People who give up work to raise child relatives report benefit caps, evictions and sanctions
Family carers who agree to give up work to become full-time “parents” to the children of relatives, in order to prevent them being taken into care, are being left penniless and homeless by welfare changes, campaigners say.
Kinship carers, hailed by ministers as “”, are typically grandparents, aunts or older siblings who step in voluntarily to bring up child relatives after the birth parent dies or is unable to continue because of illness or neglect.
A new survey of their experiences, seen by the Guardian, shows that many are frustrated at their lack of reward for “doing the right thing”.
Several report giving up secure jobs after being warned by social services that if they did not become a full-time carer, the child would be put up for adoption. Having complied, they were often left reliant on a benefit system that punished them for not working.
One in 10 respondents had their benefit capped, losing in some cases more than £100 a month, or were forced to move home. Others were sanctioned, having their benefits stopped for at least four weeks, for failing to search for jobs.
A similar proportion were forced to pay the so-called bedroom tax after moving to a bigger rented home on the advice of social services. In one case, a council’s housing officers advised a carer to move to a smaller property to avoid the bedroom tax, while its social workers insisted she keep the extra room.
A handful of kinship carers have lost thousands of pounds because of the two-child benefit limit, introduced in April, which restricts child tax credits to the first two children in a household. This affects younger carers who voluntarily parent two or more siblings, who are denied social security entitlements when they have a child of their own.
One woman, who was 18 when she became carer to her two teenage siblings 10 years ago, said: “It just seems that when you do the right thing by becoming a kinship carer, you will end up being stuck and penalised for doing something purely out of love.”
The survey of 517 kinship carers, carried out by the charities Family Rights Group and Grandparents Plus, found that nearly half had given up work and a quarter had reduced their hours, while nine out of 10 had endured financial hardship. Many had spent all their savings, or been forced into debt or rent arrears. Several said they had been evicted.
Campaigners have called for kinship carers to receive the same rights and allowances as foster carers and adoptive parents, including paid employment leave while the child is settling in. They also want kinship carers to be exempt from the benefit cap, the bedroom tax and the two-child benefits limit.
Ministers promised to exempt kinship carers from the two-child policy after a humiliating defeat over the issue in the House of Lords two years ago, following concern that it would deter potential carers from coming forward. However, it has emerged that the exemption only applies to carers who have birth children first and then become guardian to a third child – not the other way around.
The majority of the surveyed carers were bringing up children who had suffered neglect or abuse by birth parents who were often mentally ill or substance misusers. One in 20 had taken in child relatives whose parents had died. A quarter of the carers, mostly women, were already raising their own children.
In many cases the children had high support needs, including physical disabilities, mental illness, attachment disorder and emotional or behavioural difficulties. Several respondents said they were ill-prepared for the demands of caring, struggled with the extra costs and were denied support by local authorities.
An estimated 200,000 children in the UK are raised by kinship carers, saving the taxpayer billions that might otherwise be spent on foster care or children’s home fees.
Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group, said: “Kinship carers are doing all that could be asked of them by society and more. But instead of getting the support they and the children need, many kinship carers are left in poverty, isolated and having to battle to just make ends meet, while often also caring for very traumatised children.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child deserves the best start in life, and that includes having a stable, nurturing home environment. Kinship carers help many children who are unable to live with their parents.
“To help with those responsibilities, they are eligible for the same benefits as birth parents, including child benefit and child tax credits. We also require local authorities to publish information on how they support children living in these circumstances.
“Anyone experiencing difficulties should contact their local authority for advice and support.”
‘I went from a very good job to living on benefits’
Jay Godfrey was a well-off professional in her 30s with no children of her own when she became a kinship carer in 2005. Her elder sister had died from cancer, leaving three teenage daughters. Without hesitation, and practically overnight, Jay stepped in.
Becoming a carer wasn’t really a choice, Godfrey says: family love and loyalty trumped all other considerations. But she was unprepared for the pressure and disruption that turned her life upside down, or for the indifference of the authorities that had encouraged her to become legal guardian to her grieving nieces.
