Local authorities are facing huge pressures with historically high numbers of children in care and massive budget challenges. In fostering, we must do all we can to support them to meet this challenge, ensuring that services are high quality, cost effective and value for money. But children need the placement that best meets their needs and we can't compromise on that. Until a level playing field for commissioning of fostering services between local authority in-house and independent provision is created, children will not be matched with the placements that best meets their needs.
There is also an historical/cultural hierarchy of how referrals are made. Local authorities typically refer a placement request to their own in-house fostering provision first – most are open about this. Independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs) have lots of local carers that local authorities just don't consider in initial searches. Children constantly miss out on what a wider initial search might offer.
Some placements made with independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs) are for 28 days only in the first instance, in the hope that a vacancy in-house will come up in the meantime and a child will be moved when it does. A move is built-in right from the start, just because of the 'in-house first' culture – how can that be right? The option of making long term placements with IFPs is similarly often only chosen when other options have been exhausted. And residential care often comes much further down the list of choices, again, with little reference to the needs or wishes of young people.
This has little to do with children or cost effectiveness. There are few like-for-like outcome measures in existence and the cost base on which the relative services are considered by commissioners are rarely the same. For example, local authorities do not usually factor in their own full overheads. The lack of comparable cost bases can lead to the largely incorrect assumption that IFPs are more expensive than in-house provision when thinking about children with similar needs.
There are broader strategic issues that impact on the quality of commissioning of fostering services. There is little evidence to suggest that sufficiency planning is taken seriously, with most local authorities not publishing their plans. Freedom of Information requests yield replies that these are often work in progress. There are difficulties with accurate assessment information on which to base plans – there is often little linkage between joint strategic needs assessment and assessment of individual children's needs – and weak modelling for future populations of children in care.
Politically, there is commitment from the government to improving fostering services, and also on opening up the delivery of public services to independent and voluntary organisations. However, central government is generally unwilling to tackle the poor widespread local commissioning.
NAFP hears from fostering providers around the country all the time of pressures to move children to different placements for what seem to be primarily financially-related concerns. This usually amounts to a preference for spending the money in-house, rather than externally, and that can mean not spending it where children need it spent. Carers sometimes feel they are given no choice but to agree to Special Guardianship Orders or transferring 'in-house', with independent reviewing officers not being able to assert the voice of children or young people being moved on from foster care to independence before they are ready. Even where this does not result in any change of status or placement, it destabilises and undermines children and carers.
Local authorities should commission a supply of foster care and placements much more broadly. One where their own in-house service is not the guaranteed, automatic preferred provider, and where they negotiate to ensure the particular needs of all individual children are met. Placement options should be evaluated on the basis of suitability for meeting the needs of the child, not on a mis-informed view of cost, though clearly value for money is important.
Stability is key for children who have already had a good deal of chaos in their lives. We have to support positive, planned decisions which actively involve the child and gives them, as well as their carers, the assurance that this is their home and will remain so until they are ready to move on. For some children, this is not what is happening. We have to invest in a level playing field of placement choices in order to give children a chance of the future they deserve. To do otherwise, sooner or later, will cost them, and society, much, much more.