Foster care is failing some of the most vulnerable children in society and needs urgent reform, concludes an official inquiry. Fostering is a success story, helping thousands of children to fulfil their potential, says another, published a few weeks later.
The first came via the Commons Education Committee, the second was commissioned by the Department for Education and carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers. As we await the government’s response to both inquiries, it is only fair to ask which one is right?
Broadly, the inquiries considered evidence from the same people, including children’s services, fostering providers and foster carers. Commendably, both inquiries also heard the testimonies of children and young people in care and care leavers, which is crucial to understanding what needs to be done to improve the care system.
Yet the reports published by the inquiries are very different, both in tone and in the recommendations they make. Even allowing for differences in their terms of reference, it is not easy to reconcile their contrasting outcomes. Not surprisingly, foster carers are confused.
Take the allowances paid to foster carers, for example. MPs call for a review of minimum fostering allowances, to ensure that they match rises in living costs. In contrast, the Narey/Owers review concluded that allowances paid to foster cares “are not inadequate”, particularly once tax arrangements are accounted for, and are not adversely affecting recruitment of foster carers. Similarly, MPs have asked the government to consider whether self-employment is the appropriate form of employment for foster carers. The Narey/Owers review says that this is an issue for the courts to decide, but urges the Government and local authorities to resist such a fundamental change, warning that employment would have a detrimental impact on the heart of fostering.
It is not easy to judge how important these issues are for foster carers. The Fostering Network’s most recent survey suggested that more than half of foster carers dip into their own pockets to cover the cost of looking after children. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) claims support for its campaign for employment rights for foster carers, including statutory paid holiday. By contrast, the Narey/Owers review says few foster carers raised pay as a primary concern.
The fostering workforce is diverse, ranging from carers who have no other form of income to households with at least one person in full-time employment unrelated to fostering, with many variations in between. To add to a complex picture, not all local authorities pay the minimum fostering allowances set by the Department for Education, while some fostering providers pay significantly more.
On one crucial issue the fostering reviews are in agreement: foster carers are not ‘professionals’, they conclude, although they should be afforded the same respect and professional courtesies extended to all those involved in the care of looked-after children. This will not satisfy the many foster carers who feel undervalued or ignored when decisions are taken about children and young people who have become part of their own families, simply because they do not have professional status like social workers or lawyers.
For what it is worth, I subscribe to the Narey/Owers view, which is that foster care is a success story, largely unappreciated by society. At its best, foster care can achieve outstanding outcomes for children and young people unable to live with their birth families. But that “best” is becoming more difficult to attain, because the support available to them is being eroded at a time when the demands being imposed upon them are greater than ever.
I also applaud their focus on the parenting aspects of fostering. At home, we think of ourselves as a foster family, not as carers, and welcome their recommendations aimed at reinforcing this sense of family, including those that would give us greater discretion over day-to-day parent issues. I don’t care much whether or not we are regarded as professionals, and I’m certain that the children we welcome into our home don’t give a damn. But I do want our expertise and experience to be taken seriously by all those involved in deciding a child’s future.
So, two reviews into fostering, with contrasting outcomes. The big question is, will they make any difference? The reality is that most foster carers, world weary and battle hardened, have little or no expectation that their lives are about to be made easier. If their hopes were raised by this sudden flurry of interest, they surely will have been dashed by the Government’s announcement of a 1.5 per cent increase in fostering allowances, well below the rate of inflation.
Yet, at the very least, these reviews provide a framework for discussion about the future of fostering. They raise issues that merit further debate. This an opportunity for all those committed to achieving better outcomes for children and young people in care to work together for positive change. We must pull together to make sure the opportunity is not lost.
Around 180,000 children who would otherwise be adopted or in care live with relatives or friends, but carers face a postcode lottery for assistance
"I have wondered how this would have ended if I had been a less vocal, expressive or determined person,” a grandmother told a Gloucestershire family court last autumn, after applying to be appointed special guardian to her infant grandchild.
She was successful, but was keen to air her criticisms of the “extraordinary experience”. She alleges there was poor communication from children’s services, she was wrongly told she was ineligible for financial support, and unexplained delays meant her grandchild was in foster care for longer than necessary.
