Recruiting foster carers is a big challenge. It's not just a numbers game - the most appropriate carer needs to be found to suit the child's locality, age, race and any special health or learning needs.
According to a Department for Education & Skills-funded study, Improving effectiveness in foster care recruitment, by the Fostering Network, lack of placement choice can have devastating effects. Children may have to move school and find it difficult to maintain contact with their family and friends, leading to poorer outcomes and greater dissatisfaction among foster carers.
The efforts of these councils are leading to an increase in the number of children living with foster carers every year, both in total, and as a proportion of all looked-after children. Here is what some of the best councils are doing:
1 Employ carers in the recruitment team
Foster carers are at the heart of Norfolk CC's fostering recruitment team. The team hires five experienced foster carers with NVQ level three to work for up to five hours per week on a self-employed sessional basis.
Carers have become more involved since 2003, when a separate recruitment and assessment team was set up, and they now undertake initial visits to potential carers and present, with a social worker, training for new recruits. For the past six months a pilot has also been running in which they are working on assessments of applicants.
Sue McCann, assistant team manager at the fostering recruitment team, says the carers' contribution is invaluable for providing new applicants with 'the day-to-day insights into the joys and realities of fostering' and allowing applicants to make an informed decision about whether fostering is right for them.
Carers are included in the recruitment team's bi-monthly team meetings and practice development forums and receive regular supervision.
The costs of employing the carers is approximately£20,000 - half of which is funded by government grants and the rest from the council.
'They all continue in their main role as foster carers, with children and young people in placement, and their input via sessional work has to remain at a level that does not detract from their caring role,' Ms McCann says.
2 Outsource recruitment of foster carers
In the late 1990s, Shropshire found it was 'haemorrhaging' foster carers to the private sector because of the poor allowances it paid. Now, the council approves one in every five to six applicants - double the national conversion rate.
It is a turnaround that Chris Dennison, headof the council's children's placement service, attributes to a best value review undertaken five years ago. This concluded that social workers are not experts in marketing or
recruitment and recommended borrowing the approaches of beacon councils which had outsourced the entire recruitment process.
The council signed a deal with private firm Ontrac Communication, which Mr Dennison describes as 'very slick', and also boosted carer allowances to the top of the range. Ontrac is in charge of the whole recruitment process - as well as rebranding the service, they hold all the initial information sessions, send out information packs and field calls. The only thing they don't do is the final assessment of applicants - that decision is taken by trained social workers.
The company spent the first nine months doing research, and rebranding the service. 'They're very good at all the literature, all the PR. They've helped us to professionalise the service. They run information meetings at local hotels with PowerPoint presentations.'
Some 40 new fostering households have been created as a result - quite an achievement,
especially since the original target was 15 households.
Mr Dennison says the company is good at listening to the council's ideas, and doesn't stick with one form of advertising.
'The only health warning I would add is that you never really know what you would've achieved if you didn't go down that [private sector] road.
'They're a global organisation and they're not going to make huge amounts of money from these contracts. But the chief executive, who's semi-retired now, was a foster carer years before.
'They are involved because of the social conscience they have. It's a way of a private organisation putting something back into the community.'
3 Appoint a minority ethnic recruitment officer
The ethnic background of children needing foster care can be an important consideration. Brighton & Hove City Council has employed a minority ethnic recruitment officer, Virginia Collison, for the past year.
Clare Smith, service manager at the council's fostering team, explains that there is a very diverse black and minority ethnic population in the area, with no single group dominating, but historically the council had found it difficult to place children with households of the same race.
'So we put our money where our mouth was and appointed Virginia. We chose her for her community background.' She had worked for the last four years with Brighton & Hove's biggest BME community organisation, Moziac.
Since her appointment, Ms Collison has been reviewing the recruitment strategy, going out and talking to community leaders and supporting carers in trans-racial placements.
Ms Smith says: 'In our advertisements we've had more black faces, we're advertised in different press and we're now making sure black workers are present in the information sessions.
'We are also targeting events where there will be a BME presence - such as a Black History Month event.
'Even the venues where we hold the information sessions - previously it was a church hall - have been changed as this might not seem to be inclusive.'
At its most recent meeting, the fostering panel approved two new BME carers. This means the council has already met its target of recruiting 8% of new carers from a BME background.
Ms Collison herself is white. 'It's very interesting, everyone expects us to have a black woman in the BME role,' says Ms Smith. She won the job due to the skills she developed in her previous post. We interviewed black people for the position, but it wasn't a criteria.'
4 Examine your use of agencies
Thurrock BC created the role of business development manager for vulnerable groups to take a clearer, strategic overview of several functions, explains the postholder, Philip Franklin.
He is responsible for recruiting foster carers and adoptive families, as well as handling arrangements for commissioning placements from independent fostering agencies. He
already had two-and-a-half years' experience working on recruitment and marketing before taking on the new post a few months ago.
Mr Franklin says this allows him to 'look at the pipeline' and plan better for future foster carer recruitment needs. It also allows him to question the use of agencies more closely.
'Some placements that were made in the short term can often go on longer than you expect. We may have used an agency in a crisis situation, where a child who presented with complex behaviours needed a lot of input at the outset. In 12-18 months the child might not need this, but the agencies had continued to be paid the same.
'It's about going back to the agencies and saying, realistically this is where we are, this doesn't apply any more.'
5 Pay staff for foster carer referrals
Islington LBC's fostering team has succeeded in prompting council staff to think about the contribution they can make to foster carer recruitment.
Alongside its traditional recruitment efforts, the team offers all staff - from refuse collectors to finance officers -£500 if they recommend someone they know who is approved as a new foster carer.
So far the team has received eight referrals from staff. Two of these, from a foster carer and a social worker, have gone through to the final assessment.
The tactic is part of a strategy that the fostering team has implemented from early 2005. Other efforts include forging links with individuals at operational level, such as the communications team, and working with the corporate parent's board, which brings together representatives from housing, education, primary care trusts and councillors.
Each week the fostering team is required to report to the executive member for children's services so that progress can be monitored closely on the number of enquiries, visits to applicants, people awaiting preparation training and final approvals of carers.
In the year prior to the new strategy, 113 people, not necessarily local, enquired about foster caring. In the year following, this increased to an impressive 700, all from people in north-east London.
The team expects around 5% of enquirers to go on to be approved as foster carers. In the past two years it has approved 30 new foster families.
Find out more
Mary Beek, team manager of the Norfolk County
Fostering Recruitment Team, email:
Chris Dennison, head of children's placement service, Shropshire CC, tel: 01743 254700
Clare Smith, service manager at Brighton & Hove fostering team, email: Clare.firstname.lastname@example.org or visit
Philip Franklin, business development manager for vulnerable groups, Thurrock BC, tel: 01375 652913. Or visit
The Fostering Network: www.fostering.net
Ontrac Communications: www.ontrac-group.com
Susanna Daus, head of Islington LBC Fostering Team, tel: 08000730428 or visit www.islington.gov.uk