I am often asked if it is better to foster for the local authority (LA) or an independent fostering agency. Once upon a time there were no independent agencies and all children who came into care were placed ‘in house’, that is, with a foster carer recruited by the local authority. For various reasons the LAs couldn’t match supply with demand - they couldn’t recruit or keep enough foster carers to look after all the children they were bringing into care so independent agencies sprang up to take up the shortfall.
This situation has largely continued to date. The social workers, foster carers and administration staff of independent fostering agencies are paid a salary just as those working for the LA are. Foster carers, whether working for the LA or an independent fostering agency, are not technically employed by the fostering service, and therefore must submit an annual tax return; it is an offence not to.
When I’m asked by someone thinking of fostering where they should apply I advise them to contact both their LA and also a couple of well-established local fostering agencies and then make up their minds. I suggest they consider how efficiently their initial enquiry is dealt with, and then go along to the introductory evening and ask lots of questions. LAs and fostering agencies vary so it is difficult to generalise but asking about the following will help.
Training: ask to see their training schedule for the year. Ask about the level of support a carer can expect. Will the same social worker see the carer through the application process and then become their permanent supervising social worker? Ask about the continuity of placements – if you have given up a job to foster (as many carers do) you don’t want to be sitting at home waiting for months between placements when there are so many children in need of a home.
As a general rule LAs place in house first so if you work for an LA you are unlikely to have an empty bed for long. However, agencies usually cover a wider area - more than one LA, so be prepared to travel further: for contact, meetings, appointments, school runs etc. Some agencies specialise and take children with challenging behaviour, those with special needs, or those needing long term placements. Consider if this would suit you and your family. Allowances vary but agencies usually offer a larger allowance which they claim back from the LA. The level of support – especially practical - is often higher with an agency than an LA. They have a better ratio of supervising social workers to foster carers so one is usually available to step in, if necessary, in an emergency and offer hands on support, for example, by collecting a child from school.
Whether you are a prospective carer thinking about applying to foster or an experienced carer wanting to change service provider don’t be afraid to ask questions. We invest a lot of time and emotion in fostering and it is important to feel comfortable with the people you work with, be given an allowance you can live on, and know there is someone who can competently advise and support you when necessary.
Cathy Glass (www.cathyglass.co.uk)