“It has left me feeling shattered by the lack of kindness and understanding I experienced in such a painful context,” she told the judge.
Responding to her statement, Gloucestershire’s interim improvement and operations director, Neelam Bhardwaja, said: “We know that taking responsibility for a young child is a huge decision and can be very stressful. We acted with integrity and kindness towards everyone involved in this case, as well as providing financial support including paying for some independent legal advice.
“We feel confident this child has the loving and committed family they need and we support the special guardianship arrangements.”
The grandmother in this case is not alone in struggling with a local authority’s attitude to kinship care. Around 180,000 live with relatives or friends and nine in ten kinship carers say they do not feel supported in bringing up children who might otherwise be adopted or go into long-term foster care.
Kinship care is more stable than foster care and, by objective measures, has significantly better outcomes for children. So how do local authorities view it, and how much are they willing – or able – to resource this type of placement?
With large numbers in informal arrangements, the root problem for many kinship care families is being invisible to policymakers and local authorities. According to charity , support for kinship care is a postcode lottery. Chief executive Lucy Peake says many are “plunged into poverty” after volunteering to care for a child they had never expected to bring up.
The charity wants children in kinship care to be supported according to their needs rather than their legal status. But Charlotte Ramsden, director of children’s services for Salford, says that with budgets slashed and the child population increasing, local authorities’ capacity to respond “is massively less” than it should be.
Failures by councils to identify and properly assess and prepare kinship carers pose a genuine problem for children, says Mike Stein of York University, who researches the corporate parenting of young people.
“It gets my blood boiling. It’s so unjust that your life chances should be affected by inadequacies in this area,” he says.
Ramsden says that kinship carers are valued by local authorities, but paying them the same as foster carers is simply not achievable. “In an ideal world, if resources weren’t an issue, we might be saying something very different,” she says.
Sandra started looking after her nine-month-old grandson seven years ago after social workers took emergency measures to remove him from her son. She was given five minutes to decide whether he would go home with her or into foster care. She received five months of nursery fees from her local authority so she could keep hold of her job. Since then, Sandra has not had any financial support – despite it being the local authority’s decision to take action.
“I feel hard done by by the local authority,” she says. “I think a lot of kinship carers do because the council just thinks: ‘We don’t have to pay for a foster carer.’ Some get £400 a week per child, so we’re saving them that.”
While the lack of money may pull councils in one direction, a trend for children to stay with their birth families pulls in the other.
Special guardianship numbers are soaring and the way relatives and friends are viewed in terms of their capacity to care for a child at risk has changed considerably, says Joan Hunt, an expert in family law.
Ten years ago, a grandparent whose own child was an unsafe parent might have been regarded with suspicion by a local authority. Now, case law firmly encourages the assessment of relatives and means that families are much more likely to be carefully considered. Ramsden says children’s services try to be flexible if a family member offers to look after a child.
What financial, practical and emotional support is available for the increasing number of kinship families?
Statutory guidance from 2011 says children in kinship care and their carers should receive the support they need regardless of their legal status.
“If local authorities implemented that it wovuld make a huge difference, but they are terrified of opening the floodgates, and that if they make services and money available, they will have thousands of carers knocking at their door,” says Hunt.
Given that the guidance on support is often not followed, Hunt believes that only primary legislation is likely to lead to genuine improvements.
But despite budgetary constraints, some new thinking is being introduced. In an initiative pioneered and delivered by Tact, which delivers Peterborough council’s fostering and adoption services, the same practical and emotional support and training will be available to all kinship carers where the council has been involved in creating the child’s placement.
Part of the problem local authorities face in developing sustained support for kinship carers is systemic, says Andy Elvin, chief executive of Tact.
“Because funding is always year-on-year, it’s hard for managers to make decisions on the next 10 years,” he says. “If you could look at a child growing up for the next 12 years and you want a good outcome and value for money over that time, then you might make different decisions than if you’re looking at next March.
“But there’s no reward [to councils] for being prudent. You just get less money next year.”
Hunt is clear that using kinship carers more and better supporting them would save taxpayers money in the long term – not least because it would lead to improved outcomes for more children.
