Recruiting foster carers
Recruiting and retaining foster carers is key to delivering an effective fostering service. Although there is a shortage of foster carers, there is a great deal of information from research about effective recruitment and many fostering agencies are using this knowledge in their practice.
Local schemes, especially using word of mouth and articles in the local press, are most successful, and a consistently high local profile is required in order to recruit more foster carers. One off, unsystematic campaigns are less effective and ongoing publicity, for example, about the need for foster carers and the benefits of the task, achieves more.
Recruitment campaigns should use young people who are or who have been fostered, and they should also use foster carers and their networks to attract potential recruits.
Campaigns should focus on the professionalism of the task: the opportunities for training and qualifications, the opportunities to diversify into other childcare work, and the financial rewards. Successful campaigns are likely to have the following features:
- good knowledge of the local area
- systems in place for following up enquiries: fostering agencies must respond in a timely, and business-like manner to sustain the interest of potential foster carers, because only about 20 per cent of enquiries lead to applications
- use of the local media
- ongoing recruitment - not just one-off drives
- use of foster carers’ own networks.
- Ask yourself how to keep the profile of fostering in your locality consistently high, perhaps using branding and specialist marketing techniques. Remember that local schemes using, for example, word of mouth and articles printed in the local press work best. Some fostering agencies give financial rewards to those who introduce carers. Remember to use the skills and experience of children and foster carers in recruitment campaigns.
- Remember that you have an important role to play to maximise every opportunity to make local people more aware of the need for foster carers, and their important work. It is also important to think about ways of enabling foster carers and foster children to participate in recruitment campaigns.
- Targeted campaigns and information, such as those finding carers for children from specific black and minority ethnic backgrounds, can be very effective. So think about ways in which you can emphasise the positives about fostering: the professionalism of the task, and the opportunities for training, qualifications, and to take up related childcare work.
- Remember that about 80 per cent of first enquiries come to nothing, so think about ways to actively follow up these enquiries to see if this can be reduced. In order to maximise and increase numbers, some agencies are also giving carers a financial reward for introducing a new carer. Could your agency do something like this?
- Explain what the financial rewards are to prospective carers: they should all know what they could earn.
Currently the demand for foster carers outstrips supply. Successful recruitment and retention policies among fostering agencies are essential if we are to deliver an effective fostering service.
The shortage of foster carers
At present there are difficulties in recruiting and retaining sufficient foster carers in order to provide placement choice. Published accounts from organisations such as the ADSS (89) and Fostering Network 90 demonstrate the significant difficulties faced by local authorities. It may be easier for independent fostering providers to recruit, and one study (32) found that five times as many foster carers were joining the (55) independent fostering providers in their survey, as were leaving.
Effective recruitment campaigns
There is a great deal of information from research about effective recruitment. A key message throughout is that success is often related to the use of local schemes, especially through word of mouth and brief articles in the local press.
One study (87) which focused on local authorities in Scotland, although making useful comparisons with England, found that a higher profile of fostering is needed if more carers are to be recruited. It found the low profile of fostering, compared, for example, to child protection in many Scottish local authorities, badly affects service development including recruitment. The authorities needed to produce more publicity about the need for foster carers and concentrate on positive messages such as celebrating their success with children and young people. Long-term strategies linked to targets were required because recruitment campaigns were generally unsustained and unsystematic. Local recruitment drives were found to be the most successful.
Campaign content is also important: targeting local people is beneficial, but an underlying message that 'anyone can foster’ is unhelpful. The campaigns in the study did not focus enough on the professionalism of the task, the possibilities of training and obtaining qualifications, and the financial rewards. Researchers were critical of campaigns which were 'ad hoc’ and relied on inexperienced staff (3).
Successful campaigns are likely to have the following features:
- good knowledge of the local area
- close collaboration with experienced carers
- systems in place for following up enquiries
- use of the local media
- ongoing recruitment drives.
A majority of foster carers (87) were attracted to fostering because they had spoken to existing foster carers, seen or heard a description about fostering in the local media or both. Foster carers thought that if they played more of a central role in recruitment they could address commonly held public fears and stereotypes about fostering and social work.
'We might not do it for the money, but I wouldn’t do it without the money.'
Fostering Network (www.fostering.net) takes the view that no one should be out of pocket as a result of fostering. Each year, the Fostering Network produces a minimum recommended fostering allowance and a survey, which keeps track of the allowances paid by fostering services throughout the UK.
External link: www.fostering.net
The British Association of Adoption & Fostering (www.baaf.org.uk) believes the current foster care system is in need of a radical overhaul in order to retain and recruit more foster carers. Changes need to be made to transform it from an essentially volunteer-based service that is often regarded as the poor relation within children’s services, to a modern, highly skilled, child centred service that places foster carers at the centre of the professional network that cares for children.
External link: www.baaf.org.uk
Foster carers think (3) that their own networks should be used to increase recruitment. They generally think that potential carers:
- are unaware of the need for foster carers
- worry that they will not measure up
- lack confidence in being able to parent a foster child
- have a poor image of foster children
- distrust social workers
- they also said that fostered young people should participate more in recruitment campaigns.
If applicants knew that carers supported and helped each other they might be more willing to come forward, and as one foster carer in a consultation group said (2):
'If prospective foster carers could meet ... with more than just a couple of people they can see that we actually support each other. I think that if new people coming in realise that they don’t have to do it by themselves, because foster carers talk to each other, that is helpful.'
Sinclair and his colleagues (94) discovered that as many as 20 per cent of registered foster carers across the seven local authorities were not currently fostering at the time of their study. Sellick (32) has evidence of these dormant foster carers being recruited by independent fostering providers.
Targeting specific groups of carers can be very effective, for example to match the needs of individual or groups of children, such as children from certain minority ethnic backgrounds, or to increase the numbers of carers in a particular geographical area, such as a neighbourhood where carers are needed but few are available (31), (87). Fostering agencies have been urged by government to attempt to recruit as widely as they can, from previously untapped pools of foster carers.
However, there is some evidence to suggest that it may be the demands of fostering, particularly the difficulty of combining it with other paid work, which influences the pool of potential foster carers, rather than ineffective recruitment campaigns (2). But effective campaigns are extremely important and many fostering agencies are developing innovative ways of recruiting foster carers (50).
One study usefully summarises the research messages about recruitment (83) and notes that to be effective, fostering agencies must respond in a timely, efficient and business-like manner to sustain the interest of potential foster carers. One study (see RIP doc p 98) found that only 20 per cent of enquiries resulted in an application to foster. It is important not to lose potential carers at this early stage, especially as they may have overcome initial anxieties about applying in the first place.
The SCIE Knowledge Review 1 found that many agencies currently use a range of initiatives to help them recruit and retain their carers, and many now employ a specialist worker, often with marketing and media experience to:
- design and implement a recruitment strategy
- design marketing material
- develop and maintain relations with the local press
- develop and deliver information packs.
Link: SCIE Knowledge Review 1
Research tells us that it is also essential to follow up expressions of interest within a stated time frame, so that potential carers are not lost (95). In order to maximise an increasing numbers of agencies are also giving carers a financial reward for introducing them to a new foster carer (1). Many fostering agencies are responding in line with the research findings.