“My partner ended up giving me an ultimatum: it’s me or the girls. I chose the children. It was difficult; I was very isolated,” says Godfrey. “I went from a very good job, earning lots of money, having three holidays a year, to living on benefits.”
Her kinship carer experience was difficult, at times traumatic, but nine years later she did it all over again, when the daughters of her youngest niece, who had suffered episodically from serious mental illness and was in a chaotic relationship, were taken into care by social services.
Social workers encouraged Godfrey to apply for special guardianship for the children. If she didn’t, they said, the girls would probably be separated and adopted and she would never see them again. “They knew family was everything for me,” Godfrey says. “They put it forward as a choice, but they knew they would get the answer they wanted.”
The girls, now aged seven and eight, have attachment disorder and separation anxiety, yet the therapeutic support offered to them has been limited, Godfrey says. She survives on housing benefit and £310 a week in special guardianship allowance. “It puts food on the table and nothing else. My parents provided every bit of clothing the girls wear.”
It is unfair, she says, that foster carers get much more support for doing the same role, and that having eagerly facilitated the guardianship, the council now seems intent on doing the bare minimum to assist her. “I feel like I am the only one who is invested in these children to ensure they have as good a life as I can offer them.”
She would never have ducked the challenge of kinship care, she says, but she wishes the situation didn’t feel so fraught and exploitative.
But amid the stress there is hope and beauty: “The two children come in from school and put their arms around me and tell me they love me, and they make my heart sing.”
Children in care are receiving less support and do not feel as safe as in previous years, a study by Ofsted has found.
The inspectorate's annual children's social care questionnaire gathered responses from 37,000 children, parents, social workers and other children's professionals between June and October last year and found that young people in care feel less safe than in previous years.
Children also told Ofsted that they feel they are receiving less help and support from their carers than in previous years.
Among children in residential care surveyed in 2017, 69 per cent said they feel safe in their children's home all of the time, compared with 70 per cent the year before.
In 2015, 24 per cent of those placed in children's homes said they feel safe most of the time, but this had fallen to 21 per cent by 2017.
This year six per cent of those in foster care said they feel safe most of the time, compared with seven per cent in 2015.
One 10-year-old respondent in residential care said: "It's scary sometimes when other children are kicking off."
Another respondent, who is in a foster home, said: "I don't feel comfortable when people I don't know visit the house because I feel unsure."
The survey also reveals that some children feel that staff or foster carers "rarely" or "never" help them if they feel upset by other people.
In 2017 nine per cent of those in children's homes and fostering said they feel they are not supported by their carers in such circumstances, compared with four per cent among those in residential care and three per cent of those in foster placements in 2016.
In addition, the survey reveals that looked-after children feel less prepared when moving into a placement than in previous years.
Among those in children's homes, 61 per cent said they had been able to find out useful things about their placement before moving in, compared with 64 per cent in 2016 and 71 per cent in 2015.
Meanwhile, less than half (45 per cent) of children in foster care were able to find out such information before their placement last year, compared with 54 per cent in 2015 and 51 per cent in 2016.
"I found out that I was moving in with (the foster carer) five hours before I moved in," a nine-year-old in foster care told Ofsted.
"No other information was provided leaving me feeling extremely scared and confused."
A 10-year-old in residential care told the inspectorate: "I would have liked to have seen the home more times before I moved in as it would of made me feel more comfortable."
However, the survey does indicate that those in foster care that go missing from their placement are far more likely to be offered the chance to speak to someone independent when they returned.
Last year 77 per cent of children in foster care said they had been offered this opportunity, compared with 66 per cent in 2016.
There was also a small rise in the proportion of children going missing from residential care who had the opportunity to speak to an independent professional on their return. In 2016 81 per cent said they had this chance, compared with 82 per cent last year.
Some children who had gone missing told Ofsted that they found it useful to talk to someone independent, such as a social worker or police officer.
One nine-year-old in residential care said: "I spoke to a police officer who made me realise I had put myself in danger. I don't want to do it again."
Although some did not feel the need to take up this opportunity, with one 16-year-old in residential care telling Ofsted that they "would rather speak to staff and not a stranger".
