Why Use a Fostering Agency?
If you’re thinking of taking the first step in becoming a foster carer, there’s a good chance you’ve already got what it takes. Foster parenting is all about providing a safe, secure, and nurturing home environment for children in need, and that takes a person with a kind soul and a patient heart.
At the same time, there are also a number of logistical matters that need to be attended to before you can begin your journey as a foster carer, chief of which being whether you’re going to pursue the opportunity directly through your local authority or if you’re going to make use of an independent fostering agency instead.
The question is an important one, as is the distinction between a local authority and a fostering agency. Many would think that the best route would be to deal exclusively with your local authority when it comes to becoming a foster carer, but it’s not as simple as all that; there are, in fact, loads of reasons why you should consider using a foster agency. Here’s what you need to know about the differences between a local authority and a foster agency — and why it’s often a good idea to choose the latter.
How Local Authorities and Foster Agencies are the Same
When it comes to the act of becoming a foster carer, there are a number of similarities in the process, regardless of whether you choose a local authority or a foster agency. This is due to the fact that there are a number of universal requirements that you’ll have to satisfy before even being considered for a placement; as foster agencies are acting in concert with local authorities, they are bound by the same regulations as a result.
What this means for you as an applicant is that you’re going to be subjected to a rigorous number of tests before being provided the opportunity to become a foster carer. These examinations are exhaustive for a reason: you’ll need to be evaluated for suitability as a foster carer in order to protect both your interests and those of any children that are placed into your care. This process helps to identify the types of placements that would be ideal for you according to your existing capabilities, ensuring that you’re not matched with a child that has needs that exceed your ability to provide.
To that end, regardless of whether you’re working with a local authority or a foster agency, you’ll be asked to fulfil the following requirements:
- Undergo an NHS health check: You’ll need to visit your GP and receive his or her stamp of approval in the form of an NHS health check. Caring for children, even foster children, can be physically demanding, and you’ll need to prove you’re healthy enough to be up to the task.
- Prove your financial health: Yes, you’ll receive compensation for your valued work as a foster carer. You still need to demonstrate you’re financially healthy as well before you’re given the responsibility of helping to raise foster children. You’ll need to prove your financial history is clear of any bankruptcy.
- Show you have room for a foster child: Both foster agencies and local authorities alike won’t place a foster child with you if you don’t have adequate room in your home. You’ll need a spare bedroom, either already vacated or, in some cases, one that will be vacated by the time your application is complete (this will vary from one foster agency to another).
This is, of course, just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to qualifying to become a foster carer. There are a number of other requirements that you’ll need to satisfy as well, such as receiving an enhanced disclosure from the Disclosure and Barring Service. The DBS requires all who work with children to receive an enhanced disclosure — nursery, school, and creche workers as well as foster carers.
Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, you’ll need to undergo a highly detailed assessment, spearheaded by a social worker, that satisfies the British Association of Adoption and Fostering’s suitability requirements, a process that quite literally takes months. It involves you undergoing a thorough investigation, a process that can last up to half a year, and culminates in a final review before an independent fostering panel. The panel interview might sound harrowing, but it’s simply the last step in a highly thorough process where you’ll have the opportunity to answer any final questions panelists may have for you.
Once you’ve completed your assessment and panel review, and once you’ve satisfied the other requirements above, a final assessment will be made on whether you’ll be approved to become a foster carer.
How Foster Agencies Differ from Local Authorities During the Approval Process
Foster agencies often have additional or varying requirements when it comes to becoming a foster carer. Local authorities work hand-in-hand with these agencies when it comes to providing safety and opportunities to the children that have entered the care system, and with the number of looked-after children in that system often more than a local authority can place with qualified foster carers with ease, independent foster agencies are so crucial to this cause.
Finding the best potential foster carers is, therefore, a priority for independent foster agencies. A foster agency often encourages or even flat-out requires potential foster carers to undergo skills training during the application process. An example of this is the “Skills to Foster Training” seminar, an intensive workshop held over two to three days (usually across a weekend). The seminar, which is led by an agency social worker, provides an opportunity for potential foster carers to learn about the types of skills necessary to foster effectively.
