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What can we learn from a national shortage of foster carers?

2023 has been no stranger to the word ‘shortage’, - whether it be tomatoes or toilet paper - and the provision of foster carers is no exception.
Clare Lydon

Clare Lydon

6 minute read
May 22, 2022
2023 has been no stranger to the word ‘shortage’, - whether it be tomatoes or toilet paper - and the provision of foster carers is no exception.
What can we learn from a national shortage of foster carers? Image

Unlike the fleeting annoyance at the end of your food shop, the stakes are of course so much higher if foster carers aren't available in the numbers needed to care for children at risk. What can we learn from the past two decades to help bring an end to this long-running issue?

This year marks ten years since the publication of the first Benchmark report into fostering services in England. It gave local council fostering services valuable insights into foster carer recruitment nationally and the opportunity to compare notes with their peers.

Comparing the figures, little has changed. In 2013, 11% of enquiries became approved foster carers, compared to today’s 10%. The journey from first enquiry to approval took just over 9 months, in comparison to around 8 months nowadays. Thirteen per cent of foster carers left the workforce in 2013, the same percentage as in 2021-2022.

The original Benchmark report lauded foster carers as ‘the lifeblood for all fostering services’ and explored their motivations for taking on the role through the Why Foster Carers Care report (2013). The research identified most carers had a pioneer value set, possessing a strong sense of right and wrong and the belief in whatever happens, they will manage.

Fast forward to 2023, the need for foster carers has never been greater. A 2021 analysis by think-tank the Social Market Foundation predicts a shortage of 25,000 carers in England by 2026.

Councils struggle to fund marketing to recruit in sufficient numbers. There are calls for a national recruitment drive for new foster carers and cautions from current foster carers that retention is equally important.

In fact, over half of foster carers are on the verge of quitting due to the cost-of-living crisis. The care system has become overly reliant on the goodwill of foster carers. Foster carers’ belief in their ability to manage - whatever happens - is being tested to the limit.

As far back as the 1990s, foster carers were in short supply. Local authorities turned to independent fostering agencies (IFAs) to place more complex cases. As a result, IFAs grew in number and size, and so did the strained, co-dependent relationship between public and private providers.

Josh MacAlister wasn’t exaggerating when he described the care system as “a 30-year-old tower of Jenga held together with Sellotape” in his recent independent review.

In the same review, MacAlister quite rightly recognised foster carers as ‘the bedrock of the social care system’. However, his recommendations and the subsequent Government response fail to address increasing financial pressures on foster carers or focus on their status in the team around the child for more power to advocate for them.


Contribution not catastrophe

For decades, adjectives like crisis, urgency, emergency, and insufficiency have been bandied about in the same breath as persistent shortages of foster carers. This kind of catastrophising and scarcity mentality over time changes the way we think and behave.

Martin Seligman, professor at University of Pennsylvania and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, argues that ‘the catastrophic view is the recipe for giving up’.

By highlighting the lack of foster carers it devalues the contribution of over 40,000 fostering households in England and the collective good they do. It also ignores the marginal increase in fostering provision provided by family and friends since 2018.


Scarcity mindset

Marketers and recruiters live in fear that there aren’t enough enquiries and that those enquiries won’t ‘convert’ into approved foster carers. This sabotages efforts by narrowing the focus and prioritising the short term. At its worst, it manifests in pushy sales tactics and withholding information in case it puts off potential foster carers.

Prospective foster carers in turn question why no one is coming forward to foster. They grow reluctant to contact providers who appear so desperate who knows what lengths they will go to for new recruits.

Confidence is lost on both sides and mistrust creeps in.


Crisis fatigue

The constant exposure to the foster carer shortages leads to ‘crisis fatigue’. With every new wave of appeals to apply to your local fostering service, the public becomes more overwhelmed, switches off and emotionally detaches.

The narrative around foster carer recruitment needs to move on to end the stalemate.


The way forward

We need to build foster care as an issue beyond ongoing shortages. By bringing fostering to life and into the cultural conversation, care-experienced young people and their carers will feel seen, and awareness will be raised.