Children in care need more than a roof over their head and a hug. Foster carers are part of a multi-disciplinary team
It’s funny how language can change over time, often mirroring a change in opinion. It took many years for foster parents to habitually be called foster carers. At the Fostering Network we thought this a significant and positive change in language because it reflected an increased understanding of the role. The responsibility – and the complexity – of the task has grown exponentially over the four decades the network has been in existence, and the change of title was an important step in recognising this.
But following the fostering stocktake in England, that important change appears to have been undone. The civil servants I have encountered from the Department for Education over the last couple of months appear to be using the term “foster parents” as their descriptor of choice. And I’m concerned.
Foster carers play an essential parenting role in the lives of the children they are looking after, offering love, support and nurture on a daily basis. They stay awake through the night holding the hand of a poorly child, give a standing ovation when watching a school play, help with homework, bake cakes, read bedtime stories ... In short, foster carers meet the physical and emotional needs of the children in their care.
Foster carer is a job description, it explains what the role is, highlights its complexity and shows its importance. Being called a foster carer doesn’t, of course, preclude strong personal relationships (indeed they are at the very heart of being a good foster carer), fostered children being given the opportunity to be a full member of a family, or fostered children calling their carers mum and dad or aunt and uncle or Janet and Phil. Being called a foster carer and showing love and compassion are not mutually exclusive.
But foster carers are so much more than parents. Here’s just a short list of things foster carers, who are at the centre of a multi-disciplinary team of professionals, do that parents usually don’t have to:
The term foster parents seems to ignore this list. By calling foster carers “foster parents”, the danger is that we revert to the old-fashioned view that all children who come into the care system need is a roof over their head and a hug.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who works with these children will know. Foster carers are experts in attachment issues relating to experiences of abuse, neglect and family separation and trauma. They provide expert input in to the life of a child, helping them overcome the trauma of their past.
Sometimes a change of language is a positive thing reflecting a change in societal thinking. My concern is that this change will lead to a further undermining of those who undertake such a vital role on behalf of our society. They deserve to be given respect for what they do and to be treated as the professionals that they are – continuing to call them foster carers is a small, but important, way to do that.
Kevin Williams is chief executive of the Fostering Network
Every year, Co-operatives UK welcome nominations for Co-operative of the Year.
As the only not-for-profit co-operative operating in foster care in the UK, we thought we would go for the Inspiring Co-operative of the Year award.
You can vote for us here. Simply click on the Inspiring Co-operative of the Year category, and give a few reasons as to why you are voting.
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Tiffany and her younger brother Callum came into care after experiencing severe neglect. They were initially placed with the same foster family but spent a lot of time arguing with each other, even though they said they did not want to be separated.
Things were not working out in their current foster family so their social worker needed to find a new home. For a short time, the siblings were placed with different sets of foster carers so that their individual needs to be identified. That’s when Tiffany first came to live with St Christopher’s foster carers.
Tiffany was placed with a foster family where the main foster carer was a man. He built a trusting relationship with her based on boundaries and safe care. This was the first time Tiffany had experienced a positive, caring male role model, so she was able to address her previous unsafe behaviour around males.
To begin with, Tiffany wasn’t allowed to go out on her own unsupervised as she didn’t understand ‘stranger danger’. Gradually the foster carers showed Tiffany how to keep herself safe outside the home and that they trusted her, so she was able to do more things independently. Because they praised Tiffany when she behaved in a positive way, she responded by sticking to the boundaries.
Being trusted by her carers boosted Tiffany’s confidence and helped her to flourish in other areas. She started a new school, made strong friendships, and joined a gymnastics group.
A few weeks later, Callum moved in with the same St Christopher’s foster family as Tiffany. He had been struggling at school, so the main foster carer made sure to sit with him every evening to help with homework. The carer identified triggers that made Callum more likely to give up or become angry when doing homework, and worked with the school to develop tactics that would make tasks more manageable.
Callum and his foster carer also discovered a shared love of football and golf. Playing and watching these sports has taught Callum about discipline and sportsmanship – sometimes it is OK to be angry, but it does not need to ruin relationships with people you care about and who care about you. He now uses sport as a way of safely expressing himself and using up his bags of energy.
Living together with their new foster family has strengthened Callum and Tiffany’s sibling bond. The foster carers make sure they both receive individual attention and have been consistent in their messages, so the children have settled in well.
Foster carers for siblings
Foster children usually need their own bedroom, even if they are siblings. Sometimes, if a foster carer with more than one spare room isn’t available, brothers and sisters are separated.
Things worked out for Callum and Tiffany, but we are looking for more people with multiple spare bedrooms who want to become foster parents. Could you be one of them?
Fostering News: Penny Appeal Launches UK’s first Islamic Guidance Document on Adoption and Fostering
The launch of the first Islamic Guidance Document on Adoption and Fostering will be launched today (21 March) at The House of Commons. This report has been commissioned by the UK charity Penny Appeal, who are actively involved in recruiting Muslim carers and adopters.
The Islamic Guidance document research which included the involvement of leading UK scholars, community leaders and sector professionals, underlined the communal obligation to care for vulnerable children in the care system. This clear position is then expanded via six main themes which will help answer and explain some of the cultural barriers that Muslim adopters and carers may face with this new emphasis on the obligation of the community to engage positively in this area.
The six themes stated in the document include:
Ten recommendations have also been made for Muslim Communities and their leaders in the UK, some include:
The six main themes and full document published by Penny Appeal has come about through bespoke symposia and extensive consultation, expert witness statements and research.
Imam Dr Abdullah Hasan who has been involved in the development and conclusions of the guidance documents is part of a list of 100 UK leading Imams, community leaders and social care professionals who have put their names to endorse the findings and recommendations of the guidance document, Imam Hasan says: Caring for vulnerable children is of course encouraged by all faiths and societies and bringing together a cross section of Muslim scholars and leaders to hear the witness testimonies of those in care and those working with those in care, was a humbling experience. Our faith and humanity require us to act and this is what the guidance document is designed to promote.
Penny Appeal CEO Aamer Naeem who will launch the guidance said: “The clarity on the communal obligation upon the community to address the disparity of carers to children in care is a major shift in understanding of the problem. It takes it from voluntary to compulsory. Penny Appeal has a referral service where potential adopters and foster carers can get advice and we assess suitability in order to ensure those passed on to appropriate authorities and agencies are more likely to be successfully matched with a child. As important as this clarity is, the process of getting the opinion was equally as exciting and we will now be adopting it again to look at other areas of development and humanitarian work.
Penny Appeal has also commissioned additional research through the Centre for Trust Peace and social relations at Coventry University which was led by Dr Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, research fellow in faith and peaceful relations at Coventry University.
In conclusion, the guidance document aims to comprehensively clarify commonly misunderstood topics regarding faith teachings and will make it clear that caring for orphans and vulnerable children in the Islamic tradition is a praiseworthy endeavour and, in some situations a necessity. The document will provide solutions for prospective carers, Muslim communities and care providers.
For further information, interviews or images, please call Pedro on 07831 556 951 or e mail Pedro.email@example.com.
Notes to Editors:
Penny Appeal, the award winning international humanitarian charity, was set up in 2009 by entrepreneur Adeem Younis, to provide a range of life-saving solutions in over 30-crisis hit countries. As one of the fastest growing charities in the sector, Penny Appeal has transformed countless number of lives and empowered communities around the globe, helping to break the poverty cycle through their simple vision; taking your small change and making a big difference. Penny Appeal is a twice Guinness-World-Record holder and works closely with leading celebrities and globally renowned institutions in the UK and beyond in the fight against poverty.
Norfolk based children’s charity Break celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2018 with a series of special events through the year, including the GoGoHares Sculpture Trail to be unveiled during summer.
The charity was founded in 1968 by Judith Davison, her late husband, Geoffrey, and Rev. Leslie Morley initially to provide respite short breaks for vulnerable children and their families, starting with holiday centres Rainbow and Sandcastle in Sheringham and Hunstanton. The overall ethos of the charity remains unchanged; to ensure vulnerable children, young people and families receive the support they need to flourish and grow.
Since 1968, Break has grown to be a significant regional charity and now provides homes for looked after children through small scale children’s homes and a fostering service; homes and respite breaks for children with disabilities and learning disabilities; and support for children and families in the community through the Break Family Centre. The charity has also developed expertise in supporting young people leaving the formal care system at 18 with its Moving On Team and is now pioneering a model of support for young care leavers that has the potential to be rolled out nationally through the Staying Close, Staying Connected project. It also undertakes specialist support and assessment work for children at risk.
Break features in the Sunday Times Best Companies List, at number fifteen in the Best Not-for-Profit Organisations to Work For, in recognition of a commitment to personal development, family friendly working and a culture of celebrating the achievements of the young people it supports
The work Break does is partly supported by individuals who regularly fundraise for the charity as well as a network of corporate supporters naming the organisation as charity of the year or staging fundraising events. The charity has a network of over 50 shops which provide valuable volunteering opportunities for over 900 people.
In partnership with Wild in Art, Break has brought popular sculpture trails to Norwich with GoGoGorillas in 2013 and GoGoDragons in 2015, which also raised funds for the charity. This summer will see the GoGoHares trail revealed featuring 50 city Hares and 15 county hares in towns and villages across Norfolk.
Hilary Richards, Break CEO, said: “We passionately believe every child and young person needs a home where they feel safe and loved, so they can grow in confidence and look to the future with hope and that’s what we strive for every day. Over the past 50 years our charity has gone from strength to strength ensuring that we can support more of the children and young people across the region who need us. We have grown from a small family charity in the early days to one that offers a wide range of support to vulnerable children, young people and families. With the help of all our amazing fundraisers, corporate partners, volunteers and our team, we will continue to develop what we do to ensure that we are changing young lives for the next 50 years.”
To celebrate Break’s 50th anniversary and support the work of the charity, people can stage an individual My Break 50 fundraising challenge based on a 50 theme, take part in organised fundraising events like the Stody Cross Country or the Grand Norwich Duck Race or by undertaking an individual challenge of their choice or by supporting Break’s new virtual challenge.
This month Team Fostering are delighted to welcome Mark Alden as a Non-Executive Director. The agency set out on a mission last year to recruit a new board member who had first-hand fostering experience, to further enhance the level of foster carer perspective into the decision making of Team Fostering. We are looking forward to working with Mark, who shares our mission of putting children’s futures first.
A hello from Mark:
I’m delighted to have been asked to join Team Fostering in the role of Non-Executive Director. My career to date is in banking and finance where I have over 30 years of experience as a Relationship Director and work with businesses across the North East.
I also have direct experience in the world of fostering. In 2010, together with my wife and two children, we began fostering. Our first placement was two girls, one aged 4 years and the other 11 months, and they brought a huge and wonderful change to our lives. Seven years later, the two are still with us and doing extremely well – in fact, we adopted them both in 2014!
When time permits, my outside interests stretch to football where I support SAFC (someone has to!), live music (typically 80’s which shows my age) and I’m increasingly spending time at the local ice rink where the girls are showing huge promise.
I hope that my experience will bring a hands-on flavour of life as a foster carer to board decisions and actions at Team Fostering.
A coalition of more than 40 leading children's organisations and experts has written to government urging it to reject several proposals from a major review of the fostering system, because they would "greatly weaken" legal protections for vulnerable children.
The government commissioned fostering stocktake, published last month, makes a total of 36 recommendations, including the establishment of a national register of foster carers and improvements to commissioning.
But five recommendations, including allowing councils to drop the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role, have been criticised by the Together for Children coalition, whose members include the British Association of Social Workers England, The Fostering Network and former children's commissioner for England Dr Maggie Atkinson.
In a letter to children's minister Nadhim Zahawi, the coalition said the five highlighted recommendations should be rejected as they would weaken the legal protection of looked-after children.
Regarding the recommendation to axe IROs, the coalition said the role is vital in supporting young people and should be retained. In addition, they are concerned that this recommendation is not backed by evidence and goes beyond the review's remit.
"This recommendation could have a profound impact on the rights and welfare of children, including those who are remanded to custody, yet there is a dearth of evidence for it within the stocktake report," states the coalition's letter to Zahawi.