With the right resourcing from central government to allow councils to offer sustained help over a child’s lifetime, “you’d have more people coming forward as kinship carers, and if they had more support, more would last”, says Elvin.
“Long-term stability is good for children, so you end up with [fewer] children who would go on to need adult services, or intensive support services through adolescence,” he says.
The vast majority of looked-after children feel their lives have improved since being taken into care, a study has found.
The charity Coram Voice and the University of Bristol asked 2,263 children and young people aged between four and 18 about their experiences of being in care and found 83 per cent felt their life had improved. Only six per cent said they felt life had got worse.
However, the Our Lives Our Care survey also found half of four- to seven-year-olds felt the reasons why they were in care had not been fully explained to them.
A significant minority of children also did not know who their current social worker was and 16 per cent of children under eight said they had "too much" contact with their siblings.
"Sibling bullying is the most frequent form of bullying but often goes unrecognised or is minimised, although the detrimental effects on children's development are well known," the report, which noted that conflict between siblings peaks "during middle childhood and normally reduces during adolescence", states.
The report also calls for social workers and carers to do more to explain to children why they are in care and ensure every looked-after child has a trusted adult in their life. Social workers and carers should also ask children in care about their sibling relationships and intervene if sibling bullying is a problem, it adds.
Carol Homden, chief executive of the Coram group of children's charities, said: "It is encouraging to hear that such a large majority of children and young people in care feel their lives are improving and that, for most, the care system is providing them with the safety, support and opportunities they need to thrive.
"However, the results show us that we can and must take action to address the avoidable losses of care so that children feel ‘normal' and are able to do the same things as their friends, have an understanding of why they are where they are, and a part to play in decisions that affect them."
Professor Julie Selwyn, director of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the University of Bristol, added: "The results of the survey show that most children and young people are flourishing in care but about 18 per cent of young people aged 11 to 18 years old are not.
"Young people with low wellbeing did not feel settled and felt that they were being moved from placement to placement. The detrimental impact of a lack of a trusted adult in these children's lives cannot be overestimated."
The survey also found that girls and black or mixed ethnicity children have lower wellbeing than their peers in the care system. Compared with other ethnicities, mixed ethnicity children were most likely to have had five or more placements, dislike school, feel negative about their future and not understand why they were in care.
The report recommends that social workers and carers pay particular attention to building girls' self-confidence but said more research is needed into why mixed ethnicity children are most likely to have lower wellbeing.
The survey was carried out as part of the Coram Voice and the University of Bristol's Bright Spots programme, which helps local authorities identify the views of young people in care. Bright Spots currently works with 31 councils in England and Wales.
Barnardo’s is partnering with the CareTech Foundation on a £1 million project to develop a ground-breaking digital resource to support young people leaving care.
Such young people face a variety of challenges as they transition into adulthood, including feeling lonely and finding it hard to make a home for themselves. It is all too easy for them to become isolated and find difficulty accessing available opportunities.
In partnership with the app developer FutureGov and with the support of the CareTech Foundation, Barnardo’s is developing a UK-wide innovative digital resource focused on the needs of care leavers.
It will feature content on:
Javed Khan, Barnardo’s Chief Executive, said:
"We are extremely excited about this partnership with the newly formed CareTech Foundation and their support of our work with young people leaving care.
Barnardo’s has been keeping children safe, supporting them with an education and helping them to achieve their dreams for more than 150 years. Care leavers remain some of the most vulnerable young people in our society with figures showing 40 per cent aged 19-21 are not in education, training or employment.
Barnardo’s hopes to design an app that will help young people to access information in a way that truly works for them, providing immediate access to helpful information and producing data that will help us to evaluate how digital resources can reduce crisis points among young people.
Barnardo’s ambition is to be a digital leader in the sector and so we embrace technology’s potential to drive new ways of delivering better outcomes for more children. We are therefore grateful to the CareTech Foundation for part-funding this innovative project and would urge other funders to come forward to help us improve outcomes for young people leaving care."
The project is expected to last between three and four years. Around 1,000 care leavers will benefit from the digital resource each year, with scope for many more to be supported.
