It usually takes about six months to go through the assessment and approval process to become a foster carer, although sometimes it can take longer.
Assessment and approval
Some children go on to be permanently fostered by their short-term foster carers or relatives, if it is not possible for them to return to their birth parents and this is agreed to be the best option for them. Some of these children may have been looked after by their short-term carers or relatives for many months or years before a permanent decision is made about their future. For many permanent carers, they will be starting the fostering process from the very beginning!
After you have contacted a fostering agency and attended an information session, if you and the agency agree to continue, you will usually be invited to attend a preparation group (see below) so that you can learn more about what is involved in fostering. You will then be invited to formally apply to be assessed for fostering. Once your application has been accepted, your assessment begins and you will be allocated your own social worker.
It usually takes about six months to go through the assessment and approval process to become a foster carer, although sometimes it can take longer. Your agency should keep you informed of any delays. Understandably, this can be a difficult and emotional time, but it can be helpful to prepare yourself for what is involved and ensure you have the support of family and friends.
If your agency decides not to assess you, they should tell you the reasons why in writing. If you do not agree with the reasons given by the agency, you can ask to be considered again by the fostering panel. If you are unhappy with the service you have received, you can make a complaint through your agency’s complaints procedures. Your social worker should provide you with details of how to do this. You could also apply to another agency, who may decide that you are suitable to be assessed.
Preparation groups are usually held after you have made a formal application to be assessed by a fostering agency. However, some agencies hold the sessions before this, so you can use what you learn to help you make your decision. Other people who have also applied to foster with your agency will also be invited to attend. Preparation groups provide you with an opportunity to learn about the fostering process, the issues involved in caring for someone else’s child and the rewards and challenges of fostering, as well the chance to meet experienced foster carers and hear about their experiences. You may also meet some adults who were fostered as children, as well as birth parents.
Preparation groups usually consist of 6–8 sessions and cover a wide range of issues including:
- understanding the assessment and legal processes involved
- understanding why children come into care
- how children feel when they are separated from their birth families
- understanding children’s experiences of separation, loss and trauma
- managing the behaviour of children who have experienced neglect or abuse
- learning how to provide safe care
- child development
- understanding attachment
- meeting a fostered child’s needs
- understanding a child’s past
- understanding identity
- welcoming a child into your family
- working with birth parents, including managing contact
- fostering support
- preparing to say goodbye when the child is ready to move on.
Fostering is a major decision with lifelong implications for you, the child, and your family. Because of this, there are a number of key factors an agency must consider before approving your suitability to foster and your fostering assessment or home study needs to be really thorough. During the assessment, you will be asked lots of personal questions which may feel at times intrusive. Remember that the aim is to find the right family for a child or group of children, so it is important to be as open and honest as possible.
If you are fostering a child in the UK, there is no charge for the preparation, assessment or home study.
Some people raise the point that birth parents do not need any assessment before having a child. The reason the fostering assessment process is so thorough is because fostered children have particular needs, often relating to experiences of loss and difficulties in their early lives that must be met within their new family in order for them to grow and thrive successfully.
As part of your assessment, you will be allocated a social worker whose task is to consider whether you are suitable to foster, and what type of child or children you would best be able to care for. They will take into your account your circumstances and your ability to meet a child’s needs in terms of the child’s age, gender, health, emotional, physical, and educational development, culture, language, religion and ethnicity. They will ask if you would consider fostering a disabled child or a child with a health condition. They will look at whether you would be suitable to foster more than one child, or a child who has experienced major loss or trauma in their life or been abused, including sexual abuse. You will need to consider the possible issues that may arise when caring for a child like this, both now and in the future.
The agency will ask you about your feelings towards a future foster child, and the experiences they may have had. They will also explore with you your feelings about working with your future foster child’s birth family, and other professionals involved with the child’s care, the reasons the child needs a new family, and how you would feel about maintaining some level of contact between the child and his or her birth family, as well as your ability to accept support.
The agency will be interested in your reasons for wanting to foster. They will want to know about any experience you have with children and childcare (for example you may have nieces and nephews or you may volunteer at your local school or nursery) and will ask if you are planning to make any changes to your work arrangements, for example, reduce your working hours to care for your child.