"The fostering stocktake was not designed to review the role of IROs in safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children in foster care, let alone across the care system.
"There was no call for evidence about the IRO role, and the authors of the stocktake report have no professional background or expertise in this policy area."
"The authors' conclusion that ‘despite the commendable commitment of some individuals, we saw little to recommend the IRO role' displays a level of confidence out of synch with the report's rudimentary analysis.
"This recommendation cannot be treated with any credibility."
Last month two coalition members, the social workers association Nagalro and the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers, also raised concerns that removing IROs would place vulnerable children at risk.
The coalition also wants Zahawi to reject a recommendation that councils should not presume that brothers and sisters in care should live together. Such a move would not be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, the coalition said.
"This is a radical proposal that flies in the face of established childcare practice and law. It implicitly dismisses decades of testimony from children in care and care leavers," states their letter.
Other recommendations the coalition wants to see rejected are for a single social worker to supervise carers and support children in long-term foster placements. The coalition backs retaining the current system, where children have their own social worker.
"Children having their own social worker is a fundamental safeguard and a lynch-pin of the care system," states the letter.
"When it works well, it gives children the opportunity to develop a positive and trusting relationship through which they can safely explore their history and identity, share their experiences and raise any concerns."
The stocktake's recommendation to remove day-to-day authority from parents whose children are being voluntarily taken into care is also rejected by the coalition.
They also urge Zahawi to ignore the stocktake's call for a review of the effectiveness and value for money of fostering panels.
"The 'case' for a review of fostering panels is made in a very short paragraph with a single quote from an unnamed 'distinguished commentator'," the letter states.
"There is no discussion of the evolution or legal basis of fostering panels."
This is the second major campaign by the coalition, which last year successfully lobbied against the inclusion of controversial plans to allow councils to apply for exemptions from social care legislation.
We are organisations and individuals who worked together to defend the rights of children and families during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
We write to respectfully ask that you reject those recommendations in the fostering stocktake which would require a change to the law (4, 6, 7, 8 and 33).
If acted on, recommendations 4, 6, 7, 8 and 33 would greatly weaken the legal protections enjoyed by our country’s most vulnerable children and young people. They each advocate a dilution of legal safeguards; together they communicate a lack of understanding for the origins and importance to children’s welfare of existing policy. We are doubtful that any of the legislative proposals would be compliant with the UK’s human rights obligations, both within the Human Rights Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Three of the recommendations (6, 7 and 8) were subject to detailed scrutiny and opposition during the passage of the 2017 Act. When the former Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening abandoned plans to permit local authorities to opt-out of their statutory duties in children’s social care, the Department issued a statement saying it had “listened to concerns”.
Our grave concerns were based on a sound understanding of the evolution of children’s law and safeguards and the UK’s human rights obligations. The policy goals communicated by the Department, during parliamentary debate and through written communications, including from the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, pointed to a dangerous relaxation of legal protections for vulnerable children and young people.
We were very relieved when the Department cancelled its plans to ‘test’ deregulation of key legal safeguards and accepted our arguments about the intolerable risks to children’s welfare. That similar proposals have reappeared so quickly within a review that was supposedly about “the question of what different foster carers need – skills, expertise, support – in order to meet the diverse needs of today’s looked after children” appears dishonourable. We hope you will reject recommendations 4, 6, 7, 8 and 33 for the reasons we set out below.
We remain absolutely committed to working with you and the Department in the interests of children, young people and families.