It’s also not uncommon for foster agencies to require you to submit a number of references in order to help make a decision regarding your suitability as a prospective foster carer. In this case, the higher number of positive references you can submit, the better; appropriate individuals include colleagues from your job, any adult children you’ve raised that have since moved out of your home, or former partners that have first-hand knowledge of your parenting skills. Even friends that you have known for years or decades may have important insights that your foster agency will need to hear.
Differences In the Kinds of Placements You’ll Receive
In addition to the differences detailed above, the type of placements you’re likely to receive from a local authority may also be quite different than those you’ll receive from a foster agency. While each foster agency is different — as is each local authority — there are some things to keep in mind as a general rule of thumb when it comes to placements, such as:
- Foster agencies tend to take their time: local authorities tend to provide placements much more rapidly than foster agencies. This is due to the generally higher level of care and attention that foster agencies take in matching foster carers with children in need of shelter and support. Sometimes it can be the difference between getting it done and getting it done right.
- Children from foster agencies tend to be older: local authorities, because of the immense responsibilities they have to attend to the children they have in the system, focus on providing care to as many children as possible, as quickly as possible. With younger children easier to place, this results in foster agencies placing foster children who are a little bit older.
- Foster agencies are best for children with special needs: Local authorities often don’t have the time or resources to find foster carers with the right selection of skills that are appropriate for children with special needs. Yet placing these children into care is often a speciality of foster agencies, thanks to their more specific vetting and training processes.
- Foster agencies often draw from a larger area: Local authorities are, by definition, localised to a specific geographical area. Yet foster agencies often work with a number of different local authorities. This increases the number of possible placements to pull from. At the same time, this extended range may mean you may have slightly elevated travel responsibilities.
Other Important Differences: Your Level of Support
Demonstrating how the types of placements you’ll receive from a foster agency differ from those provided by a local authority illustrates many of the differences between the two entities. Overall, the results with a foster agency might be slightly slower, but the chances of being matched with a child that you can help support to the best of your abilities are significantly higher; in this way, you’re likely to make a bigger difference in the life of a foster child through foster agency placement.
Those aren’t the only important differences, though. It’s also true that the level of support you’ll receive as a foster carer through an agency, as compared to through a local authority is likely to differ as well. While both organisations have the utmost level of care in mind for the children in the system, because of resource and staff limitations the level of support from a local authority may sometimes not quite measure up to the support networks a foster agency has put in place.
Truth be told, a number of these elements are indeed highly developed. Foster agencies often begin with assigning a specific social worker that stays with you for the entirety of your career as a foster carer, providing you a friendly face and a sympathetic ear when it comes to answering questions. These social workers are highly knowledgeable, ensuring that even if he or she may not be able to resolve an issue you’re having, you’ll be referred to the right individual within the foster agency’s network.
Your social worker will also provide you with long-term support in identifying your goals as a foster carer. He or she will support your efforts to develop those skills as well. If you have specific skills you want to gain or improve to make you a more effective foster care provider, your social worker will provide specific pathways for you to gain those skills.
As invaluable the help your social worker can provide you in developing those skills, sometimes you need a different perspective. That’s where a mentorship scheme comes in. Foster agencies can match you with a senior foster carer with experience in working with that particular agency, offering you the opportunity to benefit from their hard-earned wisdom in a one-on-one environment. Being a foster carer can be challenging, but experienced foster parents can often allay any fears simply by providing you with their insight based on the children they’ve fostered in the past.
There’s even more advanced support that a foster agency can offer you. You can attend regular meet-ups with other local foster families, providing the chance to build relationships with other foster carers and the children in their charge. This offers opportunities for play dates for foster children with others that they have something in common with while also offering a wide range of friendships between adults that, likewise, share the commonality of being foster carers.
Finally, if you find yourself in need of a respite placement or simply have an issue that can’t be resolved easily, your foster agency will work tirelessly with you to resolve any and all situations or instances that arise. Again, each and every foster agency is different and is likely to offer you differing levels of support, but in general, the types of support available to you from an agency tend to compare favourably to the types of support that a local authority can offer its foster carers.
