You can’t put a price on a happy, secure childhood
The Children Act says children who need to be placed in foster care should go to the most appropriate placement available. This is in their best interests. However, over the years a sequential order of choosing a placement – a hierarchy – has developed that has meant the search for a place has not only become narrow but is largely dependent on price.
For example, pretty much every local authority that looks to place a child in foster care will search solely in its own in-house provision in the first instance, ignoring better options. This has been the case for many years and has become part of the culture of local authorities. In the current tough spending climate, this is often justified because in-house is said to be cheaper.
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But having spent time looking at this, I am convinced that the methodology behind this assertion is flawed. Look at the recent criticism by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy and the National Audit Office, identifying how little central and local government understand about the way money is spent on children in care. Essentially, children are missing out on what’s best for them because of a flawed notion of price.
If a good match for a child can’t be found in-house, then a referral is sent out to independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs). Many local authorities do this through a tiered commissioning/procurement framework, with referrals starting at tier one. Yet tiering is based largely on price, with a smaller proportion focused on quality. Sometimes prices are fixed, regardless of the needs of individual children. The cheaper the offer, the more referrals go to that provider. This is the reality of how local authorities are choosing placements.
Is this how we get the most appropriate placement for a child? Is this an approach that meets their needs and gives them the best chance possible of a happy, secure childhood and the best opportunity to become a stable, functioning adult in society? I don’t think so.
Procurement has already brought down prices in foster care significantly in recent years, so differences between the costs of placement options may now be marginal. But procurement has done its job, and the IFPs I work with are desperate to be part of a new solution, one that brings us all together. Given the obvious uncertainty over how spending on children in care is understood, there is little doubt that we should be matching children to the placement that best meets their needs, not going for the cheapest.
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Many of the commissioners I speak with seem to believe it’s their job to source placements that are as cheap as possible. They’re wrong: the role of the local authority is to find the most appropriate placement available. This is about investing in childhoods and being brave enough to think beyond this year’s budget for foster care. Selling children short now will cost them (and all of us, for that matter) much more in the long run.
We need a complete re-think to rid ourselves of outdated notions about going in-house first. We need to build a genuine partnership between fostering providers and authorities to co-produce new services, prioritising the match between a child and a foster carer and understanding how what we provide for each child will help them thrive. It is time to bring in modern ways to understand the constantly changing resource that foster carers offer. It’s a challenge – but we have to put children, not short-term spending, at the heart of what we do. Let’s be brave.