All good wishes
Association of Independent Visitors and Consultants to Child Care Services
Association of Lawyers for Children
Association of Professors of Social Work
British Association of Social Workers England
The Care Leavers’ Association
Children’s Rights Alliance for England
The Fostering Network
Howard League for Penal Reform
Independent Children’s Homes Association
Legal Action for Women
The MAC Project (Central England Law Centre and the Astraea Project)
National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC)
National Association for Youth Justice
National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers
Napo: the professional association and trade union for Probation and Family Court workers
Parents of Traumatised Adopted Teens Organisation
Single Mothers’ Self-Defence
Southwark Law Centre
South West London Law Centres
Dr Maggie Atkinson, freelance consultant and former Children’s Commissioner for England
Dr Liz Davies, Emeritus Reader in Child Protection, London Metropolitan University
Brid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work, University of Huddersfield
Anna Gupta, Professor of Social Work, Royal Holloway University of London
Pam Hibbert OBE
Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London
Dr Mark Kerr, Managing Partner, The Centre for Outcomes of Care
Jenny Molloy, Author, Adviser and Trainer
Kate Morris, Professor of Social Work, University of Sheffield
Peter Saunders, Founder NAPAC
Mike Stein, Emeritus Professor, University of York
June Thoburn CBE, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of East Anglia
Judith Timms OBE
Jane Tunstill, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Royal Holloway, London University
Sue White, Professor of Social Work, University of Sheffield
Recommendation 4 asks the Department to remove authority from parents* whose children are being voluntarily accommodated under s20 Children Act 1989, so that there is automatic delegated authority to foster carers.
Existing statutory guidance (Children Act 1989 Volume 2, June 2015) describes the legal meaning and exercise of parental responsibility when a child is voluntarily accommodated. It accurately explains the child’s own legal right to make decisions. The guidance provides nuanced advice for those circumstances in which parents do not agree (for whatever reason) to delegate day-to-day parenting authority, reminding local authorities of their overarching legal responsibility to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare.
We cannot see how the 2015 guidance could be amended to categorically remove the right of parents whose children are accommodated under s20 (and children with capacity) to exercise and influence decision-making in day-to-day parenting matters. Such a move would require a radical change to the Children Act 1989 and to the Family Law Reform Act 1969 (in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds), neither of which we believe would be compatible with the UK’s human rights obligations.
*This would include adopters, special guardians and carers with child arrangements orders.
Recommendation 6 states that a single social worker should be given the task of supervising foster carers and discharging the local authority’s duties to children in long-term foster placements.
Since April 2015, care planning regulations have permitted a child in long-term foster care to be visited by his or her social worker only twice a year. There is no mention of this relatively recent regulatory change in the stocktake report, so it is impossible to know whether recommendation 6 was made in ignorance of the current legal position.
Besides quotes from two carers, the fostering stocktake report relies on the pilot conducted by Match Foster Care to advocate a change to care planning regulations. Yet the evaluation report from the Match Foster Care pilot describes a complex picture, including that two of the eight children in the very small sample were still visited by their own local authority social worker and there was ambivalence within local authorities about how they discharged their legal responsibilities. The researchers point to the 2015 regulatory change and associated guidance as “a valuable new framework”. Of most significance is the fact that the evaluation was not conclusive in respect of the benefits to children of a single, all-purpose social worker.
Children having their own social worker is a fundamental safeguard and a lynch-pin of the care system. When it works well, it gives children the opportunity to develop a positive and trusting relationship through which they can safely explore their history and identity, share their experiences and raise any concerns. Regulations set down an expectation that the social worker will meet the child in private (though this is not rigid) which further underlines the importance of the child’s social worker being seen as there for them. The stocktake report itself states that children want to see more of their social workers.
Alongside this, foster carers require – and have the right to expect – their own specialist support.
The Supreme Court’s ruling last October, that local authorities can be held vicariously liable for the abuse of children in foster care, is pertinent to this particular recommendation, though there is no reference to it within the report. The Department will be aware that one of the potential outcomes of Armes (Appellant) v Nottinghamshire County Council is a greater degree of monitoring and supervision by local authorities, as indicated by Lord Reed: “It may be – although this again is empirically untested – that such exposure, and the risk of liability, might encourage more adequate vetting and supervision” .
Recommendation 7 urges the abolition of the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role. This recommendation could have a profound impact on the rights and welfare of children, including those who are remanded to custody, yet there is a dearth of evidence for it within the stocktake report.
The short section on IROs in the report contains an opinion expressed by a fostering manager and the views of two Directors of Children’s Services. A fourth quote describes the difficulties of ‘speaking truth to power’. The report is silent on who is intended to take on the statutory reviewing function and the monitoring of individual children’s human rights.
In addition to their vital statutory responsibility in relation to termination of placements for looked after children, children cannot be moved from accommodation regulated under the Care Standards Act 2000 to other arrangements without a statutory review of their care plan chaired by their IRO.
