Independent Agency vs Local Authority Fostering: What’s the Difference?

foster family

Before starting your fostering journey, you need to decide whether to register with a local authority (LA) or independent fostering agency (IFA) like Olive Branch Fostering.

To give a little context, IFAs are a relatively recent addition to the fostering system. First set-up in 1995, they helped LAs match supply with demand – there were just too many children looking for loving homes and not enough carers on their books. IFAs dealt with the shortfall and helped to house difficult-to-place children, including teenagers and those with complex emotional and physical needs.

While both routes are extremely valuable, providing life-changing support to vulnerable children within the UK, there are some key differences. To help you make the right decision for you and your family, we’re here to explain everything you need to know about each.

What is local authority fostering?

Local authorities are councils, and they’re legally responsible for the safeguarding of all children in the care system (including those placed through IFAs).

You can easily apply to become a foster carer via the GOV.UK website. After entering your postcode, it’ll take you to a resource page for foster carers within your area. There, you’ll find information about the application process alongside what training, support, financial compensation and types of fostering they offer.

What is independent agency fostering?

Independent fostering is sometimes known as private fostering and agencies work closely with local authorities to find suitable carers for children.

There are plenty of reasons why LAs need IFAs. Sometimes, councils simply have a shortage of registered foster carers. Then, agencies often specialise in a particular type of care that councils struggle to provide. For example, some IFAs find homes for children with disabilities, and others cater to specific religious beliefs.

Five differences between local authority and independent agency fostering

Now we’ve explained what local authority and independent agency fostering entails, it’s time to explore the differences. The main areas include:

  • Speed of placements
  • Geographical scope
  • Specialised care
  • Training offered
  • Fees and allowances

Speed of placements

Registering with an LA means you’re unlikely to have an empty bed for long. Councils generally place children first, with IFAs stepping in afterwards if they’re having difficulties.

If caring is your full-time job, this is a significant consideration because you don’t want to wait months between placements. It could have a substantial financial impact. While most IFAs always have children in need of homes, it’s always best to ask about the continuity of placements before making an application with them.

Geographical scape

That being said, you could end up with more placements when registering with an IFA because they cover a wider geographical area, taking on children from across the country.

While there’s no pressure to look after children outside of your locality, fostering through an IFA may require a little extra travel for contact, meetings, appointments and school runs (which is, in part, why private agencies pay more – more on that later).

Specialised care

One of the most notable differences between LAs and IFAs is specialised care. Agencies are more likely to find expert carers for children with complex mental or physical needs, and they’re better at placing older children who fall through the cracks in the traditional system.

Alongside this, IFAs are more flexible in the types of fostering they offer, whereas LAs usually gravitate towards short-term placements only.

Training offered

Levels of training and support vary considerably between LAs depending on their budget and how much they’re willing to invest. Some councils have a treasure chest of resources for carers, while others don’t have the capacity to help with the transition and beyond.

In contrast, IFAs have much more comprehensive support programmes (after all, fostering is all they do). They’re also consistent and utterly committed to helping you every step of the way.

Here at Olive Branch Fostering, we care for our carers by providing:

  • 24/7 telephone support
  • Care support
  • Ongoing training
  • Informal support
  • Social events
  • Support groups

Fees and allowances

Fostering is a life-affirming vocation, but it can be expensive. Of course, carers need financial compensation for food, clothes, bills, travel and all the other bits and pieces that go into raising a happy and healthy child. That’s why both LAs and IFAs pay a fostering allowance which assists with daily expenses.

Generally speaking, IFAs have historically paid a little more. However, it varies from agency to agency, so it’s worth checking about fees before signing up. As well as a fostering allowance, you may be entitled to additional credits and benefits including tax relief and exemptions, universal credit and income support.

What’s right for you?

Choosing between an LA and IFA is a personal decision that takes into account a variety of factors. There’s no right answer – just what’s best for you and your family.

To help you decide, here are some questions to ask those in charge before registering:

  • Are placements regular?
  • Do you have any fostering opportunities within my local area?
  • What types of fostering do you offer?
  • What’s the average age of your children?
  • Are you looking for specialised carers?
  • What support is available, and is it ongoing?
  • Do you have respite carers on-hand to help?
  • Do you offer training courses and continued development?
  • How much is the fostering allowance?
  • Am I entitled to any other benefits?

Are you ready to become a foster carer?

Over the years, we have supported hundreds of foster families and made a lasting impact on so many people’s lives. We’re an independent agency, which means we offer a multitude of placements from across the country and our professional team is always on-hand to help. Plus, all of our carers receive regular training to keep them abreast of the current regulations and statutory requirements.

If you’re interested in becoming a foster carer or want to know more, get in touch with our friendly team for a chat (there’s no obligation to go any further). Call us on 01706 558910 – we’ll be able to answer all your questions.