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My experience of private fostering agencies

Drawing on his own experiences, Wayne Reid looks at the pros and cons of independent fostering agencies

Picture of article author Wayne Reid

This viewpoint article was originally published in March 2018 issue of PSW magazine

By Wayne Reid

Two articles in The Guardian in recent times explored independent fostering agencies (IFAs) being financially backed by investment companies and the impact of carers ‘jumping ship’ to IFAs. I've worked for three IFAs and a local authority. Both articles criticised the profit IFAs make from councils. In my view this issue is more complex than just a monetary transaction.

Many IFAs maintain high standards and secure positive outcomes for children due to their specialism, greater resources, streamlined infrastructure, less bureaucracy and fewer statutory responsibilities. An IFA’s standards are often reflected in their carer recruitment and the support, supervision and training offered. These influence the care experience, opportunities and permanence options for children and young people.

IFAs often support “difficult to place” young people. They may have challenging behaviours, complex medical needs or have experienced numerous ‘placement breakdowns’. I think this level of care and expertise warrants additional remuneration for carers and greater recognition for supervising social workers (SSWs). I supported placements where children made good progress. Many achieved positive permanent outcomes.

The calibre of carers the agency recruited, the specialist support and supervision and the IFA’s standards (at the time) were all factors. I’ve known IFAs become like ‘extended family’ to foster families in terms of group activities and support.

Nonetheless, it’s not all roses and sunshine. I have encountered some IFA practices that are questionable and unethical. These include dubious ‘matching’; carers pressured to accommodate children; key information being ignored or withheld; charging local authorities for ‘therapeutic’ placements – the list goes on. Of course, these scenarios have potentially devastating outcomes for everyone involved and it is awful to witness.

I’m aware too of IFAs with a good ethos around matching, that provide support, training and operate to high standards. They have good Ofsted ratings and positive feedback from carers and local authorities. But unfortunately, smaller agencies are being bought up by larger IFA groups (often backed by a finance company).

These companies can have very different priorities. The emphasis can swiftly move from empowering SSWs to manage placements to handing them unrealistic recruitment targets, performance indicators, unhelpful policies, higher caseloads and larger ‘patches’ to cover. This means SSWs are forced to work longer hours, travel longer distances and have less time to undertake direct work. Sadly, this can result in SSWs and foster carers moving on – an increasingly common occurrence.

The experiences and perspectives of social workers in private fostering agencies can easily be overlooked as attention focuses on local authority work. I’ve even had local authority social workers insist my only interest is in money (because I worked for an IFA), overlooking the fact that we undertook the same qualification.

Most SSWs are home-based. This has its perks but also presents challenges, including isolation from peers, limited training opportunities and communication difficulties.

I was disappointed with Sir Martin Narey’s recent report on fostering, which recommends SSWs take on the ‘responsible authority’ of local authority social workers. I was offended by the description of SSWs as “dispassionate”. The SSW role demands the utmost compassion to work effectively with children and families, both birth and adoptive.

Personally, I don’t see how SSWs can impartially advocate for the child and young person and support and supervise the foster carers. There is obvious potential for conflicts of interest between the child and young person, carer and IFA, particularly if Narey’s proposal to dispense with the Independent Reviewing Officer role goes through.

The Narey review recommendations would undoubtedly save money – but at what cost? I worry they would compromise the support SSWs provide and stifle the potential benefits of private fostering. A good way forward is for BASW and the National Association of Fostering Providers to promote strong social work ethics and practice in this area. We need to support SSWs in this ‘hidden domain’, raise fostering’s profile and mobilise a response to the Narey proposals.

Wayne Reid is a professional officer for BASW England

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.