Up and down the country, local authorities are working hard to find foster carers for children who have been taken into care. The Fostering Network estimates that a further 7,180 foster families are needed in the next 12 months, in order to ensure all fostered children can live with the right family for them.

This might suggest there aren’t enough people who are willing or able to become foster carers. But we don’t think this is true and have been working with some local authorities to design solutions that offer an alternative future for fostering.

By focusing on improving the application process and how councils could share information, we can start to make a big difference to the number of people who can care for looked after children.

Consistent and clear communications

Local Authorities aren’t marketing agencies. If they’re lucky, they might have a dedicated communications person in their fostering team. For compelling, targeted marketing, many will need to either commission people who live and breathe the craft of advertising and good content design or invest in their staff.

In the meantime, it’s essential to make sure all communications are consistent and clear so that when people find out about the role, they get the same message from the website to the call handler and recruitment events.

Digital channels allow messages to be tested by communicating more than one version of a content piece at a time. Marketing campaigns should be measured using analytics and tracking so that the team know exactly which messages generate the highest quality interest.

Making the application process more seamless and transparent

People who enquire about becoming a foster carer need to be contacted promptly. Many foster carers we speak to simply choose one authority over another because they were the first to get back to them — the bar is pretty low.

It can take up to 8 months for people to apply to become a carer. This includes detailed checks into their personal lives, so the process should feel seamless and transparent.

In Hackney, we’ve been working with the fostering team to develop a prototype that demonstrates what a digital application could look like. Currently, applicants have to complete a long paper application form. It’s not uncommon for people to get stuck and submit incomplete applications to the team.

Prototyping a digital application for becoming a foster carer

A digital application service would allow people to complete the application at their own pace — our research has shown that many people don’t complete it in one sitting. It could be pre-populated with information the applicant submitted when they first contacted the service and staff could have visibility about which parts might be outstanding to offer assistance.

It’s simple things like this that we think fostering services can get right. This should mean that local authorities not only attract more people, but more of the right people apply and hold onto as many of them as they move through the process.

Opening up data about the supply of foster carers

Both the supply of foster carers and demand for looked after children is fragmented across different local authorities. Children are looked after by the authority they live in, which makes sense. They have built a life for themselves and it’s often not in their best interests to move them away from that.

Whilst foster carers, although they can apply to foster for any authority, can only be fostering for one at a time.

Local authorities cannot always make an appropriate match between the children they have taken into the care of and the carers they have recruited. Matching is an important part of the process as it influences how stable a placement is for a child. Sadly it is estimated that around half of teenage placements break down before the young person reaches 18.

While authorities try to find a good match, children may be stuck in a residential home where outcomes are bleak or might even have to remain at home, at risk. It also has a negative impact on foster carers who may be without a placement for a prolonged period of time. This mismatch between supply and demand means that every authority has vacancies amongst their carers as well as shortages. They are then heavily reliant on independent fostering agencies to step in.

We think that this supply should be shareable across the country through opening data about vacancies and placements needed.

This could be tested within a small group of authorities as a way of sharing local capacity. This is something that adoption already benefits from and services such as LinkMaker are starting to do the same for fostering.

A fee could be paid by the authority for each carer they match. More carers will be in work, earning and therefore less likely to give up on the profession. They will also be able to move but continue to foster without having to reapply with their new authority.

At its core, this is about re-defining the relationships authorities have with other authorities and independent agencies, both of which they are currently in competition with.

How do we get there?

In 2018, we’re planning on hosting a forum to discuss the future of fostering and would like to invite leaders and practitioners to contribute to the discussion.

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