Ahead of the exciting and very timely LGcomms seminar on effective foster carer recruitment (23 January 2019), I’ve been asked to share the lessons from TACT, the UK’s largest dedicated fostering and adoption charity, about how we changed our recruitment approach over the past five years.
1. Retention is the most effective form of recruitment - there is absolutely no point in putting a lot of time, effort and money into recruiting new foster carers if you have a service that cannot properly support them and retain them. There is an ageing foster carer population so there will always be a certain amount of attrition. Many local authorities lose carers either to retirement or independent fostering agencies (IFAs) that they do not need to. Providing a decent level of fees and allowances to carers, providing appropriate and interesting training in a manner that foster carers can easily access and providing consistent and expert support via a supervising social worker is vital. If you do this your foster carers will also be your best recruiting sergeants, they will introduce you to friends who make excellent foster carers and they will provide you with case studies that are gold dust in marketing terms.
2. Digital is the way to go – if people want to do something these days they Google it. There is no sense spending money on radio, billboard or newspaper advertising as all people will do then is Google “I want to foster” and the likelihood is that the first three or four options that come up on the page are not local authorities, they will be IFAs. You need to employ staff who understand Google analytics and how to effectively use Facebook to both target and then recruit potential foster carers. The people doing this must be in regular contact with those leading the fostering service so that online campaigns can be consistently modified to make sure the right enquiries are coming through. Also, young people consistently complain that they hate to see billboards or adverts in their local area asking for foster carers, often in emotive terms. Imagine you’re a young person in care seeing these as you go about your daily business.
3. If one part of the pipeline is broken then the pipeline is useless – when someone phones or contacts you online about becoming a foster carer then they are at the end of the journey. They have talked about it as a family and with friends they are ready to start their fostering journey. Their initial contact with you must consist of a short conversation to rule them out for any red lines (e.g. they haven’t got a spare room) and then you must arrange an initial visit. To do this you must have social workers who have their diaries open to the marketing and enquiries team with a couple of times during the week blocked out so that they can be available for initial visits. If you do not offer the potential foster carer an initial visit on their first contact then someone else will.
4. Momentum, momentum, momentum – the initial visit is just the first step, within 24 hours of the initial visit you must contact the potential carer to book them in on their skills to foster session. It is wise to have skills to foster booked in every month so that their skills to foster is only a few weeks away at most. Your fostering service may chafe at this but if you do not keep the momentum up then the potential foster carer will go to an agency who does. After skills to foster you must quickly allocate an assessing social worker and work to keep the assessment to 24 weeks maximum so that the carers feel that they are moving forward.
5. The only way is ethics – there are private equity backed IFAs out there who will offer your carers inducements to switch to them, this is unconscionable. It is equally unconscionable for local authorities to put pressure on IFA foster carers to switch to working for the local authority, sometimes using emotional blackmail to do so. It is beholden on us all working in fostering to increase the number of foster carers and not to spend our time and efforts shuffling the current pack. Work with your media lead to get good news stories about foster carers out into your local media. Journalists are hungry for good news stories about foster carers who have transformed children’s lives. Seeing such stories in local media is a great morale boost for your foster carers and is also invaluable free advertising and the stories can be used again and again on Facebook and online marketing.
Sometimes the structures of local authorities can mitigate against following many of the steps above. However, if you can’t reorder things within the local authority you are going to struggle to recruit and retain foster carers. TACT would love to see a situation where private equity IFAs were not allowed to be in this market, but there is no sign of that happening yet. Local authorities have a huge advantage in that many people still automatically contact the local authority when first thinking of fostering, following the steps above will allow you to take advantage of this to the full. Don’t be afraid of making the point that when you are fostering for the local authority all the money is going to the children, there is no money being taken by shareholders, owners or private equity investors. These messages resonate deeply with those who wish to foster.
Finally, the best of luck to you in your efforts to recruit more foster carers. Foster carers transform the lives of vulnerable children. Increasing the numbers of foster families in the UK is one of the most worthwhile and valuable things we can do.
Andy Elvin is chief executive of TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust)