Jill Jones, Marketing and Recruitment Officer at Flintshire Fostering Service
We’re facing a lot of challenges in fostering services, one major one being that we are losing experienced carers through retirement at the same rate as we are recruiting new ones. For 2019-20, it was forecast Wales needed 550 additional foster families to meet demand. In 2017-2018, Flintshire Council spent £7.8m taking care of looked after children, with more than 60 per cent of this was spent on out of county [external] placements for a small number of the children. With each move, children are likely to be further and further from familiar surroundings, including their schools and friends, and we know that this has a negative impact on their health and well-being The Flintshire fostering team felt there must be a better way of recruiting foster families and creating more stability for the children so they could continue to thrive in the communities they had become part of.
In 2017, we began partnering with Y Lab through the Innovate to Save project, to develop a model that would not only save our local authority money but could spark a new way of doing things for carers who foster. We were aware of a new approach called the Mockingbird Family Model (MFM) that was already gaining popularity across England. In replicating an extended family, MFM places foster carers in ‘Constellations’ of 6-10 fostering households, supported by a central foster carer (‘Hub Home Carer’) who provides planned and emergency sleepovers as well as advice, training and support to a cluster of other Flintshire foster carers (‘Satellite carers’). It provides a more ‘normal’ experience for foster children, including interaction with a wider range of children and trusted adults, and gives foster families a wider support network.
We wanted to see if we could bring the Mockingbird Family Model to Flintshire County Council in order to improve foster services. Working with the Y Lab team, we were able to explore options at the start of the process that we hadn’t done before. The research and development work focused on testing a number of uncertainties about if the model could be successfully implemented in the county. One of the most important parts of the research was talking to a wide variety of stakeholders and particularly reaching out to the children and young people who were in foster care. We found they were able to flag barriers or issues early on in the process so we could overcome them.
After launching our first constellation in February, we now have seven foster families in the first group with a hub carer, Jenny, in the middle. Although we were worried about the impact COVID-19 would have, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear the lockdown has really brought the group together. The families involved have found new ways to communicate in order to stay in touch and offer support to each other. Jenny, the hub carer in the network, said ‘We now have the support of others who understand the issues that we face as foster carers. It has been difficult during the lockdown, but we’ve been keeping in touch via phone calls, emails, and our successful WhatsApp group. We’ve been supporting each other with everything from potty training tips to children struggling to adapt to the new routine, and just making sure that we all feel supported.’
We are planning five constellations for Flintshire by the end of 2022, directly supporting up to 80 young people and 50 fostering households. By investing to save, the model should reduce external foster placements, making cash savings and, by retaining a strong pool of local authority foster carers, we’ll ensure that more young people are in stable and familiar surroundings.