The Guardian recently published a piece about fostering and adoption recruitment, submitted by a management consulting firm which supports public services. It captured my interest because I have worked with and within local authorities to help them to recruit foster carers and support their family finding activity, and with a marketing career of almost 20 years; this is my toughest brief yet.
The article’s author highlights that the successful attraction and recruitment (and retention, in my view) of foster carers and adopters depends massively on the quality of the customer experience. I think many agencies fail in their efforts because they overlook, or do not have the resources, to ensure this.
Before continuing, it is worth pointing out that adoption and fostering are not as interchangeable as most people think. It is not simply a case of fostering being a temporary arrangement and adoption being about long-term legal parenthood. It is naïve and counterproductive to lump the two terms together because the audiences, and their motivations, are substantially different, and they require accordingly tailored marketing approaches.
Marketing isn’t a dark art.
I’m a little sceptical about the value of the research alluded to in the article because I’ve been around long enough to know that effective marketing is really just common sense: create a message of sufficient appeal and relevance to a target audience, get it in front of them, and offer them an incentive to respond now.
When someone comes forward to foster or adopt a child, there are powerful factors in play. As Jeremy points out, it does start from the desire to make a difference, but that altruism can be fatally dampened if an applicant’s generous gesture of help is not reciprocated with an enthusiastic, professional and prompt response.
Agencies must then maintain a deeply attentive customer experience throughout the lengthy assessment process if conversion rates are to overcome attrition and ensure placement sufficiency.
It is in this regard that I feel some adoption and fostering agencies fail spectacularly, and lack of funding is not the whole picture (though oft used as a smoke screen). Having worked within a number of businesses whose commercial success depended upon the quality of client service, I feel I am in a position to take inventory here.
Silo seems to be the hardest word.
Local authority fostering agencies are usually comprised of a team of social workers whose function is to support existing foster carers with their day to day needs as they look after the children entrusted into their care, and to assess new foster carers to replace those who leave. Some agencies split their fostering team into individuals who support existing carers and others who assess new ones. Other agencies have a team of workers who each have responsibility for both functions.
My observations, coupled with feedback from colleagues across the sector, lead me to strongly favour the former, split team, structure, and I offer two compelling reasons for this. The first is that a social worker with both responsibilities is often reluctant to perform assessments swiftly, for the conclusion of such work results in another addition to their already busy caseload.
Secondly, the skills required to effectively support foster carers are not the same as those needed to sell the fostering profession in a highly competitive marketplace. Whilst the fees earned and allowances paid to foster carers will always offer some attraction, in the words of my own sister, herself a foster carer of several years: ‘I don’t do it for the money, but I couldn’t do it without it’.
So the task is twofold: to effectively sell the career proposition, and to give applicants a reason to choose one agency over another, or: ‘here’s why you should foster, and here’s why you should choose us’. An applicant’s choice will depend upon what they have heard and what they feel about each agency they approach. Foster carers are enthusiastic networkers, and will spread the word about how much they are valued and supported (or not) by their agency. Since word of mouth continues to be the main source of new applications, for fostering agencies, reputation is everything.
Within adoption, the social attitudes that once stigmatised single mothers into giving up their new-borns for adoption have rightly disappeared. Local authority adoption agencies (in contrast to their nimbler voluntary adoption agency counterparts) have been slow to adapt to this. Where once prospective adopters had to compete for a small number of healthy new-borns, and agencies expected hapless hopefuls to drive their own assessments as a demonstration of their commitment, there has now developed a complete about-face.
Children in care who are waiting to be adopted, more often than not, are older, come as sibling groups, and with a high likelihood of behavioural challenges as a result of their early life experience and abandonment trauma. This is no longer a stork-dropping exercise.
Adoption agencies that continue to use outdated approaches are doomed to fail. Now it is they who must compete, along with many others, for the attention of potential adopters who are well aware of their value as they shop around until they find an agency with which they feel comfortable enough to invite to inspect every intimate area of their lives.
We need total reform.
