Forty additional foster carers need to be hired for Northamptonshire County Council to deliver a planned £4million saving over the next three years.
The authority is trying to up the number of ‘in house’ foster carers on its books instead of using ones provided by agencies. The scheme is being funded through a Business Rates Sustainability Fund which is providing two years of financial support to assess and hire a new group of foster carers.
Savings will be made, the council says, due to the lower average cost of placing children in foster care when compared to the ‘very high’ costs of placing them in residential care.
But councillors on the overview and scrutiny committee raised worries over the authority’s ability to be able to recruit that number given the current situation.
At a meeting on September 25, Councillor Chris Stanbra asked senior officers in children’s services to paint a picture of the current recruitment efforts.
He said: “How many staff do we have currently working full time on foster carer recruitment, what’s the budget, what activities do they undertake and do they have performance indicators and targets?”
Responding to the question was Cathi Hadley, the newly appointed assistant director for sufficiency and placements. Her answer indicated that there didn’t seem to be a lack of people applying, but that the council’s response to these enquiries needed to be improved.
She said: “I have started a review of the fostering service and the recruitment team and looked at performance indicators and our timeliness.
“We receive about 35 enquiries a month, so I suppose there is a supply chain. How we manage that supply chain needs to be looked at. If you worked in an independent fostering agency they will be out visiting that enquirer within three days of an enquiry. We are currently very slow. If you’re an independent agency you will be doing an assessment within four months, we probably average over six months. So there are things that we need to do. I don’t want to give the impression that the workforce aren’t working hard, but I would say that they’re not concentrating on the things we’d like them to concentrate on.”
Ms Hadley also said the county council had to up its game on social media advertising, saying: “The last independent agencies that I had oversight for, we did nothing externally and everything was done online. It was all done through Facebook and social media. Now I’m not saying that’s exactly what we need, but our presence in that area is very minimal and we need to look at developing those areas.”
It was also revealed at the meeting that the council pays its ‘in house’ foster carers £382 a week, but the figure rises to £843 a week for external carers, though this was inclusive of some management costs.
Asked by Councillor Adam Brown whether the council was ‘confident’ it could hire 40 new foster carers, Ms Hadley said: “I guess it would depend on whether it’s a gain, or net gain. We need to look at our own fostering cohort because I think the net gain is affected by the age of our carers and whether they are coming up to retirement.
“It’s achievable if we get some good marketing, get on the front foot, are competitive and the offer we are offering people is a good offer.”
But speaking at the end of the meeting, former children’s services cabinet member Councillor Victoria Perry said: “I think 40 is stretching it. I think the net position for this year is actually four, so there’s no point putting it in there if we can’t achieve it. There’s a real frustration that we are hearing these things year after year. I can’t see any evidence that what has happened before won’t be repeated.”
And Councillor Stanbra added: “They said we’re getting 35 enquiries a month but we don’t have the capacity to contact them and process them in the way that an agency would. People are then either losing interest or turning to agencies, and we pay our in house workers much less.”