Home visits – As part of your assessment, your social worker will make a number of visits to your home – approximately 6–8 visits over a period of several months. They will meet with everyone in your immediate family, talk to you in detail, and look at your living arrangements. They will also need to know about your family structure and support network (such as relatives, friends and neighbours). It is important that your family structure is stable and secure and there are no major changes or upheavals expected. They will explore aspects of your childhood, employment, and relationships past and present, including any past break-up or divorce. They will look at your strengths and limitations, and identify any possible areas needing development.
Your social worker will also ask about any children you already have, and how they feel about you fostering a child.
During your assessment, do not be afraid of saying if there are areas you need support with. The agency will work with you to identify where you need training and support and will determine the kind of child or children you would be most suitable to care for.
Checks and personal references – Fostering agencies have to carry out a series of checks on all prospective foster carers. This includes checks with your local authority, employer, and Criminal Records Bureau or Scotland Disclosure. You will also need to see your GP for a medical examination, as fostering agencies have to make sure foster carers are healthy enough to care for a child. For permanent fostering, this would be until adulthood.
The agency will also ask for the details of three personal referees (two in Scotland) who must be happy to meet with the social worker and speak honestly about you. Only one referee may be related to you, and each should have known you well for at least two years.
Your social worker, in consultation with their manager, will write a report about you called a home study or Form F. It will be based on your assessment, personal references, checks and medical report, and will include recommendations on the kind of child or children that you would best be able to care for. You should be invited to write some parts of the report yourself. Finally, you will be asked to read and sign the report and to make comments before it goes to the fostering panel. By this stage, you will usually have worked through all the points in the report with your social worker beforehand. However, if there is any aspect you do not agree with, it is very important to raise this and comment in writing, before signing.
The fostering panel of your agency usually meets at least once a month and is made up of up to ten people with personal and professional experience of fostering including social work professionals, a medical advisor, a legal advisor, councillor, management representative of a voluntary agency, and several independent members such as foster parents or fostered adults. You will usually be invited to attend. The panel will discuss the positive qualities you have to offer, as well as any areas of concern. The prime consideration of any decisions or recommendations will always be what is in the best interests of the child to be placed. After your report goes to the panel, it is considered by the agency decision-maker, usually a senior manager, who makes the final decision based on the panel’s recommendations.
If your application is successful, you will be approved to foster. The panel will also make a recommendation as to the age and number of children you may be most suited to caring for, as well as the type of fostering eg permanent (long-term), short-term, or emergency.
Once you are approved as a foster carer, you will be allocated your own social worker, who may be called a supervising social worker, link worker, or support worker. Your social worker will contact and visit you regularly, to make sure that all is going well. Your agency will make a foster carer agreement with you. This will include the duties of the agency towards the foster carers, under the law, including visiting foster children in placement and reviews, and agency’s expectations of foster carers in their role. You will be become part of the agency’s fostering team, working in partnership with education and health professionals, and other people involved in the care of the child, including therapists and counsellors, as well as the child’s birth parents.
All foster carers need to be reviewed annually to ensure they are suitable to continue to foster.
Your agency should keep you informed throughout the entire assessment process. Your social worker should tell you if there are any concerns about your suitability to foster and advise you of any action you need to take, such as making changes to your lifestyle to make space to care for a child.
In England and Wales, if you are not approved to foster, you can appeal against the decision and may be reassessed.
You should appeal usually within 28 days of being notified in writing that you have not been approved. Your case will usually go to another panel for consideration. If you are not approved again and do not agree with the decision and the reasons you can complain according to the agency’s complaints procedure. Your agency should provide you with details on how to do this.
In Scotland, if you are not approved, you should be notified in writing by the agency. There is no statutory appeal system, but as with adoption approval, agencies generally have procedures to review such decisions if you are not happy with them.
If your circumstances change, it may be appropriate to apply to the same agency again, or you could also apply to foster with another fostering agency, who may decide you are suitable to be assessed and approved. It is important to be honest with your new agency, and tell them that you have been turned down by another agency, and this will be taken into consideration when you are assessed.
Throughout the UK, if you are unhappy with the decision, or the service you have received, you can make a complaint through the agency’s complaints procedures. Your agency should provide you with details.