Foster carers in the UK can register to work with either a local authority (LA) or a fostering agency (like NFA Fostering Group, which is an independent fostering agency or IFA). Their choice depends on what feels right for them.
Whichever way you choose, you’ll still be carrying out a very worthwhile role providing a safe and stable home for children. However, there can be subtle differences between local authority fostering and agency foster care. It’s a good idea to be aware of these before you make a decision as to which route is best for you.
The registration process
Whichever path you choose, you will need to go through a rigorous process of checks as part of your application. This will not only ensure you are well-suited to fostering but will also highlight what types of placements you are suited to and any additional training and support you might need. This can be a time consuming process, which you should expect to take many months. When these checks are combined with training, it could be up to a year before you are accepted as a foster parent.
Whether you foster with the LA or an agency it is a necessity that you have a spare room available that could be used to provide a foster child with a space of their own. One acute difference between some agencies compared to local authorities is that they may allow you to start the application process before the room becomes vacant, as long at the room will definitely become free. This means that if you have a child who is leaving for university for example, with some agencies you wouldn’t need to wait for them to vacate the room before starting your application process. However, this is not the case for all IFAs.
When you initially begin to make enquiries about becoming a foster carer, you may decide to attend talks or arrange visits from several agencies or even local authorities if you are well-positioned between boundaries. This will allow you to discuss their process for foster parent training and support. The training programme can vary between providers, so be sure to ask lots of questions. Also look at things like statements of purpose and Ofsted reports so you are aware of strengths and areas for improvement.
Local authorities will try to place children in-house if possible but work closely with agencies to find homes for babies, young children and teens in need of foster care. IFAs can cover a wider geographical area than a local authority, and may also specialise in placing children with particular needs. These may relate to challenging behaviour, mental or physical disabilities or be connected to the type of placements they generally try and provide e.g. longer-term placements, those for sibling groups or respite care. When speaking to IFA representatives, be sure to ask if they have any particular specialisms.
Payments and support structures
Fostering is truly a vocation; in order to enjoy it and be successful it’s essential that you find satisfaction in the role of nurturing children. Whether you provide fostering services through an agency or with the LA you will receive financial compensation either in the form of payments or fostering allowance, though the amount you receive or how it will be treated for tax purposes can differ.
Generally speaking, IFAs have historically paid a little more; however, this is not always the case. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about payment processes; we all need to pay the bills and your agency or local authority contact will understand that you will need to adequately plan and budget. You will usually receive payment only when a child is in your care, though in some circumstances you may be eligible to be paid a percentage retainer.
It is often the case that agency foster care has more ready support in place for foster parents. Here at NFA we ensure there’s always someone at the end of the phone when you need help or advice and you’ll be familiar with who to contact should you need help immediately. There is of course some variation between different foster agencies and LAs but there tends to be a higher ratio of social worker support available with agency foster care.
Contact a fostering agency
If you’re trying to decide between fostering agency or local authority fostering, take your time talking through your options and ask lots of questions. What is most important is finding a good fit for you and your family and you’ll often get a feel for which you’d be more suited to by fully exploring your options. If you’re already registered with the local authority, it is possible to transfer to become IFA registered; get in touch with our team to find out more.