Last week Ofsted, the organisation responsible for inspecting fostering services and local authorities in England, released their annual data relating to English fostering. As always, there is a lot to take note of in the data, so below are nine things we think are worth highlighting:
- There is no explanation of the data. This isn’t the fault of the data, nor Ofsted, but many of the statistics that we can glean from the data lead us to ask many more questions than the numbers themselves can tell us. This is particularly true when we start to think about whether the number of newly approved fostering households is sufficient and appropriate to meet need.
- There is a rise in the number of children living with foster families. There has been a six per cent rise in the last four years, representing some 2,500 children. This clearly has a significant impact on demand for foster care, as well as on the budgets of local authorities.
- There has been an increase of about 1,000 fostering households. This is good news and represents a growth of 1,250 approved foster places. However, this is still less than the rise in the number of children who need foster families. And, with a rise in the percentage of households being family and friends carers (almost six in 10 newly approved households in local authorities were family and friends carers), this has an implication when it comes to placement matching as these family and friends carers are only approved to care for specific children.
- There were 128,000 initial enquiries about fostering. It is clear from this number that there is not a shortage in the number of people considering fostering. This is a significant increase in the number of enquiries over the last few years. The challenge appears to be turning these enquiries into applications. Further investigation as to why so few of these enquires become applications would be beneficial to the sector.
- There are 16,000 vacant fostering places (about 18 per cent of all places). What is unclear is why there are so many vacancies when every local authority and fostering service reports needing more foster carers. Of course, careful matching between children and foster carers should take place – meaning not every vacancy will be suitable for every child – but the ongoing significant number of vacancies suggests something more than this is going on. Again, there is a need to dig deeper in to these numbers to see if, for example, the type of foster carers being recruited equate to the children and young people that need looking after; or if households who are being approved for multiple children (29,400 households are approved for two or more children) are actually very unlikely to ever want to offer all those places.
- The turnover of foster carers remains high. This year over 19 per cent of fostering households in England stopped fostering. This is a slow creep over the last couple of years and is unsustainable in the long term. Combined with point 5 above, it would be good to consider the question of recruitment alongside the need to work to better retain foster carers (ie to consider the ‘product’ that we are offering to prospective carers, and whether it is an attractive proposition).
- The number of sibling groups not living together is still high. 450 sibling groups (1,340 individual children) were not placed according to plan. This is a fall on the previous three years, but still highlights the need for more foster carers who have the desire, expertise and space to look after siblings.
- The number of young people staying put when they turn 18 is still very low. Just about half of young people in foster care who became 18 remained living with their former foster carers. And this is when the young people are 18 (as opposed to 19 or 20), when we would hope the numbers would be much closer to 100 per cent. The Government recently announced a £10 million increase in funding for Staying Put next year, so we hope to see some improvement in these figures next year. Having said that, we recognise that much of the change is cultural – creating a new norm that young people stay living with their foster carers after turning 18 – and that we are yet to see that change to the extent we had anticipated when the legislation was passed.
There is an ongoing need to take allegations against foster carers seriously, and to investigate them in a timely fashion. This year just over 2,700 allegations against foster carers were made, almost a quarter of which took more than 10 weeks to investigate. When children and young people make an allegation of abuse against their foster carer, it is of the utmost importance that it is taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. While many allegations are upheld, it is important to remember that the majority are unfounded. Allegations can be made for a variety of complex reasons, but regardless of the reason they must not be taken lightly. Every allegation must be thoroughly investigated, but for the benefit of all those involved there must also be transparent processes and a clear timescale.