The growth in private fostering agencies has been dramatic in the last ten years. Of late this has also coincided with a massive increase in the numbers of young children in the care system. In the statutory sector even in a rural county we now struggle to place – even young children – with Local Authority carers. Almost always, large sibling groups have to be accommodated, at significantly increased cost, with an independent agency.
Although all agencies are now covered by National Minimum Standards still there are considerable disadvantages to such a placement for the child. First there is the issue of geography. Most agency carers will not be in the local town and even a journey of a few extra miles to school and to see family can be tiring for a child, with the accompanying issues of not having school friends nearby and missing out on after school activities.
Then there are the issues of communication and supervision. Visits from the child’s social worker will be more time-consuming and therefore usually less frequent and the day to day progress of a child not is not as easily monitored and managed. Moreover, there is the issue of accountability and suitability. If a fee is involved there is a greater temptation to place a child even where, though there may be a bed, there are some qualms about matching
One wonders how all this came about. Of course the foster carer in the private agency will be paid quite a bit more than the carer in the Local Authority. Many authorities, however, do pay additional allowances for carers with experience or because of the degree of difficulty prevalent in an individual child. The difference in pay between the agency and the local authority may not be quite the sum that the new applicants envisage therefore.
There are other reasons too why fostering agencies have become so popular. One is clearly marketing. Fostering agencies know how to sell themselves to would-be applicants. They may also be fairly discreet about the true nature of the task and the expectations that will be placed on the foster carer.
Clearly, however, another reason why private agencies have become so prevalent is because of the mismanagement and neglect of this precious local authority resource. Foster carers have no trade union and often face unsupported allegations. They do not have a National Insurance stamp paid for them. Many may have to claim benefit in order to make a living and be able to claim a pension in their old age. There are often real quibbles about their payments for holidays and a reluctance to offer them support care when they need it.
Their status straddles the categories of ‘volunteer’ and ‘employee’. Unlike their European counterparts it is a position which has never been truly acknowledged in the care system. Most couples in contemporary society cannot manage financially without both parties working and yet in Local Authorities foster carers are expected to give 24-hour care, attend reviews, be there if a child is excluded from school or is sick and be available for social worker visits or to liaise with other professionals.
Foster care has grown over the years without any clear plan or direction. Every Local Authority has differing schemes, rates of pay and differing training programmes. For the sake of children in care it may be time now to rationalise the foster care system and bring it in line with the more professional approach of most of our European neighbours.