A lack of capacity in foster care is leading to children missing out on support, according to Ofsted.
Its annual fostering statistics showed the number of carers in England increased by 4% since 2014, while the number of children in foster care grew 11%. Its research suggested the range of carers available were not always able to meet increasingly complex needs.
Overall, there was a net increase of 45 local authority carers and a net rise of 960 independent fostering agency carers across England from 1 April 2020 to 31 March 2021.
There were 160,635 initial enquiries from prospective fostering households in the year to the end of March, but only 10,145 (6%) of applications were received. This proportion has fallen from 12% in 2014 to 2015.
There continued to be a difference in conversion rates from initial enquiries to applications between both the public and private sectors. Although the majority of initial enquires (79%) came from the independent sector, fewer of these enquiries converted into applications. Independent agencies reported a ratio of 25:1 initial enquiries to applications, whereas councils reported a ratio of 7:1, Ofsted’s data showed.
At the end of March, there were 45,370 fostering households in 425 agencies. These households had 76,640 approved foster carers looking after 55,990 children. The 425 agencies were made up of 145 local authority and 280 independents.
The sector split of fostering households has remained similar over the past seven years. Local authorities accounted for 29,500 households (65%), and independent agencies 15,800 (35%).
Councils continued to have higher proportions of filled places (68%) than independents (58%). However, this higher proportion of filled places is largely accounted for by family and friends carers.
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for social care, said: ‘Today’s statistics paint a bleak picture. Foster carers make such a difference to children’s lives. But year on year we see more children coming into foster care, and too few carers with the right skills to give them the support they deserve. How long can this go on before the care system reaches breaking point?
‘We rarely see children coming into care who don’t need to be, but with the right help earlier, some may be able to remain with their families. We also need to urgently boost the number of foster carers, making sure they, and the children they care for, get the right support.’
The Fostering Network has argued there is a need for at least 7,300 new foster families this year.
Kevin Williams, the network’s chief executive, said: ‘We all know that creating stable and loving environments for children in care is vital. Ensuring there are sufficient foster families, through both recruitment and retention strategies, should also be vital as this is key to securing good matching and stability.’