Barnardo’s hopes and expects the new resource will lead to the following outcomes:
As part of the partnership, CareTech staff and service users will be directly involved in the testing and development of the new digital resources. The Foundation will also give opportunities to CareTech staff to volunteer with Barnardo’s.
The CareTech Foundation is donating £300,000 towards the project and hopes other philanthropic organisations will join them to make the project a success.
Claire is a foster carer with St Christopher’s in the West Midlands. She talks about the impact fostering has had not just on the children she looks after, but on her own life too.
Why did you want to become a foster carer?
My cousin adopted a little boy and heard that children were “unadoptable” after four years old – so I thought, ‘What happens before they turn four and once they are older?’ These children stay in the care system, usually in foster care, so I wanted to help.
I had the time but waited until my son was older (he’s 23 now) so he had my full attention whilst he was growing up. I spoke to him about it and he was all for it, especially once he got back from some charity work he had been doing in Africa. So I made the call!
What did you look for in a fostering agency?
I researched a lot of fostering agencies to be honest, there are so many out there. The ones I discounted were very clinical and it seemed like children were not the priority. It was heads on beds – I didn’t like that as I wanted the children to be the main concern.
Then I found St Christopher’s. Their staff are there 24 hours a day, which the kids need because their issues don’t just go away at the end of the working day. And the young people know that staff are there for them – it’s not just empty promises, they turn up and support them even if it’s a quick phone call on their first day of school. It isn’t just a job, they genuinely care.
What’s your favourite thing about fostering?
It’s very rewarding, I couldn’t say this enough. With my first placement, a teenage boy, the difference in him in such a short time was so rewarding. He did extremely well here and we both learnt a lot.
One thing that a lot of children in care have in common is that they have zero confidence. They haven’t had the same experiences as other young people. One girl I cared for was petrified of everything like trying new foods or walking to the shop on her own. Just this morning she got on the bus to school without an adult, so I was so proud!
The little things are the best. I looked after a young girl and she went nine days without getting a detention at school. She was so proud of herself and it was a huge turning point – it boosted her confidence and made her realise she wasn’t “bad”. You watch them grow emotionally as well as physically, and they learn to see the good in themselves.
What would you say to someone who is thinking about fostering?
Do it! Just make the call. There is such a need for voices for children, they’re desperate for people to look after them. It is challenging but the rewards far outweigh it. With hindsight, I wish I had done it sooner!
I thought that being single would go against me and it doesn’t. There are so many people who think they can’t foster but you can. If you’ve got love and attention to give a kid the rest is paperwork. The kids don’t care if you’re single, gay, black, white – as long as they feel safe and secure.
What impact has fostering had on the lives of the children you look after?
The young girl I fostered is more aware and comfortable with who she is. She takes care of herself properly now and doesn’t put herself in danger, which she was doing from a very early age.
Children go into the care system and are just a number. Then they get to St Christopher’s and it’s different. The children I’ve looked after have lived with families at other fostering agencies and they said to me that they’ve never met people like the St Christopher’s staff. It’s because of all the activities St Christopher’s put on and the social workers, who are there 100% for the children. Mine have had to hear difficult news, but the staff have taken a much more thoughtful approach so that they can explain things properly and offer support afterwards. It’s not like that at all agencies.
Self-confidence is huge with children in care. They have low self-respect and self-esteem, so being able to watch them realise they’re actually worth something is fantastic.
What impact has fostering had on your own life?
My life is a whole lot richer and a lot more fulfilling – and it’s also fuller now, in a good way! Fostering has given me a whole new purpose in life because you can see the good it does immediately. The rewards are exceptional.
Could you transform a child’s life by becoming a foster parent? Find out more information here.
Fostering has been in the news a lot recently. We could mention the recent stories concerning the ‘cost’ of placing children with independent fostering agencies to be wildly more expensive than if the child is placed with in-house local authority carers.
Other stories have tarred all independent fostering agencies with the same brush, unfortunately labelling them as organisations who make huge profits from the misery of children.
