Ofsted’s national director of social care warned the foster care system could reach ‘breaking point’ if immediate action wasn’t taken.
The warning came as fresh figures revealed a huge decline in the number of households seeking to apply to become foster carers.
Despite a record number of families making enquiries across England in the year to March, the proportion who then apply is at an all-time low – with Ofsted warning that the number of available foster carers is not keeping up with demand.
In Portsmouth, only one in 18 households who enquired about becoming a foster carer actually went on to make an application.
Ofsted data shows 275 households approached Portsmouth City Council to enquire about fostering, but only 15 (five per cent) made an application in 2020-21.
This was lower than six years before, when 453 enquiries were received, with 78 (17 per cent) households going on to make an application.
While the statistics for Hampshire were even more dire, with only three per cent of the 755 households to approach the county council making an application, down from six years previously, when 123 (12 per cent) of the 1,036 enquiries made an application.
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for social care, said urgent action was needed to boost the number of foster carers.
She said: ‘(These) statistics paint a bleak picture.
‘Year on year, we see more children coming into foster care and too few carers with the right skills to give them the support they deserve.
‘How long can this go on before the care system reaches breaking point?
‘We rarely see children coming into care who don’t need to be, but with the right help earlier, some may be able to remain with their families.’
The local figures mirrored the national trend, which saw a record 160,635 initial inquiries, up 55 per cent since 2014-15.
However, just 10,145 (six per cent) led to formal applications, an all-time low and half the proportion in 2014-15 – meaning fewer applications despite an increase in enquiries.
Ofsted warned that while the number of fostering households in England increased by two per cent between 2014-15 and 2020-21, while the number of children in foster care has increased by 11 per cent .
The figures show there were 235 households approved for foster care in Portsmouth in the year to March, providing 480 foster places.
Of them, 45 were approved between April 2020 and March 2021.
The government said it was encouraging more people to come forward to provide foster care for children in need.
A spokeswoman said: ‘We have made significant additional funding available in response to changing pressures on children’s services and we are investing in different approaches to help councils provide foster care places, including through digital tools that make it easier to match children with foster carers, and by trialling different ways to plan placements.’