I believe that the whole approach to adoption recruitment is so fundamentally flawed that it needs total reform. I would argue that adoption recruitment and assessment (known as family finding) should be taken completely out of local authority hands.
Thankfully, we have Sir Martin Narey, a deeply experienced and passionate advocate of adoption reform currently advising the government, and as a care experienced adult I’m heartened to know that he is pushing for changes that I instinctively feel is right, read more here.
We urgently need to raise awareness and the profile of adoption across the country. That task is far better handled on a nationally coordinated scale because it enables coherent and consistent information to reach hopeful adopters. The launch of the National Gateway for Adoption: First4Adoption is a much needed and well-executed first step in the right direction.
But the current system, whereby each adoption agency strives against many others for a tiny pool of potential adopters is counter productive and wastes millions of pounds naively spent on competing ad campaigns, the quality and effectiveness of each being entirely dependent upon the marketing expertise (or probably not) of individual members of staff.
This collective chaos of adoption messages confuses potential adopters, achieves dismal response levels, and results in children waiting even longer whilst agencies continue to flog such dead horses as regional press adverts. I have facts galore to substantiate this, and I want to make this point to those professionals who continue, like hopeful gamblers, to insist on spending money on newspaper adverts: you cannot create a desire to adopt in someone simply by advertising to them.
I grew up in care. My sister grew up in care. She was adopted, I was not. She is now a foster carer of several years, and I have worked in fostering and adoption recruitment, underpinned by several years of recruitment communications experience gained in agencies working on national clients. As such, I can’t help but feel that if I cannot offer some answers to this national adoption crisis, then who can?
So here are some of my thoughts about what we can do to significantly improve the profile and take up of adoption:
It’s about the money.
Currently adoption is a mostly, white, middle class activity. To do it, you need a spare bedroom and the financial means to raise a child. This is out of reach for many black, working class people, who, as we know are more socially and economically disadvantaged, and whose offspring are significantly overrepresented in the care system.
I feel that there are wider social issues here which need addressing, and I’m far from convinced that the government’s current instruction to local authority adoption agencies to ignore racial matching of children to adoptive parents in order to get kids out of foster homes (which cost an average £30k per year) and into ‘forever homes’ (costing local authorities almost nothing) is the right, long term solution.
I cannot shake off the feeling that it really is better for kids to be ethnically matched to adoptive parents because I grew up in care and would have felt very strange if I had been placed with black or Asian foster carers. Abandonment trauma, which I believe all children in care suffer, can only be exacerbated by such a practice. It is ridiculous to expect children to adjust well to this; how many of us adults would feel comfortable if our partners suddenly changed race?
Our practice should always be guided by the needs of children and what is more important than striving to create a sense of belonging for them in their new families? It’s a fundamental human need, to fit in, to feel part of, and I think current government policy which now states that adopters need only be able to promote a child’s ethnic identity is a cynical solution.
We can’t instil an authentic sense of racial identity in an adopted child of different ethnicity by popping down to Electric Avenue every month to pick up a couple of yams. That’s insultingly short sighted, but of course, it is highly convenient for this government to have Gove, an adopted child himself, leading this charge. Who would dare to criticise?
We need to start addressing the issue for exactly what it is. Black people aren’t coming forward to adopt black children not because they don’t want to but because they can’t afford to. They can’t afford to because, as a part of British society, they are generally less well off, which is partly why there are disproportionately more black children in the care system in the first place. Most people working in children’s services are aware of that link, but I can tell you, you never hear anyone talk about it.
So if we are agreed that the best home environment for children to grow up in is a culturally matched one, then we need to offer financial support to enable black adopters to come forward and offer children who are waiting loving, permanent homes.
It’s a long game.
Most adopters that I have met tell me that they came to adoption at the end of a long journey, which first exhausted all other ways to achieve natural conception. It is not that adoption is the ‘poor relation’, it is that persistent attempts to satisfy the primal instinct to produce a biological family of one’s own have suffered defeat.
