The only co-operative in the UK offering homes to vulnerable children has just celebrated its 15th anniversary.
In October 1999, Laurie Gregory set up the Foster Care Co-operative after over 30 years working with local authorities as a senior social worker. He took early retirement and saw the opportunity to offer an alternative to private agencies who had been poaching public sector foster carers.
“Quite apart from the morality of it, we saw no point in poaching existing foster carers,” he said. “We wanted to add to the total number and give more children the chance of family life.
“I instinctively did not wish to start a ‘for profit’ company and, after meetings with my Chamber of Commerce and invaluable advice from Co-operatives UK, I chose the model of multi-stakeholder and common ownership and registered the company. We have grown slowly by bringing new people to fostering.”
Laurie, whose personal experience of fostering saw him look after a child with disabilities for a total of 13 years, was executive director of the agency for its first 10 years and is still chairman and one of four non-executive directors.
The co-operative, whose head office is in Malvern, Worcestershire, has grown steadily with offices now in Cardiff, Bristol, Glasgow and London, and contracts with 59 local authorities.
Registered with Co-operatives UK, it has more than 50 employee members across the UK and 120 carers looking after around 160 children in London, the West Midlands, Bristol and the South West, Staffordshire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and throughout Wales and Scotland.
Its current executive director is Ian Brazier, an ex-Army officer with 34 years service around the world. Shortly before leaving the Army, he became a fellow of the Chartered Management Institute, with a strategic planning and development diploma from the Manchester Business School. He has a wide-ranging experience in military and family welfare issues.
“I was lucky enough for the board to take a punt on me,” he says, of his decision to join the co-op in 2009.
“I was looking for something where I could give something back. What interested me were the aims and aspirations of the co-operative. Rather than talking the talk, it was walking the walk and really making a difference.
“Although it might have seemed a change of direction, during my time in the services I had direct responsibility for military families, too, supporting charities and a broad spectrum of welfare challenges.”
Mr Brazier finds it hard to understand why there are not more co-op fostering agencies in the UK – although there are a number in the US.
“I honestly don’t know why that is,” he says. “I have talked to several local authorities and asked them to consider the co-operative model because we know it’s viable.
“In the last 15 years, over 3,000 registered independent foster care agencies have been set up in addition to local authorities, and the service is sadly fragmented.
“The difficulty has been that private providers come into it, recruit foster carers, train them and provide placements. Unfortunately the majority are doing it for profit – although there are some very large organisations and charities like Barnardo’s who do not.”
He warns: “Where it’s a private business matter, a lot of the money ends up supporting shareholders and profits which is a waste of resources.
“The declared profits from some of these organisations run into millions of pounds and you have venture capitalists investing in care in the same way as care for the elderly. I think that’s a fundamental ethical problem.”
Under the terms of foster care regulations, the co-operative has regular Ofsted inspections and must conform to strict legislation.
Surplus income is re-invested to provide more foster care support and training, and to recruit more foster carers; 52% of income is paid directly to carers, 24% goes on funding for support groups and training and 24% goes on agency costs, salaries and office overheads.
Staff and users are always consulted about processes and the FCC operates eight support groups for foster carers and staff.
Mr Brazier adds: “All employees are full co-op members and, although fostering regulations prohibit pecuniary interest by carers, what we’ve done is make sure there is an employees’ constitution for carers.
“In order to maintain compliance, they are associate members of the co-operative.
“For everything we own, they are collective owners of assets – and, in the event of ceasing to operate, everything we own defaults to another children’s charity.”
There is also crucial support in place for the carers, he added. “We recruit and train carers and provide them with a social worker who supports them throughout – because there is enormous pressure helping children settle into family life. We also do additional training to increase knowledge.”
Carers are offered 24/7 support from professional social workers, with local support groups, training and web-based guidance and administrative support. The co-operative also carries out health and safety assessments in homes and offers 14 days respite to carers.
The actual process of becoming a carer usually takes between four to six months, with visits to homes from a social worker who talks through the challenges with potential carers. There are CRB and Local Authority checks, training and introductions to current foster carers and social workers. The process ends with an interview and panel assessment
It is a measure of the co-operative’s success that its placement stability is nine times above the national average – which is just four months for children with foster parents.
Ian says: “It is a sad fact that many children do get shuffled from pillar to post but the average for us is three years and foster caring is increasingly becoming a longer-term option. Some children stay with a family for up to eight years, graduating from university with the same family. It’s not necessarily short-term.
“I do believe in the co-operative model. All staff who work for us are members and are paid the equivalent or slightly above public sector pay rates. It’s a very challenging time, with local authorities under such financial pressure, but we believe this is not only a sustainable model but one which deserves to grow. We are still small and we have to grow by word of mouth and by results, but our view is that this is the way to deliver care.
“We know it can be done and my message to the co-operative sector is please come on in and join us. We believe, across the care sector, that it’s a highly sustainable model. It’s accountable to the community in which it operates and has been proven by time and opportunity – which is why Laurie Gregory chose it in the first place.”
For more information visit www.fostercarecooperative.co.uk.