Furthermore, the statutory guidance (Children Act 1989 Volume 3, January 2015) states, “No young person should be made to feel that they should leave care before they are ready. The role of the young person’s IRO will be crucial in making sure that the care plan considers the young person’s views. Before any move can take place, the statutory review meeting, chaired by their IRO, will evaluate the quality of the assessment of the young person’s readiness and preparation for any move”.
In other words, IROs have a critical statutory role and responsibilities in ensuring young people’s successful transitions to adulthood. These will be enhanced by the new provisions contained within the Children and Social Work Act 2017, including the extension of support to all care leavers to 25 years of age (from April 2018).
The fostering stocktake was not designed to review the role of IROs in safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children in foster care, let alone across the care system. There was no call for evidence about the IRO role, and the authors of the stocktake report have no professional background or expertise in this policy area. The authors’ conclusion that “despite the commendable commitment of some individuals, we saw little to recommend the IRO role” displays a level of confidence out of synch with the report’s rudimentary analysis. This recommendation cannot be treated with any credibility.
Recommendation 8 asks for an assessment and consultation on the effectiveness, cost and value for money of fostering panels.
The ‘case’ for a review of fostering panels is made in a very short paragraph with a single quote from an unnamed “distinguished commentator”. There is no discussion of the evolution or legal basis of fostering panels.
The importance of fostering panels was debated by parliamentarians and the children’s sector during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017. The government’s proposal that local authorities should be able to opt-out of having fostering and adoption panels was widely rejected – including, eventually, by Ministers.
The fostering stocktake was intended to be “a fundamental review”, it was undertaken over several months and received over 300 responses. Yet the stocktake report contains scant discussion of fostering panels. Unless the evidence to the stocktake was not properly collated, analysed and considered, we must conclude that contributors did not raise fostering panels as a significant area of concern. It is difficult therefore to see how this recommendation originates from this review.
Recommendation 33 recommends that local authorities should not presume that brothers and sisters in care should live together.
This is a radical proposal that flies in the face of established childcare practice and law. It implicitly dismisses decades of testimony from children in care and care leavers. It would require a change to the Children Act 1989, which we do not believe would be compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Children Act 1989 requirement to enable siblings to live together has an important legal caveat – it must be exercised so far as is reasonably practicable in all the circumstances of each individual child’s case. It sits within local authorities’ wider legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. The law allows flexibility so the individual child’s best interests prevails. The 2015 statutory guidance sums up:
Wherever it is in the best interests of each individual child, siblings should be placed together.
It is difficult to comprehend why the authors would wish to deny the importance of placing siblings together when this is in their best interests though, tellingly, they do not quote directly from the legislation.
We hope the Department will robustly defend current law and policy, recognising that being able to live alongside and have meaningful relationships with brothers and sisters continues to be a top priority for many children in care and care leavers.
The law on contact
We make one final observation in respect of the law. On page 82 of the stocktake report, the authors observe:
In 2013, the Government was persuaded that sometimes decisions on contact – however well intended – were not always in the best interests of the child. They decided that the long-established assumption that contact between a child or infant in care, and their birth family, was not in the child’s best interests, and should be removed from legislation. This followed significant concern about the distress caused to infants and younger children by contact, particularly contact which took place frequently, sometimes daily.
The authors state the presumption in favour of contact was removed by the Children and Families Act 2014. This is inaccurate.
The changes to s34 of the Children Act 1989 in respect of contact were twofold: firstly, to cross-refer to the pre-existing general duty to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare and, secondly, to remove any continuing duty to promote contact where a court has refused it, or the local authority has used its emergency powers to refuse contact. Neither of these provisions has the effect of removing the presumption of contact.
 Department for Education (2016) Putting children first. Delivering our vision for excellent children’s social care.
 Beek, M., Schofield, G. and Young, J. (October 2016) Supporting long-term foster care placements in the independent sector. Research report. Department for Education.
 Regulation 14, The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010.
 Section 22D Children Act 1989 (as amended by the Children and Young Persons Act 2008).
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