Adoption assessments explore this journey in detail, and they proceed more easily when all other options have been tried, failed, and resolved. Adoption is unlikely to succeed if the prospective parents still want to keep trying for children in other ways.
I have never met anyone who decided to adopt because of an advert they saw. I don’t believe they exist. Responses arising from advertising campaigns come from people at various stages of a lengthy decision making process: they feel they might want to adopt, or they’ve made the decision to do so but at the moment they’re just shopping around, or they are actually ready in that moment to start the ball rolling. However, adverts, of themselves, don’t create the desire to adopt, they serve as a call to action to those already considering it.
Ignore gay people and you’re missing a trick.
Me and my partner, sorry, civil partner (a clumsy term that we feel as awkward about as you do), sometimes discuss adopting. It tends to be me floating the idea, with him listening with ambivalence, but we are inching forwards, and he might get into the idea sometime before my seventieth birthday.
We are part of a ‘market’ that adoption agencies are still tinkering awkwardly with. Gay people, especially couples, and especially civilly partnered (ugh) couples, have both time and money to seriously consider adoption. Many gay people would dearly love the experience of parenting.
Here’s the really interesting bit. Generally speaking, gay people don’t go down the IVF route. The biological and social imperative is less of an issue because most gay people have long made peace with the idea that they may remain childless. For the guys, who don’t even have any eggs to start with, surrogacy isn’t really on the radar either because in the end, there would always be that lurking resentment: ‘our child is more yours than mine because it was your sperm that produced her/him’. You can easily see this plopping poisonously into a future heated row about something. So, for gay people, adoption offers the route to parenting of most equality. As such, it is the first choice route.
Last week I chatted with Tor Docherty, the new chief executive at New Family Social about this. NFS is a UK support network for lesbian and gay adopters, and whilst local authority and voluntary adoption agencies have dithered around, NFS have surged ahead to become, in my view, the go to place for support with fostering and adoption if you’re gay.
Tor comes to NFS with masses of experience and a big part of her organisation’s appeal is that lots of their staff are gay, and some of them are parents too, so when it comes to those probing and intrusive assessments, having experienced, friendly and non judgmental support on your side is very welcome.
I attended the Alternative Parenting Show this weekend, and I will be at the Want 2 Be a Parent Show in March next year. They are great platforms to meet gay people who want to become parents, but don’t expect instant phone calls because choosing to adopt or foster takes time. If you’re an adoption or fostering agency thinking about participating in these events, and I feel you should, do so on the understanding that it’s about brand awareness. The adage, ‘trust = action over time’ applies here. Contact their sales rep, Kellie Lombard, for more details.
I’ll wrap up my thoughts here, but I hope they offer some helpful insight to anyone reading this who might be in a position to effect change, whether that’s to a localised adoption and fostering marketing strategy or something on a bigger scale. I am passionate about this, and very happy to speak to people who wish to make contact. Please get in touch if so.
Sean Parry is a time-served, multi-award winning recruitment marketer. He has worked among all sectors, private and commercial, public, health, police, fire and rescue, third sector, and local authorities. Over 20 years, Sean’s affinity with the cause of looked-after children and young people drew him to work ever more closely with children’s services.
Initially this included large scale social work recruitment exercises, later leading towards fostering and adoption attraction and recruitment marketing strategies. Full details of his career, and the core carer recruitment support service that Sean now provides on a retained consultancy basis to fostering agencies can be found on his LinkedIn page.
If your fostering agency is looking for specialist support to recruit new foster carers, please get in touch on 07977 712712 or by email for an exploratory, no-obligation discussion. This will be followed up with a summary of your support needs, along with full details of how he can help, anticipated outcomes, and hourly rates. Testimonials of Sean’s work from former fostering agency clients are also published on this website.
Don’t forget to join us at Do Fostering on Facebook, now the country’s most popular fostering page, achieved in just two and a half years by Sean alone with an exceptionally limited budget—testament that effective, results-producing marketing had less to do with budget and more to do with developing a plan that works… and sticking to it!
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