It is reasonable to ask why this choice exists at all. In the past, it was only the local authorities (LAs), who had the task of placing children in foster homes who, for whatever reasons, could no longer live with their birth families. Back then, there were no independent Fostering agencies (IFAs), so local authorities had the responsibility for all children coming into care.
For a whole series of reasons, the LAs found that over time, they could no longer cope with the demands placed upon them. Due to this, fostering agencies came into existence as the need for foster carers became more pressing.
How to make a choice – what steps to take.
If you are considering fostering for the first time, you will have many questions and need general information. The best way to choose between a local authority and independent fostering agency (IFA) is simply to compare how your approach is met: contact your local LA – as well as a couple of local agencies – which can be found on the internet. Agency websites will have a lot of information about fostering: look to see if they have an Ofsted rating. Ofsted is the regulatory body charged by the government to inspect Independent Fostering Agencies under the Care Standards Act 2000. They have the power to register, inspect and, where required, enforce compliance with the Act. Ofsted also grade agencies: look at the agency website for the Ofsted logo showing how they are rated – Outstanding, Good or Requires Improvement. Then draw up a shortlist of agencies. You should not just be influenced by the ‘look’ of a particular website: phone to get information – agencies actively encourage people to call. Think about how your call was received. Were you met with a friendly response? Did you receive answers to all your questions? Important questions to ask should be about the training and support you can expect to get. It is also important to be advised on the financial aspect of fostering – what you can expect to be paid for fostering. You might be invited to a function such as a coffee morning, or introductory evening where you can meet with foster carers. Each agency will leave a different impression- you can then judge which one made you feel the most confident. There is a national shortage of foster carers which means agencies are competing to recruit. Your enquiry is valuable – think about which agency made you feel most valued and comfortable about progressing with fostering.
You should then contact your local authority and repeat the exercise. They will also have a website where you can access information. Again, it is still important to call so you can get a feel for how your questions are dealt with, and the ‘quality’ of the response to your enquiry. Once you have made your initial approaches to both the LA and your shortlist of agencies, don’t be afraid to call back if you have more questions. You are likely to be offered an application pack by the LA as well as any agencies you have contacted. Wait to receive these so you can make comparisons. Along with your phone enquiries, this will help you to build a picture in your mind about fostering with a local authority or an agency.
Considerations to make when choosing between the LA or an IFA.
Two of the most important aspects of fostering revolve around training and support. Ask the LA and the agency that best suits you, what their training schedules are for the year. Training might be offered in certain areas that appeal to the kind of fostering you want to do. Consider the level and type of support offered: can you expect the same social worker to support you through the application process, then remain your supervising social worker once you are approved to foster?
Local authorities will tend to make their placements with their own foster carers first – if they can find the best match. Many carers have given up their jobs to foster, so it is important they get referrals leading to placements without too long a wait. Being on a local authority list of carers makes it likely you will receive regular opportunities to foster. The children are more likely to be based closer to where you live. This means they will probably be in a school nearby.
Agencies differ as they cover a larger area which can extend well beyond a single local authority. This means you may have longer journeys taking a child to contact meetings, medical appointments or school.
Independent fostering agencies came into being to cope with rising demand, but the nature of that demand has been changing over time. Agencies will often find they are trying to place children with complex needs. This can mean challenging behaviour, learning difficulties, disabilities or other special needs. Because of this, it is common that agencies pay larger allowances. Rates of pay are not regulated by the government: every LA or agency can decide on how much their carers are paid. This means that underfunded, often cash strapped councils will tend to pay the minimum recommended rates, whilst agency rates can be significantly higher. Independent Fostering Agencies are on average currently paying a basic weekly allowance and fee of £400. This amount is generally the same for long and short term placements covering all ages of children. By contrast, local authority payments are set by national fostering pay rates: council foster carers receive a weekly fostering allowance.
Should you wish to specialise in fostering a disabled child, agencies will offer high quality training. Higher rates of pay apply when looking after children with complex needs. Independent agencies will also provide support on a twenty four hour basis all year round. It is more usual for an agency to have more supervising social workers available for their carers. This generally means a higher level of support.
The decision to foster, either through an independent agency or a local authority, is ultimately a personal one. The general view is that when fostering through LA’s, the money paid is less, but the gaps between being offered placements can be shorter. Private agencies generally pay more, but they have tended to have more children on their books with complex needs and challenging behaviour. This is beginning to change, because the pressures within the system are growing. This is caused by increasing numbers of children with behavioural and/or medical issues requiring foster homes. And these children will be on local authority lists as well.
The key elements to consider are the type of fostering you wish to do, and the training and support that will be needed, the money you will be paid and the frequency of placement offers. Independent agencies are competing to attract new foster carers so they provide plenty of opportunities for you to attend workshops and ‘open days’. Your final choice should be based on where you feel most comfortable, and are most likely to get the most positive fostering experience.
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