Is the current foster carer assessment process failing children?
Sarah Anderson, FosterWiki founder and NFCQ Co-Founder examines the government statistics on recruitment, assessment and approval, explores the efficacy of the traditional process and argues the case for urgent modernisation.
According to the annual government statistics published last week, we have lost more foster carers than we gained, considering the urgent need for thousands more foster carers it’s a sobering picture.
Foster carer recruitment is the big buzz right now, with large funding going its way. However, as the hand-wringing, repetitious responses and soundbites ensue perhaps we should examine the issues and missed opportunities in more depth and focus on solutions. It is not linear by a long shot but we have to start somewhere, so let us begin there.
In 21-22 the government tell us there were 138,075 initial enquiries (this statistic seems to be missing from this year’s figures for some reason) with only 5670 going into assessment and out of that just 1745 going on to be approved. Whilst I understand the complexity of these statistics I still find it very hard to believe that out of those initial 138,000 enquires over 136,000 were unsuitable to foster.
The most worrying statistic of all is out of the 5670 who went into assessment nearly 4000 dropped out, with similar stats this year. What’s even more concerning is that 71% of these candidates withdrew themselves. These figures are terrible, even with everything taken into account.
The current assessment process is called the ‘form f’, written by CoramBaaf, a membership organisation for fostering services, it is their own interpretation of section 26 of the Fostering Services Regulations (2022) and the government guidance on the assessment and approval of foster carers.
The form f is not a government directive, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it is given its complete monopoly over the assessment process, however, it’s not, it has simply over time somehow become embedded in practice and has remained unchallenged.
The problem with this traditional process is it’s carried out by one single assessor, something which, by default inevitably means it’s a report derived from one single frame of reference, one opinion, one person’s (unconscious) cognitive bias, it means it takes an inordinate amount of time, the quality of the assessments vary hugely and it seems out of step with our modern professional fostering framework.
With a whopping 7 out of 10 candidates withdrawing from the process, one which costs between £10k -£15k each, it is also a huge waste of financial resources when local authorities are struggling, some even declaring bankruptcy.
People withdraw for many reasons; frustrated by the time it takes, bad organisation and communication, questionable safeguarding risks associated with some parts of the process, excessive, unnecessary and disproportionate intrusion, with a seemingly never-ending list of extreme addendums. You do not give up your right to privacy and data protection just because you become a foster carer, there are safe ways to assess candidates without these over-the-top and seemingly endless nonsensical demands.
These assessments also hinge on the relationship with the single assessor and clashes of opinions, personalities and even beliefs. Many candidates withdraw for a mixture of all of the above, deciding that if this is how the system works at this stage it does not bode well for the future.
Neither does the form f assessment process adequately prepare anyone to foster (I’ve been through 2 myself and have feedback from hundreds of carers). Newly approved foster carers begin fostering with very little or no quality education or real preparation for working with the UK’s most vulnerable traumatised children, or any idea of what underpins their role as a foster carer.
The panel is the final destination for this rather antiquated process and often holds things up for even longer. The Panel are of little objective use given they base their opinions on the report derived from this single assessor model, and then spend barely an hour with people they have never met before asking pretty standard questions. What’s more panel doesn’t make any decisions, they just make recommendations, the actual decision on someone’s suitability to foster is not made by them, this is made by the services or agency’s decision maker. So in effect at this point, they are at best window dressing.
Over the years I have watched our industry’s deep-seated, almost religious attachment to panels in dismay, but at the risk of being very unpopular, and despite some of it embedded in statutory regulations, I am now firmly of the opinion that in modern fostering there is no place for panels.
The biggest irony of all is local authorities and agencies don’t even trust the whole form f assessments and panels themselves. This is clearly illustrated when a foster carer wants to transfer to another provider.
Despite the carer transferring with a fully approved form f, with children in placement for many years, with no problems or complaints, excellent feedback, thorough annual household foster carer reviews and re-approvals, the new provider decides it’s necessary to do the whole form f approval process all over again because they don’t trust the one they’re getting from the carer’s existing fully Ofsted approved fostering service. Honestly, it’s the very definition of madness.
For those who remain resolute that it works the statistics say otherwise. 1 in 3 of those newly approved foster carers will be de-registered within 12-18 months, many of those remaining will have allegations or poor standards of care levelled against them, children and young people continue to be bounced around the system as placements break down multiple times from carer to carer unable to meet their needs, and the outcomes for children remain dire, year on year.
For all the above reasons a new non-profit organisation the NFCQ, have spent the past year developing a new Integrated Assessment Process. Developed by experts from across the fostering industry it is a modern and innovative strengths-based system.
It’s a process that is not an end unto itself but a beginning, one that integrates and immerses the candidate in their role and their fostering team from the start, providing a very solid foundation, with educated, trauma-informed, reflective and nurturing carers – from day one.
I am fully aware of the complexities, we do not work in a perfect system, but one of the quintessential problems hard-wired into the existing culture is one of ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’, but as foster care steps deeper into a crisis we all need to be open to see if it can be done a different way.
The new NFCQ Integrated Assessment Process will assess quality candidates in 8-10 weeks, not months, exponentially raise standards, focus on higher safeguarding principles and provide sufficient loving fostering families who are able to meet the needs of our children in care.
In the end, it’s the children who are the winners.
Enquires to NFCQ Co-Founder and Director Karl Pizzey on [email protected]