The daily reality of life as a foster carer could not be further removed from the affluence and luxury of London’s Pall Mall. Yet, increasingly, our destinies are linked. CapVest, the private equity firm with headquarters in the exclusive street, is buying Foster Care Associates, one of the biggest private providers of foster care in the UK. The multi-million pound deal hands CapVest fostering services based in more than 50 towns and cities across the country.
This isn’t a one-off acquisition. Private equity firms are increasingly interested in what is being framed as the “£1.7billion foster care market.” In November bids were invited for Partnerships in Children’s Services, which is expected to fetch up to £100million. PICS owns a number of fostering agencies, including Clifford House and Orange Grove and supports around 1,100 children in care. The buyer will almost certainly be a private equity firm. A rumoured bidder is Stirling Square Capital Partners, which already owns the largest private fostering business, the National Fostering Agency.
Does it matter who owns fostering? Many will argue that the priority for children and young people unable to live with their own families is to receive the highest quality care and support, regardless of who is the provider. A child separated from their mother has no interest in who pays the bills. Private companies already provide care for the elderly and, increasingly, are in partnership with the NHS to provide treatment and care in hospitals and health centres. The reality is that in the UK in 2018 there is no public service untouched by business. Why should children’s services be any different?
Because responsibility for children and young people who have been taken in to care IS different, that’s why. In common with most foster carers in the UK, we share our home and our family freely with the children of strangers. In return for this we receive no salary. Our local authority gives us an allowance to cover the cost of caring for children. This includes everything from clothes, food and transport to maintaining and equipping our home to the standard required.
We are, in effect, volunteers. We do this because we believe the right thing to do is to ensure that children and young people unable to live with their families have a home where they are safe and nurtured, and are able to fulfil their potential. Many children remain with their foster families until they are adults and grow up as members of that family, treated and loved as a son or daughter.
So, perhaps you will forgive me for feeling angry that this commitment is being bought and sold like an ordinary commodity. In Pall Mall there are people making huge profits out of our voluntary work. As Michelle Tempest, an analyst at the healthcare consultancy Candesic, so bluntly described it: “Fostering agencies are essentially recruitment agencies with foster carers being the key resource.”
Private equity firms pay their way by buying and selling companies. They don’t hang around, looking to sell at a profit after five years or so. This means moving quickly to reduce costs, or “making the assets sweat.” In this scenario, it is difficult to see how they can care about the long-term outlook for the children whose lives are entrusted to them.
As private equity firms calculate how profitable fostering can be, the local authorities actually legally responsible for children in care face a daily struggle against the impact of austerity. More children than ever need their help, yet funding for this crucial work is being cut and cut again. They are unable to support their own foster carers as fully as they would like, so inevitably many carers are enticed to work for private agencies who can splash cash on recruitment. The tragedy is that this money will eventually be recovered from the very same local authorities, plunging them further into deficit. It makes no sense at all.
The time has come for the Government to call a halt to trading in private fostering agencies so it can take stock of the impact on local authority foster care. There are strong parallels with the NHS nursing shortage caused by the proliferation of employment agencies who made huge profits out of plugging gaps on wards with nurses who had left the NHS. Then ministers intervened to curb what they described as “rip-off agencies.” The target was to save £1 billion a year in agency fees. The same bold approach is needed now in foster care, for the sake of some of the nation’s most vulnerable children.