Councils ‘unprepared for projected 33% rise in children needing foster care’, research warns

The number of children needing foster care in England could rise by around a third within the next decade, but many councils are unprepared, research warns.

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) said it is “very unlikely” that the current system meets the needs of children and young people within it and many councils are also not planning for future demand.

The cross-party think tank forecasts that almost 77,000 children could be in foster care by 2030 based on current growth – up 33% compared to current numbers.

Growth in the number of approved foster care families would have to rise 2.9% annually to meet this demand, it says, but in all but one of the past five years it has been significantly lower.

The think tank’s latest report, Fostering The Future, considers the foster care system in England prior to the Covid-19 crisis.

While there were more available placements than children requiring foster care as of March 2020, the SMF says a wealth of data suggests the system is struggling to recruit and match carers to meet the growing demand and range of children’s needs.

Evidence suggests “significant levels of instability that is highly suggestive of poor placement matches due to a lack of effective capacity”, the SMF found.

More than half (51%) of placements that ended in England in the year to March 2020 lasted less than six months, and around one in eight (12%) lasted less than a week.

Reviews have suggested children are placed in the most appropriate available placement, rather than a placement that necessarily meets their needs.

Around one in eight (13%) children needing foster care as part of a sibling group were not placed according to the plan to keep them together, according to Ofsted data covering the year to March 2020.

Only nine local authorities (6%) were able to provide details of the number of sibling groups they expected to need placements for going forwards, when responding to Freedom of Information requests by the SMF.

Around three quarters (74%) of local authorities told the SMF they had made no forecast of future demand for foster care.

The think tank said official statistics are “misleading and inaccurate” as they only measure the number of placements and children requiring them, saying little about whether these meet children’s needs.

It is calling for a national measure of “effective capacity”, based on needs and circumstances, to be established.

Matthew Oakley (pictured), SMF senior researcher, said the Department for Education and local authorities must work together, calling for an urgent strategy to ensure effective capacity and more support for councils.

He said: “Children requiring foster care are some of the most vulnerable in society. With the right placements, providing the support and care they need, these children can be given the same life chances as children without care experience.

“But this is not happening. Local authorities are abjectly failing to meet their legal duties to plan for and provide foster placements that meet the needs of children needing foster care.”

He added: “There can be good reasons for separating siblings in some cases, but doing so because the council has not planned enough appropriate fostering provision is inexcusable. These are vulnerable children who have already faced trauma and turmoil, so it is appalling that the state should then inflict additional strain on them.”

The SMF’s report was supported by the Hadley Trust, a grant-giving charity helping disadvantaged children and adults.

Councillor Teresa Heritage, vice-chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “With councils now looking after nearly 16,000 more children than they were 10 years ago, and the needs of those young people becoming more complex, it is becoming increasingly difficult for councils to make sure that every child has the best home to meet their needs.

“As the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has rightly highlighted, there has been a lack of national focus on the recruitment of foster carers and we continue to call on the Government to work with councils on a campaign to encourage more people to come forward.

“We look forward to continuing our work with the Independent Review to find ways to improve the children’s social care system, including fostering, to make sure all children in care can grow up in loving homes that meet their needs and support them to thrive.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Local authorities are responsible for all looked-after children in their area, including those in or requiring foster care, and we have made significant additional funding available in response to changing pressures. The law is clear that whenever it is in their best interests, siblings should be placed together.

“We are investing in different approaches to help councils provide the right kind of foster care places, including through new research and by trialling different ways to planning and commissioning placements. During the pandemic we have also made it easier for councils and fostering agencies to identify potential placements, and to assess and approve new foster carers, so that children get the support they deserve without delay.”

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