Compensation Differences Between Foster Agencies and Local Authorities
Being a foster carer can be — and often is — a full-time job. It’s only right, then, that you’re compensated for the crucially important role you’re playing in the development of a child in need. This compensation ensures that you have the financial resources to care for a foster child properly, and the government has issued guidance on the minimum compensation amounts foster carers should receive in return for providing safety and security for the children they’re looking after.
Whether you foster through your local authority or through a foster agency, you’re entitled to this minimum compensation amount on a weekly basis. The total reward differs depending on the number of children in your care, how old these children are, and where you live. Generally, you’ll receive more if you live in London or in the South East; you’ll also receive more if your foster children are older. Minimum weekly payments cap at around £220 as a result.
Yet it’s important that these payments are indeed minimums. Foster agencies can — and regularly do — provide higher weekly payments than local authorities, and these figures can be significantly greater. An example of this is how Perpetual Fostering routinely pays its foster carers between £300 and £650 per child every week.
The Rationale Behind the Difference in Compensation
Just as important, though, is to recognise why foster carers who work with a foster agency are routinely paid more than those who work with their local authority. There are, in fact, a number of reasons why a foster carer will be awarded higher weekly payments; these revolve around the particulars of the child being looked after, if they have any specific physical, mental, or emotional needs, and whether the foster carer has specialised skills or training that help meet those needs.
Some of the highest-paid foster carers also have the most responsibilities towards the children in their care. If a foster child requires round-the-clock medical attention, for example, a foster agency will ensure the child will be placed with a carer with the requisite skills and experience. Carers that meet those requirements are compensated for their expertise. Additionally, as such high levels of medical care often incur ancillary costs not borne by the NHS, a higher compensation rate is used to offset these costs as well.
All in all, the amount of additional compensation you’ll receive for fostering a specific child will depend on the needs of that child. However, with foster agencies typically placing older children with their foster carers — and children with needs that are more complex than not — it’s a safe bet to say that the majority of foster carers that work with foster agencies receive more compensation than those that work with local authorities directly. This is something to keep in mind if you’re looking into what the differences are between fostering through your local authority or through an agency.
The Case for Choosing a Foster Agency
Choosing to become a foster carer means entering a world where your care, compassion, and patience is needed by a number of children. Whether you decide to work with your local authority or an independent foster agency, you’re surely going to be changing lives for the better, which is one of the most rewarding things you can do. Either way, you’re providing much-needed help to children who need it.
Yet it needs to be said that there are some major differences between fostering on behalf of your local authority and a fostering agency. Choosing to foster through an agency can have a number of benefits, both to you and to the children within the foster system that need care. The differences between the types of children placed by local authorities and foster agencies, for example, means that older children that have more complex issues — foster children that are the most in need of a stable and caring environment — tend to be placed by agencies. If you’re looking to do the most good, this makes aligning yourself with a foster agency one of the best methods for doing so.
As a result, foster agencies are often much more better equipped to support you in your role as a foster carer. Support structures are almost universally more robust than those you will find in local authorities, simply because of the heightened need for those support structures. Better access to social workers, mentoring schemes, and large-scale foster family meet-ups translate to an entire web of support that you and your foster child can fall back upon when needed. While each local authority is different, it’s nearly guaranteed that they’re likely unable to compete with a foster agency in this regard.
Likewise, the weekly compensation awards you’ll receive from working as a foster carer through an agency are universally considered to be greater than those you would receive from a local authority. Placing children who tend to be generally older than those placed by local authorities — and those with more complex issues — means foster agencies provide much better compensation above and beyond the minimums recommended by the government.
Taking all these separate factors into account, the choice becomes increasingly clear. If you’re looking to make as big a difference in the lives of foster children as you can, choosing a foster agency will allow you to do so. The children placed with you are likely to have more complex needs that only you may be able to meet, the support you receive from the agency is likely deeper and more robust, and the compensation you’ll receive will likely be higher as well. All of these factors taken together translate into a more rewarding experience, not just for you but for any children you choose to foster.
Foster carers do some of the most important work there is: safeguarding the future for some of our most vulnerable and in need. Choose an independent foster agency today if you want to make the biggest difference in the life of a child who needs you.