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Children are not for profit!

Sacha Samms, a former looked-after child and social worker, explains why she has concerns about independent fostering agencies profiting from children

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 13 May, 2021

Talk of profit margins, golden hellos, targets, bonuses and six-figure salaries usually goes with huge corporations.

But I am actually referring to foster care provision for vulnerable children - and I was one of the ‘commodities’ potentially traded. Having something done to me, as a child and without my express permission, does not sit comfortably.

And yet it is people like me who generate profits. The business dynamic of an independent fostering agency (IFA) is a reality for thousands of looked-after children.

The stakeholders are powerless, of course, and so it is unlikely that any organisation with influence or authority would stand in solidarity to challenge their practices.
Some IFAs are profit-making, and by extension this means they profit from vulnerable children. As a care-experienced person this feels unethical and corrupt, but there are no laws against this practice.

Local authorities are now largely dependent on IFAs to provide foster carers.

Many agency workers have jumped ship to them with the promise of a ‘golden hello’, high weekly fees - anywhere between £300 and £1,000 per week per child - and lower caseloads. IFA social workers hold cases of maybe 15 each, in contrast to local authority social workers who typically deal with double that.

Profit-making IFAs are often owned by conglomerates, which make vast profits. Imagine if these profits were spent on the children who leave care with nothing to plug the gaps of inequality?

FACT BOX

  • Most children in care in England are in foster care, and private provision is through Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAS)
  • A third (35 per cent) of fostering households are registered with an IFA, rising to 60 per cent in some cases
  • There were over 11,000 more children in care in 2019 than there were in 2011 and 73 per cent of those additional children were cared for by private organisations
  • Demand has not been met by local authorities, and local authority provision has shrunk in some areas
  • Foster care and children’s homes formerly run by local authorities are increasingly operated by the independent sector, including charities, community interest companies and not-for-profit organisations

Source: Children’s Commissioner Report - Private Provision in Children’s Social Care

Not-so-not-for-profit

Then we have the not-for-profits. If a business has a truly charitable ethos, why pay immense salaries to CEOs? Directors and managers can allegedly be paid in excess of £120,000. The average salary for a local authority children’s services director is £87,000. This salary information is freely available via a quick search on Companies House, though financial records do not always make salaries 100 per cent explicit (again, I find this worrying).

I have worked for IFAs and contributed to the system, however a step back and critical reflection leaves me shaken. My only excuse, in hindsight, is that I was drawn into wishing to 'do good' without fully contemplating the hidden underside of IFA financial undertakings and the fundamentals of the system.

Local authorities are as heavily dependent on IFAs as they are on agency social workers. Surely this money could be better invested in the local authority to improve recruitment and retention, training and support, encouraging foster carers to work directly for them?

Both the not-for-profit and profit-making IFAs are totally separate entities to local authorities, requiring separate business support staff, cleaners, managers, support workers, panel members, social workers, all of whom need a salary.
I am more than 100 per cnet certain if a survey of looked-after children was undertaken, they would feel as I do, and would voice compellingly that they do not wish to be a profit-making resource for a fat cat conglomerate.They would also oppose the immense salaries of not-for-profit CEOs.

Business first

Working for an IFA is a different world to being part of a local authority team. Ruthless business practices are at the forefront: even in not-for-profit IFAs, money is thrown at social workers able to take on additional independent assessment work.

If foster carers transfer to a competitor your practice is scrutinised in witch-hunt fashion and you are held grossly accountable, scrabbling to justify why foster carers may wish to move to rival agencies.

I recall three sets of my carers wishing to transfer in the same week and my manager raged over how much money the organisation would lose, how much they had wasted in funding my assessment work, threatening not to pay me, leaving me crying and shaken.

This was one of the reasons I decided to quit social work. It was a David versus Goliath situation - I could not win and my mental wellbeing was worth more than that.

There was also huge toll on my identity as a care experienced person. Having to pander to foster carers who threatened to transfer after a tough night with perhaps an upset young person was not why I went into this job.

I saw wasted funds covering hotel stays for assessment work. There were expensive training days. Charity funding applications were turned down because of high salaries of managers. Surplus funds were spent on fancy websites and promo days and ensuring the carers were happy was the critical objective.

The term ‘heads in beds’ was used to refer to empty placements. 

If an IFA social worker left an organisation for another, they were bound by a legal contract that they could not communicate for three months with the foster carers they had supported, often for years.

This was intended as a warning to others tempted to jump ship and foster carers were often left in bewilderment as to why their intensively supportive professional friend had abruptly disappeared.

See the good

I am not seeking to criticise the foster carers who are generally good people, wishing to provide a loving home to vulnerable children, or those IFA social workers who are generally always trying their best to protect vulnerable children, whilst walking the ‘business of social work’ tightrope.

There is some good work going on within IFAs, but there would also be good work from local authorities if they were allowed to 'redistribute the wealth' internally as opposed to funding this vicious cycle of lack of carers resulting in the need to use IFAs. A dangerous precedent has been set and it's impossible to back track. This is the business of social work.
Looked-after children are thankfully unaware of being traded commodities. Families know little of practices not candidly publicised. Local authorities rely on IFAs for provision of beds and so IFAs hold such a non-contested position in the 'market' that no one is willing to challenge them.

And so, even in my 30s, as a care-experienced person, I still experience inequality - it doesn’t go away. And it upsets, saddens and disturbs me that people like me are exploited in such a way by businesses and organisations sugar-coated as charitable.

Give back the power

Vulnerable children are not for profit. As a person who is care-experienced, it infuriates me that I was a commodity. I feel conflicted that I bought into IFAs - particularly the profit-making type - as a social worker. It is not okay. The power needs to be given back to local authorities.

But the business of social work is in full swing. Local authorities muddle through with financial cut after cut to service provision for the most vulnerable, but pay out more and more to independent agencies.

Is this ethical? Could you in good conscience explain to a looked-after child why the people who ‘support them’ earn what they do, or that they are essentially making profit for a huge corporation?

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.