When you’re beginning to think seriously about applying to foster, there will be a lot of decisions to make. One of them will be who you want to foster with; your local authority or an independent fostering agency? And, if you chose a fostering agency, how do you find one that’s right for you.
What’s the difference between fostering with a local authority and an independent fostering agency?
Your local authority will be registered with Ofsted as a Fostering Services Provider, and they will work closely with the Children’s Social Care teams to identify those children who need a foster placement. There are a significant number of children who need to be placed but, given the shortage of foster carers, they can’t always be accommodated in local authority placements. Many Independent Fostering Agencies have well-established arrangements with local authorities, who will contact them to see if they have a placement that meets the needs of the child or young person to be placed.
Children are often placed in or near to the community where they used to live, unless they are at risk if they remain in their local area. When a child is first placed with a carer it can be beneficial for them to continue to attend their usual nursery or school. It also makes it easier to maintain contact with birth family members.
Independent agencies and local authorities recruit, assess and train their own foster carers, with some of the independent agencies providing placements for children and young people with specific needs, for example, children with serious health issues. Wherever children are placed, it will need to be agreed with the case responsible local authority as they have a legal responsibility to protect and accommodate those children who are at risk or in need.
There is a myth that local authorities approach independent agencies when they need to place children who have high levels of need or challenging behaviour. Given the back story of the children who cannot live safely with their family, it is understandable that many come into care traumatised, distressed or withdrawn. However, using the resources available even the most vulnerable child can make good progress. The Local Authority, working with an independent agency, can find the best match for a child – not the first available placement, but one that will provide a secure and nurturing family environment.
Independent fostering agencies often have greater freedom to develop their own unique ethos, with carers and members of staff identifying and signing up to the agency’s objectives. All agencies want to give children a happy childhood whilst supporting them to achieve the best possible outcomes. AFA provide strong support networks for children, carers and staff which include 24/7 support, carried out by qualified social workers who know the children we care for. AFA and local authorities are both committed to providing a consistently high standard of care.
If you decide that an independent fostering agency is the right route for you, please bear in mind that becoming a foster carer will be one of the biggest life-changing decisions you will make. It will be challenging, and you will need plenty of support, but the rewards are worth the journey. Carers can only be approved by one agency at a time, so finding an agency that you feel happy and comfortable with is really important.
Here is a short list of some of the most frequently asked questions that you will need to think about when considering your options…
Is the agency or local authority within easy travelling distance of where you live?
Working with an agency who is based near you, or has a local office, makes a lot of sense. You will regularly be attending training and meetings, so being close at hand will cut down on travelling time.
How big is the agency?
An agency that is small enough for the social workers to know each child and carer is likely to provide a good level of support. You will also want the ratio of Placement Managers to carers to be high so that carers and children get the 1 to 1 support they need. When you phone to make an appointment see if your call is returned quickly and if you are made to feel welcome.
What support and training can you expect to have?
Training, in a group or 1 to 1, is vital to ensure that foster carers are up to date with developments, changes to legislation and best practice. Knowing that you will receive the right level of training and support after your assessment will help you feel you’ve made the right choice. AFA provides training, working alongside our most experienced foster carers. We also hold training run by external providers, foster carers and placement managers to develop areas of expertise.
Does the agency have a particular specialism?
If there is an area of fostering that you are particularly interested in, such as mother and baby placements, a good agency will make sure that you gradually acquire the ‘hands on’ skills needed to work with children who have particularly complex needs. Make sure that you get as much information as you can about all the agencies close to you before you make a decision. AFA has also been actively involved in a number of research projects, with the University of East Anglia and other national universities.
Who really owns the fostering service you are interested in?
Over the past few years, there has been a concerning trend for venture capitalist companies to buy fostering agencies, both small and national. The ‘take over’ company is usually motivated by the prospect of making money, but the other drawback is that the larger a company becomes the further carers have to travel for training and support groups. Local offices often close down when the number of carers they support locally starts to drop.
Those companies who buy fostering agencies often continue to use the name of the small agency they have taken over, so it is worth asking a direct question to find out who actually owns the company. AFA is independent and those who own and work for the agency do so because they believe in everything that AFA stands for; honesty, integrity and respect.
One of the ways to measure the quality of care is to look at the outcomes for children. You can ask the agency if children placed through them by a local authority:
- Achieve well academically
- Know how to have fun and enjoy life
- Are involved in sport, activities and hobbies
- Have skills that will help them when they move on to greater independence
- Are considerate and demonstrate empathy to others
- Have links with members of their birth family (where it is safe to do so)
- Know how to keep themselves safe
- Can make and maintain positive relationships.
AFA is proud to be completely independent. We always put our children, young people, foster parents and staff first.
How much do independent fostering agencies pay?
If you want to make a fortune, then fostering is not for you! All agencies, local authority and independent, pay sufficient to financially support a child. The allowance will cover all that a child needs, taking into account extra costs such as having to do the washing more often or needing to buy a bigger car. However, it is valid question for those who have to work full time, have limited resources or their own family to support. At AFA we can say that our carers are paid regularly and fostering allowances are fair and transparent.
How to find the right fostering agency
The information in this article may have generated a long list of questions and things to think about. You may find it helpful to search online for local agencies. You can also find a list on the BAAF (British Association of Adoption and Fostering) website.
A good way to find out the quality of care provided is to read the most recent Ofsted report (Our unique reference number: SC406969). AFA’s review was carried out in February 2018 and was judged to be ‘good’. The report states that ‘the children in placement have very good experiences and make significant progress’. AFA was judged as ‘outstanding’ under the heading ‘How well children and young people are helped and protected’. This gives you an idea of the sort of agency we are, one that is proud of all those we care for and work with!
Don’t commit yourself to anything before you have done some preliminary checks, which should include reading the latest Ofsted report. These early checks are likely to reduce the number of agencies you want to contact. Most agencies will want to arrange an initial visit, but you may want to arrange to go the main office of your chosen independent or local authority agency, as this gives you the opportunity to meet some of the staff and get a feel of the organisation.
We welcome visits to our Norwich office, and our Midlands office. Simply give us a call using the appropriate number on our contact page to arrange a time to suit you.