The Foster Care Co-operative is an independent not-for-profit fostering agency. It is unique in the UK due to its co-operative status – giving staff, carers and children a voice in the organisation. We are a member of the Fairer Fostering Partnership that brings together ethical, not-for-profit fostering organisations. We operate simply to run the service – so any surplus income is reinvested to provide more support and training for our carers. We are a transparent, honest and fully child focussed fostering agency.
We thought we would put together a list of myths vs. facts, at least from our own approach to providing foster care. Most are concerned with the perceived barriers to fostering, but there are some about the sector – that will hopefully dispel any general misconceptions.
Myth: I need qualifications to foster.
Fact: you don’t actually require any qualifications, as full training called ‘Skills to Foster’ will be provided. This training will take place part the way through your assessment to become a foster carer. Then, if you are approved, you will have the opportunity to undertake further training to widen your skill set.
Myth: I can’t foster as a single person.
Fact: you can be married, single, living together, in a civil partnership or divorced.
Myth: I have to own my own house to foster.
Fact: you can rent or own – just as long as your home is safe, welcoming and comfortable.
Myth: I can’t foster as I have a regular job.
Fact: you can foster and work – but a certain amount of flexibility would be helpful as school or nursery runs may have to be undertaken.
Myth: The Foster Care Co-operative is not-for-profit, so I won’t be paid as a carer.
Fact: we pay a professional carer fee. Any surplus income after expenses is ploughed straight back into providing more support and training for our carers.
Myth: I have my own children, so I can’t foster.
Fact: Many carers have their own children – we carefully match a child to your household. Having your own children gives you valuable childcare experience that could be useful when a child is placed with you.
Myth: I heard that LGBT people can’t foster.
Fact: anyone can potentially become a carer, regardless of sexual orientation. Fostering should be inclusive and diverse.
Myth: I need childcare experience to foster.
Fact: although childcare experience would be beneficial, full training called ‘Skills to Foster’ is provided. You may actually have a certain amount of experience looking after or interacting with a friend’s child!
Myth: I’m 60, I’m too old to foster!
Fact: age is just a number! A health assessment, that all potential foster carers have to take as part of the application process, will help determine if you are physically able to foster.
Myth: I can’t foster children with different religious beliefs to my own
Fact: differing religious beliefs should not be a barrier - as long as you respect a child’s beliefs if they are different to yours. The most important thing is providing a safe and caring home environment.
Myth: all independent fostering agencies profit from foster care.
Fact: some agencies do profit from foster care, but there are a number of charity and not-for-profit agencies that constantly reinvest and don’t make a commercial profit – including The Foster Care Co-operative!
Myth: it’s more expensive to place a child with an independent agency than within a local authority.
Fact: some independent agencies charge more than others, but the cost to place a child has to include the running costs of the organisation such as staffing, insurance and premises costs. Local authorities still have to pay these overheads, but when cost comparisons are made, they aren’t included – making the cost to place children with local authority carers seem a lot cheaper.
Myth: I think I am too young to foster.
Fact: You can actually apply to be a foster carer when you are 21 :-)
Myth: I can’t foster because I have pets.
Fact: A lot of children love pets, so other than any known allergies or fears, pets can be a good thing!
Myth: I can't foster as I have a disability.
Fact: As long as you are able to care for a child, a disability shouldn’t preclude you from fostering. The Foster Care Co-operative are currently participating in some research aimed at breaking down possible barriers that may stop disabled people from considering or becoming foster carers.
Myth: I can’t foster as I live in a flat.
Fact: The type of building you live in is irrelevant, as long as you have a spare bedroom and the flat is generally suitable for a child this shouldn’t be a barrier to fostering.
We hope that this has put the record straight in many areas concerned with the fostering task. You can talk to us about any of the above points by calling 0800 0856 380, or you can contact us here.
If you are interested in fostering, and want to receive an application pack with no commitment, you can complete our short preliminary form which is here.
Jav works as a Family Intervention Project worker in his local council’s Youth Offending Service his wife Zed is a business management graduate. The nature of Jav’s role inspired them to help children and young people who were less fortunate than their own.
“In my role I would come across family situations during visits to homes, hospitals and surgeries,” says Jav, “and I began to recognise the serious issues that are out there for some kids.”
