Why we need a more relational approach to recruiting foster carers
Councils are working together on developing new approaches to foster carer recruitment. Their success relies on building a service that values, understands and respects all prospective foster carers argues John Copps.
The purpose of fostering is to provide children with a safe, loving home when they can't live with their birth parents.
To do that, we need people willing and able to care for vulnerable children, often at short notice, and always with compassion and a warm embrace, whilst also living with the uncertainty around how it will all turn out.
Foster carers are perhaps the most important resource in the social care system – providing homes for around seven in every ten children in care. This can be for a night or two in an emergency, several months or many years.
Having enough foster carers is a constant challenge and relies on a continuous stream of new families willing to take children. The job of finding and recruitment them falls to either local authorities or independent fostering agencies.
The Department for Education’s Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme is asking self-selecting groups of local authorities to come together to create a new way of recruiting foster carers, based on a regional rather than local authority footprint.
The concept is to create a focused service that can champion foster carers and support them through the application and approval process, across a wider geographical patch.
The explicit focus on foster carers here is key.
Local authorities will retain all their statutory responsibility and decision-making power around determining what is best for children. This means the new service will be able to put prospective foster carers right at the centre of what they do, giving them the focus they need and leaving individual local authorities to manage the complexities of the decision around approval.
I think that the process of recruiting foster carers needs to mirror the empathy and compassion that is shown by foster carers towards the children they provide homes for.
Too often it seems like this is forgotten. Testimony from foster carers and anecdotal evidence from mystery shopping tells us that prospective foster carers do not always get the understanding, encouragement and information they need.
Put yourself in the shoes of a prospective foster carer. Making that initial contact with a fostering service is a massive moment – one of the biggest decisions in anyone’s life. It deserves respect.
A recent report by IPSOS UK on recruitment and conversion rates highlighted the benefits of responding to enquiries quickly, giving enquirers and applicants a chance to hear from people with lived experiences of fostering, a process that empowers applicants, and support to reduce anxiety about the panel process. This isn’t always something that happens.
Of the 138,075 people that enquired to be a foster carer in 2021/22, 8,280 made it to application, and 1,575 were approved. Even acknowledging problems with the underlying data, surely we can do better than that.
So the key question: how can new recruitment hubs ensure that they embed compassion, understanding and humanity into foster carer recruitment? What does a more ‘relational’ service look like? How do we put foster carers at the centre of the recruitment process, and not treat them like a commodity? These are questions that local authorities on the programme must grapple with from the outset.
There are many extraordinary families fostering children. As one of those carers has put it:
“We are on call 24 hours a day, offering care that like all parenting, gets little immediate thanks and requires skills that have to be sustained long term – patience, resilience, compassion, love. And we suffer the profound pain of separation only almost immediately to start again with a new face and do the same again. So even if I do say so I, we, are remarkable!”
That foster carer is right: they are remarkable. And those who pick up the phone to enquire are also remarkable – even if they don’t make it to being approved. We must find a way of treating them all as such.
To read more about our work on the Fostering Recruitment and Retention Programme click here.