Independent fostering providers: predators or pioneers, partners or procured?

Author:Sellick, Clive


The public sector was the almost exclusive provider of fostering placements for children in care in Britain for much of the second half of the 20th century (Pringle, 1998; Hendrik, 2005). Local authorities were generally able to recruit, approve and provide sufficient numbers of foster carers at a time when as many or more children in care were living in residential homes (Berridge, 1985; Sinclair and Gibbs, 1998; Bullock, 1999). Most of the fostered children were younger when they joined their foster families and many grew up in long-term care, when a care order deprived birth parents of all parental rights or responsibilities, short of opposing the adoption or emigration of their children (Thoburn, 1999). Those who were fostered tended not to have presented the difficulties described by Sinclair and his colleagues in their subsequent study of fostered children in seven local authorities, who:

... might steal, lie, break things, have tantrums, refuse to eat, smear walls, wet their beds, refuse to bath, continually defy their carers, set light to their bedding, take overdoses, make sexual advances to other children, expose themselves in public, make false allegations, attack others, truant, take drugs or get into trouble with the police. (Sinclair et al, 2000, p 3)

Children with these emotional and behavioural problems, who were often older, had been placed for many years in residential rather than foster care. A range of facilities had been available, from reception, observation and assessment centres to therapeutic settings and community homes with education (Kahan, 1994). However, child placement patterns had begun to shift from residential to foster care by the 1980s. The accepted wisdom that fostering provided a more sensitive and nurturing experience of care, and at reduced costs, led Shaw and Hipgrave (1983, p 16) to contend that 'the blending of psychiatry and finance produced a heady brew'.

This change in direction in child care policy, leading to a significant shift in placement practice, came with unintended but predictable consequences. A simple law of economics, that supply needs to meet demand, appears to have been disregarded. As residential child care receded, nearly all local authorities faced a foster carer recruitment and retention crisis by the end of the 1990s. Two studies, one in England and one in Scotland, found evidence of a significant shortfall in local authority approved foster carers. In the study by Waterhouse (1997), English local authorities at this time were only able to offer a placement of choice to children aged below ten years in 20 per cent of cases. This fell to a mere three per cent for older children and young people (most of whom would have been in residential care a decade earlier). In Scotland, 30 per cent of foster placements were not the first choice of the children's social workers and in 14 per cent of cases no placements were available at all within local authorities (Triseliotis et al, 2000).

Economic illiteracy also predominated for many years, as policy makers promoted the notion that fostering was considerably cheaper than residential care. Knapp and Fenyo (1989) questioned government figures which estimated that in 1984/5 foster placements cost an average of 42 [pounds sterling] per child per week compared with 304 [pounds sterling] for a child in residential accommodation. However, these calculations are confounded by the fact that the marginal costs (in this case placing the last child) are different, depending on whether the placement is in existing in-house provision or purchased from an external agency. These authors estimated that the hidden costs of foster care associated with social work and administrative staff time, and community educational and therapeutic services for foster children, were on average 176 per cent of the direct costs of fostering. These additional costs apply to residential placements in local authority accommodation as well, but they are probably less for external placements as the agency deals with some of the administration and incorporates these costs in its charges to the local authority.

Later publications make clear that the costs of fostering have risen consistently in the past 20 years (Tapsfield and Collier, 2005; Holmes and Soper, 2010). These authors have also calculated that local authority estimates of cost are significantly below those of independent fostering providers (IFPs). In spite of mechanisms for calculating costs (see for example, Ward and Holmes, 2008), local authorities rarely use these (DCSF, 2009) and so commission IFP placements as a last resort (Sellick, 2010). Another basic law of economics appears to have been overlooked: that the private market would grasp new funding opportunities when the public sector was confronted by supply difficulties or political change. Even in the face of significant moves towards the privatisation of adult social care in the 1980s, most commentators considered that the child care sector was secure in its local authority base (Thoburn and Sellick, 1997; Payne and Shardlow, 2002).

Three key and inter-related corollaries emerged as fostering became the principal placement of choice for all children and young people needing out-of-home care. The first, as we have seen, was the under-provision of local authority foster carers for a growing proportion of looked after children and young people, including those with significant behavioural and emotional difficulties (Sinclair et al, 2004). Second, the independent (including an expanding private) sector responded and found new income opportunities by establishing a market for foster placements and related services. Third, as a direct consequence of residential home closures and foster carer shortages, local authorities had to place children in need of care with IFPs, irrespective of cost. These placements were often obtained at short notice, initially for brief periods, without proper planning or matching, on the authority of senior managers (Sellick, 1999). This 'spot purchasing' of placements by local authorities from IFPs became widespread. In her study of the organisation and delivery of foster care services across England, Waterhouse (1997) found that almost all local authorities were purchasing IFP placements, albeit modestly, in the mid-1990s. These agencies were emerging (gradually at first in the south-east of England) throughout England and Wales and were founded and staffed by former local authority social workers and foster carers. They grew from 62 in 1998 to 265 in 2005, so that by the middle of the decade there were almost twice as many IFPs as local authority fostering units (Sellick, 2007).

This article traces the phases of development in the expansion of the independent fostering sector with reference to a series of five empirical studies between 1997 and 2010. These are used to examine how the provider agencies assumed, or were conferred, a changing set of identities during the UK's New Labour era (1997-2010). These identities will be scrutinised by referring to the published accounts of this research. A considerable body of knowledge has emerged in recent years about the foster care experience of children and young people, including the relationships they gain or lose and the outcomes that may follow their periods in foster care. Studies have also examined the costs and effectiveness of child placements including foster care. Published accounts of the related research are referred to in this article but these are not addressed in any detail. Instead, the article explores the policy and practice developments associated with the growth and establishment of the independent foster care sector in Britain. Many of these developments are centred in England and Wales, although two of the studies selected below incorporate data from Scotland and one from Northern Ireland (Sellick and Connolly, 2002; Sellick and Howell, 2003, 2004).

The article examines four positions which have been attributed to the IFPs during this period. First, were the IFPs effective business operators, making well-judged but essentially hostile bids to profit from the supply difficulties of local authorities? Were they, therefore, predators? Second, were the IFPs operating in the tradition of Britain's voluntary child care sector, able to innovate and develop services in ways which were both non-bureaucratic and responsive to the expressed needs of service users and carers? Were they, therefore, pioneers? Third, as IFPs expanded across the country, collaborative working arrangements began to develop with managerial and operational staff from local authorities for the supply of placements and related educational and therapeutic services. Many staff, from both sectors, valued and praised these arrangements, especially for the working relationships which emerged from them. Were the...

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