With their own children at an older age, Jav and Zed felt the time was right to find out more about fostering, a role which provides children and young people with the best start in life.
“We did our research and found Team Fostering who were not-for-profit which we liked, and they were very focused on the child,” says Zed.
The couple have now been approved carers with Team Fostering for many years, and have successfully looked after several children and young people via a range of placements. They are committed to caring for children, whatever their background, and to ensuring that they are provided with what they need for the very best start in life.
The couple are practising Muslims but respect the religious and cultural beliefs of all staff, fellow carers, and children and young people.
“My house is always welcoming to people, from any religion. My own children are so supportive of what I’m doing and I can’t describe the feeling of being able to help give a young person the prospect of a brighter future,” says Zed. “Because we are practising Muslims, we don’t consume alcohol and have some dietary restrictions in the house. We have previously looked after two boys from white English backgrounds and they have respected that.”
Both Zed and Jav say that Muslim parents can play a vital role in helping Team Fostering find loving homes for children on short and long term fostering placements.
“We were told that in the past that some Asians would only take on Muslim children,” said Jav. “That is okay and that depends on individual beliefs, however we personally believe that children are children and it makes no difference what their culture or background or religion is. We would never try to change that and we respect that.”
As an agency we do not discriminate against anyone on the grounds of race, nationality, origin, religious or political belief, sexual orientation, gender, marital status or disability. We apply this to foster carers, staff and children in our care, and we’re delighted that our foster carers show the same belief in equal opportunities.
TACT – the UK’s largest fostering and adoption charity, warmly welcomes the independent review of foster care in England, produced by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers. The report published today, provides an overdue recognition of the importance of foster care to the UK care system and the vital role foster families play in caring for the UK’s most vulnerable children.
TACT CEO Andy Elvin said: “We very much appreciate the report’s kind words about our ground-breaking partnership with Peterborough City Council. We hope other local authorities look at this and consider how they might transform their care services in order to improve outcomes for children in care. We also applaud the reports recognition of foster parents as the experts on their foster child. The professional network often forgets that, along with the birth family, it is the foster carer who knows most about the child. Decisions about the child should never be made without the foster parents’ involvement and insight”
The report’s recommendation that Ministers should direct the setting up of a Permanence Board under the chairmanship of the Director General for Children’s Social Care, is particularly welcome, and something that TACT has long been campaigning for. The focus of a joined-up body should be on supporting all family types so kinship carers and birth parents whose children return to them can access the same long-term assistance as foster carers and adopters.
Andy Elvin said: “It is gratifying that TACT and other smaller voluntary sector providers have been acknowledged as charging fees substantially lower than the average, and that any surplus TACT makes is ‘genuinely – and commendably – modest’. It has always been our ethos that instead of making money from the placing of children in foster homes, all of our excess income goes back into improving the lives of our foster carers and the children we care for”.
On the matter of family contact, TACT warmly endorses the report’s recommendation that the opinion of foster carers about the effect of contact on the child in care should be an important factor in helping courts to come to an informed decision.
Martin Barrow, an experienced foster carer says in the publication ‘Welcoming to Fostering’ co-authored by TACT CEO Andy Elvin and quoted in the report:”On a number of occasions we have been in conflict with placement teams over arrangements for contact, with little success. In our view, placement teams put a parent’s demands ahead of the child’s wishes and will adhere to the family court’s proposed contact schedule even if it is having a materially negative impact on the child.”
We are also pleased that the report shares our belief that children on the edge of care and their families should routinely gain access to foster care. TACT has been successfully running a scheme called Parallel Parenting – with specially trained TACT carers delivering home coaching to help families successfully look after their children to avoid admission into care or when they return home from care.
It is disappointing that the report has rejected the idea of a large-scale national advertising campaign funded by central government. While we acknowledge that there are fostering households without a child living with them, there is an urgent need to attract more people willing and able to care for sibling groups, teenagers and children with disabilities.