We must consider humanising the language of foster carer recruitment. Terms like ‘conversion’, ‘deregistering’ and ‘attrition’ may serve a purpose in a boardroom or on a dashboard but it sends the wrong message. How can we take stock while giving credit to the life-changing commitments, sacrifices, compassion and burn-out experienced by foster carers?

The time has come to adopt an abundance mindset to chart an ambitious course for the future so that the right foster home is available at the right time for every child.


The ‘calling’ to foster

We know from running foster carer focus groups that the desire to take up the role is like a religious calling. It can take years, even decades, to answer it. Potential foster carers need to go through a process of ‘discernment’ while speaking with foster carers, researching online and ‘shopping around’.

Dog-eat-dog environment

We know from mystery shopping that competition for attention is fierce. Over 21s are targeted with ads about spare rooms with smiling children in gloriously-lit show homes. Early retirees are served images of smug but underoccupied over-50s starting a new chapter as foster carers…the list grows and so does Facebook’s ad inventory.

One click and the relentless retargeting starts followed by a flood of forceful emails with subject lines like, ‘We desperately need more foster carers’ and ‘Vulnerable children need your help’. They invite people to webinars, coffee mornings and Q&As with the intention of enlisting kind-hearted people for a life that is, as yet, a complete unknown.


No clear market leader

Yet despite the heated competition there is no market leader. Nothing that makes one provider distinctive from the next. A sea of sameness.

Ask someone curious about fostering and they would struggle to name a brand in the category. Ask someone who has never come across fostering and they would struggle to explain what fostering is.

Think for a moment about other categories and their brands. When we want to chill with a film our go-to is Netflix, or when we travel, we turn to Expedia. But who are the dominant players in the fostering space?


It's not business-as-usual

Covid turned our world upside down. It sent shock waves through the economy. Digital transformation went into hyperdrive, and online shopping surged. The pandemic continues to drive future long-term changes to the way we live and work.

Every organisation needs to evolve their online experience to meet the new consumer expectations. You cannot afford to take a business-as-usual approach. Harness the power of viral reconnection by taking the time to understand their unmet needs based on empathy and data. Find new and interesting ways to interact with your community and celebrate the members within it.


Coping through creativity

Creativity is essential in uncertain times. What if we approached the foster care recruitment challenge like a creative brief? Creative constraints can spark ingenious solutions. Blaze a trail with truly unique and original content, foster collaboration and unlock new ways to stand out.

Out of crisis comes opportunity

Every crisis opens up opportunities for brands to distinguish themselves from the competition. If you can successfully navigate the current challenges to meet shifting expectations, you can earn lasting loyalty. For brands who can innovate, challenge, or even disrupt the status quo the rewards are even greater.

Look no further for inspiration on how to emerge stronger from a crisis than adjacent industries who have weathered similar storms.

Metro Bank opened its doors in 2010 in the wake of the financial crash and was the first high street bank to open in the UK in over 100 years. This game-changing challenger brand made extraordinary customer experience their focus and are now opening branches faster than other high street banks are being converted into luxury flats.

After the dotcom bubble burst, Google was born with the altruistic mission to ‘organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ From garage start-up to search engine of choice, Google’s reach and influence just gets bigger as the web grows.

Uber came onto the scene following the global financial crisis of 2008. The taxi app is a perfect example of a disruptive innovator. Uber provided an alternative cab service and democratised city transport. Its instant rating system gave passengers instant recourse if they had a bad experience. What’s more, drivers could also rate passengers. Both parties could then choose if they wanted to do business with individuals with poor reputations.

These enterprises capitalised on the destabilisation of the old order. They found new ways of working that not only set them apart from their competitors but changed their industries forever.


5 takeaways

Drawing on what we have learnt from two decades of shortage, here are our top five takeaways to attract new foster carers and build brighter futures for youngsters in care:

  • Reframe the problem positively
  • Re-imagine your user experience post-Covid
  • Focus on what makes your service different
  • Get creative with your short-term tactics
  • Don’t ignore the long-term plan

By embracing the challenge and acting on the opportunities there is potential to remove foster carers from the list of UK shortages.