers talking through their journey. “They were definitely a reason why the campaign had such an impact,” says Booth. A diverse range of carers were chosen. “We were featured in every newspaper in the county because we had case studies from each area,” says Leigh Adams, senior communications officer, adoption and fostering.

Involving foster carers in the development of campaigns is key. Carers told the team prospective foster carers might be put off applying because they didn’t know about pay and allowances. “This was a bit of a shift for us as we then specifically spoke about the pay and allowances,” says Adams. The team had to approach this message carefully. “We want to attract people that want to do it because they’re interested in looking after children not for any other reasons,” explains Miranda Gittos, head of the fostering and adoption service. “It was just making the point you are compensated so people understood that.”

LANCASHIRE
USING DATA TO CREATE TARGETED ADS

Lancashire County Council’s most recent campaign links with Foster Care Fortnight, using a mix of visuals from the national campaign and bespoke content. Executive director for education and children’s services Edwina Grant and local foster carers appeared in videos and contributed blogs to the national campaign. Bespoke content includes artwork by foster children and a carer’s diary. “It’s important to include real stories,” says Lancashire foster carer Kelly Pritchard. “If I was starting out I’d want to hear from foster carers themselves.”

The team plans to run three main campaigns this financial year – in May, September with a focus on sibling groups, and January, interspersed with mini campaigns for specific cohorts of children. Around 11 Lancashire children need foster care each week. Campaigns aim to show carers come from all walks of life, that foster care makes a difference, and the county offers good support and training.

Last November the council analysed postcode data on applicants and those who became foster carers over the last five years. “We found two different profiles – one set might be older, degree-educated, likely to have cars and own their house while another is younger, with less income and may be a single parent,” says Grant. The team gathered information on these demographics, including favoured websites, shops, hobbies and media use.

The Foster Care Fortnight campaign is running targeted ads across 130 Sky TV channels for the first time. “We expect households we’re targeting to see the ad around five times,” says Grant. The team is also using the DAX Digital Audio Platform, reaching its audience through podcasts, digital radio or their own music playlist. “We’re trying to reach people at home or when doing something they want to do,” says Grant.

Another new platform is an advert on an NHS app, reaching staff across Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and hospitals in Lytham and East Lancashire. “We’ve learned many foster carers work in the NHS,” says Grant. An ad on display screens in waiting areas at Royal Preston Hospital will be played every 15 minutes. Online, the team is increasing advertising with Google Search and using Facebook and Instagram. Offline, it is making links with faith organisations, using their channels to share marketing materials. Word of mouth is important and Lancashire County Council employees are offered a referral fee of £1,500 for recommending someone who becomes a foster carer.

TOP TIPS
FIVE WAYS TO USE RESEARCH TO IMPROVE FOSTER CARER RECRUITMENT

  1. Identify your users When working with Bristol City Council, Mace & Menter recruited past foster carers, as well as people who were still considering taking on the role. A broad range of participants were recruited in order to understand the difference between these groups. It’s crucial you take the time to properly understand the people using your service.

  2. Find a broad research topic If you ask people about something specific, you’ll find out about that one thing, but you won’t find out much else. If you set out to explore the whole of an experience and understand people’s emotions, goals, motivations, and concerns around it, you learn enough to apply your knowledge not just to current challenges but potential future problems too.

  3. Incentivise people to take part The simplest practical thing you can do to get past, present or future foster carers to take part in research is to pay them. You’re asking busy people to give up an hour of their time to talk to you so it is important to reward that properly. About £50 to £60 per participant is standard. You can expect to stop finding out many new things after you’ve spoken to 12 to 15 people. That may seem like a lot of money but if you compare that to the cost of running a campaign that doesn’t hit the target because the target wasn’t understood, it looks much better value.

  4. Help people understand what’s involved in co-designing services Explain the process beforehand so the people you’re involving know what to expect. Reassure them that they do have enough insight and the ability to contribute in a meaningful way. Most people aren’t used to generating lots of throwaway ideas and worry that their ideas aren’t good enough or their drawing skills aren’t up to scratch and this can be a barrier to contributing.

  5. Put the research into action Now you’ve done the groundwork and researched your users, you have probably identified the problems that need solving. To ensure your findings really do inform practice, make sure they’re actionable. Ask yourself: What is it that needs to happen to make the service better, now that we know this? If some of those actions are longer-term initiatives, sort them into short, medium and long-term recommendations, so there’s something to start doing right away. Get to know the team that will be acting on them. Who knows about the problem from the organisation’s side? Find them and spend an hour listening to them as avidly as you would one of your research participants. Find out about their challenges and constraints, and help them understand you’re here to make sure any solutions work for everyone involved, including them.

  • By Mace & Menter

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