So, you’ve thought about it carefully and talked it through with those close to you, and you’ve finally made the decision to start fostering. Fantastic! It is a truly rewarding and life-changing experience for both the child being looked after and the foster carers themselves.
But now you’re faced with even more decisions!
Do you apply to your local authority, or should you contact independent fostering agencies? What’s the difference anyway? What makes a good agency and how do you know what questions to ask?
Annoyingly, the answer is, it depends! You’ll need to think about what’s most important for you. It’s a two-way relationship and not every agency is the right match for every family.
Although we can’t tell you which fostering agency is the right choice for you (although we hope it’s Tree House Care!), we can share a few of the differences between agencies and suggest some questions you may want to ask.
Local Authority vs. Independent Fostering Agency
All looked-after children are the legal responsibility of the local authority. Unfortunately, local authorities are often stretched and can’t meet the ever-growing demand for places. That’s where agencies like Tree House Care come in. We have relationships with a number of local authorities and they approach us to find families for children they cannot find homes for themselves. There are national minimum standards for fostering services, so both settings offer a high level of care, although there are some differences between them.
- When a child becomes looked after, the local authority first tries to find a home for them with one of their own carers, before approaching independent fostering agencies. This means that foster carers registered with local authorities are unlikely to have large gaps between placements.
- Local Authorities cover very specific geographical areas and so their foster carers are unlikely to have to travel too far for meetings or training.
- Independent reviews show that foster carers who are registered with agencies generally receive higher allowances and fees; on average about £125 more per child per week. (Foster Care in England, 2018)
- Agencies tend to have a higher ratio of social workers to foster carers, meaning there is more support available when you need it.
- Foster carers often receive a higher standard of training from independent agencies, which may include specialist, therapeutic support and training.
- Children placed through agencies may be older than those placed through the local authority, as it is easier to find local families for babies and toddlers.
“I just wanted to say a massive thank you for the flowers I received yesterday it is so nice to feel appreciated by an agency. Yet another reason I know I did the right thing by moving, the support shown from this agency has been outstanding.”
Tree House Foster Carer
How do you decide which agency to apply to?
If you’ve decided that you would like to apply to foster through an independent agency, the next step is to approach the agencies that cover your area.
Some agencies have national coverage which means they place children in homes all over the country. These are likely to be bigger agencies and may be made up of a number of smaller offices.
Large, national agencies benefit from extensive resources and you become part of a large network of foster carers, offering invaluable knowledge and support.
However, the offices may be some distance away from your home and you may lose the personal touch of a local team. Also, many large providers are now owned by private equity firms, which may have a focus on cost-saving or increasing profitability.
Not all independent agencies are large, national companies though; there are many family-style, small agencies that offer a close, personal experience and tailor their support to your particular circumstances. These agencies may be more limited in the services they provide, for example not offering as many different specialisms, such as ‘parent and child’ or fostering children with disability.
Essentially, you need to decide which type of agency you feel most comfortable with and offers the things that matter to you most. After looking at their websites and social media, the next step is to get in touch and start the conversation. They may ask you about your motivations for fostering and will take you through a number of questions to judge your eligibility. Different agencies have different criteria; here at Tree House Care we place a lot of importance on recruiting the right people and so you may find other agencies have more relaxed eligibility criteria. We’re not looking to recruit as many carers as possible, we have high recruitment standards that translate into high levels of care for our children.
“It's things like [the £150 energy payment] that shows how much you guys care. I feel really lucky to work for such a supportive agency.”
Tree House Foster Carer
Questions to ask
How big is your agency? Is it part of a larger, national organisation?
As of February 2023, Tree House Care has 61 fostering families taking care of 80 children. We started with a small group of foster carers with a passion for creating a service that was truly exemplary. Today we have foster carers across Humberside and Lincolnshire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and the North West, but maintain a personal relationship with each of our carers and their families. Many of our team, including our directors, have been with Tree House since the beginning, over 20 years ago!
How many members of staff do you have compared to the number of carers?
We have 15 members of staff in our fostering team and 61 fostering families. A number of members of the team have been with Tree House Care for over 10 years and over half have been qualified for over 10 years.
Does the agency have a good Ofsted rating?
How many children did you place with your foster carers in the last 12 months? And what age brackets were those children in?
In the past year (Feb 2022-Feb 2023), we have placed 30 children. 12 age 0-5, 17 age 6-11 and 1 age 12-17.
How many of your foster carers are currently not looking after a child?
12 families are currently not looking after a child (as of Feb 2023). 6 because they only offer respite care and the others are having a break or starting introductions with children.
What support will I receive?
We truly believe that providing children with the high level of care that they deserve is a collaborative effort. As a foster carer with Tree House Care, you can expect regular contact with your supervising link worker, specialist training, access to regular therapeutic consultations and a 24/7 out-of-hours service. We personally know each and every one of our carers so you’ll always know the voice on the other end of the phone.
What type of fostering does the agency cater for?
At Tree House Care, we offer specialist therapeutic fostering, solo fostering, short-term fostering, long-term fostering, emergency fostering, fostering children with disabilities and respite fostering.
What does your fostering allowance cover and how is it paid?
As a foster career, you’ll be classed as self-employed and earn an allowance for each child you look after. The amount may differ from child to child, but on average we pay over £503 per child per week (correct as of February 2023). This is paid monthly and on top of this, you can expect a number of other financial incentives, as well as an additional tax exemption, meaning you take home more of your money!
What is Therapeutic Fostering?
Therapeutic fostering is a special type of fostering designed to support children who have experienced trauma or neglect. It provides carers with the tools they need to help these children thrive and is at the centre of everything we do at Tree House Care. Many agencies say they provide Therapeutic fostering, but in reality, this provision can vary massively from agency to agency. You can see our commitment to Therapeutic fostering here.