Fostering News: Councils should have choice to bin Independent Reviewing Officer role, says fostering stocktake
Fostering stocktake recommends 36 changes to the fostering system, including supervision of long-term placements
Local authorities should be allowed to “dispense with” independent reviewing officers (IROs) and re-invest the savings in the frontline, the report of the government’s fostering stocktake has said.
The report – published this week and authored by government advisers Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers – said there was “little to recommend the IRO role” after an Ofsted thematic report identified a “number of weaknesses”, concluding there was a “fundamental problem” around the role’s value.
“The real issue is whether, rather than spending large amounts of money checking that children are being appropriately placed and cared for in the care system, we should invest that money in more frontline and line management staff to make that happen.”
Reinvesting the money spent on IROs on frontline staff and managers could generate “£54 to £76 million or more”, according to a breakdown of the estimated number of IROs, an average £40,000 a year salary and the number of children in care.
A 2013 Ofsted thematic report of the role had identified a “number of weaknesses” in its execution, the review said, including poor care plan oversight, excessive caseloads and a failure to consult properly with children.
Local authorities have been required to employ IROs since 2004 to ensure care plans for children and young people fully reflect their needs and that each child’s wishes and feelings are given full consideration.
Concerns were raised in the stocktake about how independent the role is when they are employed by the local authority they work for.
Changes in supervision process
The review recommended 36 changes to the fostering system with one focusing on changes to how long-term foster placements are supervised.
The authors argued that a placement being supervised by a fostering social worker (sometimes referred to as a supervising social worker) and a children’s social worker creates too much “unnecessary intrusion” in a fostering placement.
The report said feedback from service users was more positive about fostering social workers than children’s social workers, citing the high turnover in staff for children’s social workers.
A fostering social worker is the foster parents’ social worker, while the children’s social worker’s role is to look after the interests of the child in care. The authors suggested in each case authorities should decide on one of these social workers to supervise and offer support to long-term foster placements.
“In most cases, we suggest the single individual should be the fostering social worker but that can be determined on an individual basis.
“Where it is the fostering social worker who is chosen to take on the dual role, it would mean that individual would act as the responsible authority in supporting the child in placement and would undertake looked-after children reviews, personal education plan reviews, and managing contact with the birth family, while continuing to offer support to foster carers.”
The report said changing from two social workers to one would reduce family intrusion and deliver “cost savings to hard-pressed local authorities”, but it stressed this recommendation was made in the best interests of the child.
It also said there should be a “thorough assessment and consultation” with the sector over the effectiveness, cost and value for money of fostering panels.
The report recommended foster carers do not have the same status as social workers. “We can see where employment status might bring some protections to carers. But it would also bring significant obligations, more oversight, and drastically impinge on their independence. Indeed, we believe that the unique status and heart of fostering would be lost.”
Local authorities should be reminded that the delegation of total authority for day-to-day decisions for a child in foster care applies automatically unless there are “exceptional reasons” not to delegate, the review said.
It stated there should also be a national register of foster carers, the report added, so matching can be informed by carers’ experience, skills and availability.
Costs of fostering arrangements
On the ongoing debate over costs of private fostering arrangements, the report said: “The reality is once local authority overheads are taken into account, along with the indisputable reality that [Independent Fostering Agencies] care for more challenging children and therefore have to invest in both the pay and support of their carers, the gap is very small.”
However, this did not make local authorities wrong to adopt an ‘In House First’ policy when trying to match a child.
The stocktake recommended establishing a permanence board to monitor the whole of the children’s care system, and that local authorities should consider using foster care as a means of preventing unnecessary entry into care for children on the edge of the system.
It also said the Department for Education should update guidance and regulations so foster carers do not feel the need to curb “the natural instinct to demonstrate personal and physical warmth”.
Following the review’s publication, Narey said: “Foster Carers must be allowed much greater authority in making decisions about the children in their care and they need to be liberated to offer the physical affection which is a vital and necessary part of most children’s healthy upbringing.”
He added: “We make 36 recommendations and if all were to be implemented, as I hope they will be, then local authorities will have foster carers who are better motivated and better appreciated. And they will be offering greater permanency for children whose lives in care are too often disrupted.
“At the same time local authorities should make significant financial savings through obtaining better deals from most of the independent fostering providers, the commissioning of which is too often inadequate.”
Opportunity to ‘celebrate foster care’
Nadhim Zahawi, now confirmed as under-secretary of state for children and families, welcomed the report and said it is an opportunity to “celebrate foster care”.
“We will carefully consider the review’s recommendations, alongside those from the Education Select Committee, over the coming months to determine how they can help us to make sustainable improvements to the fostering system and to the outcomes for looked-after children,” he said.
Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England, agreed with the recommendations for clearer guidance on physical affection and the ability of carers to make day-to-day decisions, but rejected the recommendation to remove Independent Reviewing Officers.
“We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child’s situation that needs help to resolve,” Longfield said.
These views were shared by Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of Become, who said: “Given the report’s acknowledgement of the need for independent advocacy, the call for the removal of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) seems misplaced. IROs provide a valuable function of oversight and support for children in care, and this report does not provide a robust justification for their removal.
“We are concerned that this will result in the erosion of support for children’s rights and entitlements, which runs counter to the many good ideas in this report,” Finlayson said.
Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, said he was “disappointed” by a “lack of vision and ambition”.
“We are shocked that the report states foster carers are not routinely underpaid and are therefore disappointed that there is no move to ensure foster carers are properly paid for the work that they do.”
He added: “Overall we think this is an opportunity missed to create a foster care system fit for the 21st century.”
Andy Elvin, chief executive of TACT Fostering & Adoption, welcomed the report’s recommendation for a permanence board: “The focus of a joined-up body should be on supporting all family types so kinship carers and birth parents whose children return to them can access the same long-term assistance as foster carers and adopters.”
Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the National Association of Fostering Providers, said: “It is clear that local authorities should no longer be choosing fostering placements on the basis of an outdated notion of ‘cheapest first’.
“The stocktake has found that, given that the children placed with [independent fostering providers] IFPs are older and have more complex needs, the cost differential is not significant enough to warrant the huge factor it has played in justifying ‘in-house first’ placement policies. The most appropriate placement for each child should never have been the cheapest anyway, and we hope that we can now move away from that notion.”
The Foster Care Co-operative was visited by Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK, on Thursday 1st February. He was specifically looking at successful and innovative organisations operating as co-operatives. He spent the time meeting the team and hearing about what they bring to the organisation.
Ed also visited Malvern Book Co-operative and Jamboree Co-operative whilst in the area.
Ed Mayo said: “For nearly twenty years the Foster Care Co-operative has shown what a difference it makes when an organisation is run by the people most involved, the foster carers and staff. The wider social care sector is gradually waking up to the importance of participation, something that the Foster Care Co-operative has pioneered for almost two decades. There is so much that can be learnt from this inspiring organisation.”
Ed Mayo (far left) with staff from The Foster Care Co-operative
The Foster Care Co-operative (FCC) was founded in 1999. Since then, the co-operative model has proved hugely beneficial. As there is no involvement from distant shareholders or investors, FCC’s members on the ‘shop floor’ have always been consulted and listened to. This has made the organisation totally ‘transparent’ and responsive to change – particularly at a policy level. It has also created a culture of greater democracy.
Simply put, FCC has given its staff who work directly with children the power to make positive change within the organisation for the good of those children. A perfect example of the co-operative model.
FCC’s founder, Laurie Gregory, was a Deputy Director within a local authority and a foster carer himself when he started FCC.
“Quite apart from the morality of it, I wanted to give more children the chance of family life,” Laurie said. “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."
FCC remains the only not-for-profit fostering agency operating as a co-operative in the UK. It has grown steadily and organically and now has teams situated throughout England and Wales, with offices in Malvern, Cardiff and Manchester. Generally, FCC’s status as a co-operative has made the organisation more attractive to new staff and foster carers alike – perfectly complimenting their not-for-profit approach.
There are nearly 7,000 organisations in the UK operating under a co-operative structure in lots of different sectors, giving their members the power and the passion to make a positive impact, along with a voice that will be heard.
Ed Mayo is the author of the book ‘Values: how to bring values to life in your business’, published by Greenleaf. You can also find out more about co-operative organisations here: https://www.uk.coop/
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