Asylum-seeking young people are being dispersed to foster carers around the country – but is there enough support in place?
When Dawn Heyes finally arranged a school interview for the three Afghani boys she fosters in a sleepy seaside town in Essex, a panel of teachers filed in with a rulebook. “We have a no-knives policy,” one said. She then proceeded to read aloud the school’s policy on weapons.
“I was horrified,” says Heyes, who has been fostering for 20 years and recently started caring for asylum-seeking youths. “They might as well have been saying, ‘If you have a bomb strapped on you, get out.’”
On Friday, the government will begin sending unaccompanied children who are seeking asylum to cities and towns across England, raising concerns about integration in parts of the country where anti-migrant attitudes have been stoked by the EU referendum debate and where they may be isolated from support services.
Last year, more than 3,000 refugee children came alone to British ports and airports, and the councils where they first arrived were legally required to care for them. Now councils across England will share responsibility more equally, easing the burden on gateway councils mainly in the south. The 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children from camps in North Africa and the Middle East, and those alone in Europe, who the government agreed to take over the course of this parliament following a revolt by MPs and Lords, will be dispersed through this national scheme.
At least initially, much of this work will fall to the 55,000-strong cadre of foster carers in the UK. Many councils are actively recruiting new carers, too, but some experts say that skilled carers can often better meet the complex needs of asylum-seeking children. Heyes, who asked that her name be changed and for the seaside town not to be identified for the boys’ safety, knows first-hand the potential problems in a town without resources for young asylum seekers.
Heyes lives in a largely white British community, where support for Ukip has increased in recent years. She began fostering the three asylum-seeking boys from Afghanistan, who are aged between 12 to 15, in February last year, after police found them at a nearby truck stop. She knew to expect an initial period of bewilderment. After all, they didn’t share a language, a faith, or a diet, so Heyes bought a Pashto-English dictionary and they pointed when words failed.
Then came some of the harder realisations. The council struggled to hire local interpreters for doctor’s appointments and education meetings. It took more than three months to arrange that uncomfortable first interview with local school administrators, who were wholly unprepared for non-English speaking students. Though some of Heyes’ friends offered help when they could, others said the boys weren’t welcome at their houses. “I have too many Ukip friends,” they’d explain, before hanging up the phone, says Heyes
As part of the dispersal scheme, funding for asylum-seeking children nationally will rise by more than 20%, to a maximum level of £41,614 a year per child – still short of the £50,000 that the Local Government Association calculates as the average yearly cost per child. The programme will begin in England, and Welsh and Scottish local authorities may join in down the line.
The boost in government support could help councils expand access to interpreters and cover training costs for foster carers and support staff. But children’s advocates and refugee groups say that the trickier task of helping these children feel at home is equally essential.
“What we’ve found is an issue around integration,” says Frances Trevena, acting head of policy and programmes for Coram Children’s Legal Centre. “This group of children requires specialist care that local authorities may not be able to provide.” She adds that councils can engage with local support groups and national refugee organisations to ensure that youths in more remote areas find the social and legal support they often need. Preparing local doctors, teachers, and other public servants will also be crucial.
One of Heyes’ boys, Bashir Khan (not his real name) doesn’t read the news, but he senses that his peers judge him on his background. “It was difficult at first to make friends,” says Khan, who fled the threat of violence in Afghanistan at the age of 12. “Some make comments about Afghanistan, or think that every Muslim is Isis, and I’d rather stay away than argue.” Khan, 15, has been in school for the past year, learning English with his two foster brothers. He recently won a district achievement award after his new friends nominated him for the prize.
But even with friends, Khan says he can’t speak openly about life in Afghanistan, or what it took to get here. “It’s hard that I can’t tell them what’s in my head,” says Khan. “But I think it’s the right thing not to tell them.” Khan can’t contact his parents or friends back home for safety reasons, so having a foster family who try to learn his culture has been key to feeling more settled.
The new dispersal programme for unaccompanied youths differs considerably from the scheme for adults, which the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act introduced in 2001. It has come under fire for relocating asylum seekers largely to deprived cities with some of the cheapest housing. “This programme could be seen as being more equitable,” says Ala Sirriyeh, a lecturer in sociology at Keele University, and author of a book on fostering unaccompanied asylum-seeker children in the UK. “But it would be ideal if young people were dispersed to areas where there was already expertise around refugees and asylum rather than trying to start that from scratch.” She adds that typically children learn English quicker in an English-speaking home, but some say that being in a home from a shared cultural background provides comfort. In both cases, connecting the children with some kind of ongoing link to their cultural background, like a friendship network, for example, is helpful.
Dave Hill, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), recognises that the infrastructural challenges will be significant. “The further afield you go from major cities, the harder it gets – with translators, accessing education, and schools that are used to coping,” he says. “It’s going to be a bit messy, but if we’re going to make this work, everyone has to make it work together.”
As Khan sits with me in his sun-drenched living room, Heyes is preparing halal meat for Iftar – the meal that breaks the fast during Ramadan. “On the one hand, they’re just teenage boys, but on the other, they’ve walked halfway across the world just to get here,” Heyes says. “I hope it’s worth it for them.”
East Riding of Yorkshire Council is now a Fostering Friendly employer, making it easier for its own employees to help a vulnerable child or young person by becoming a foster carer.
The council’s new fostering leave policy gives support to employees who work for the council and foster children for the authority in balancing their work and care responsibilities.
Dave Glenville, the council’s fostering team manager, said: “Fostering is all about improving the lives and children and young people within the community. Foster carers also reap the rewards by making positive difference to a child’s life by providing a safe and loving home.
“Foster carers who combine fostering with other work say that a supportive employer can make all the difference, enabling them to balance employment with looking after children and young people.”
TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust) Cymru, is seeking young care leavers to volunteer for an innovative pilot project providing peer mentoring to children and young people in care aged 10 to 13, who will then in turn will be trained to mentor future children and young people cared for by TACT.
The TACT Cymru Peer Mentoring/Mentora Cyfoedion project has been set up with the help of £10,000 from the People’s Postcode Lottery and will provide mentoring training to 20 young people who will help co-design the programme.
Stephen Humphreys, Deputy Area Manager for TACT Cymru said: “Care-experienced mentors understand the issues around growing up in care, what it is like first going into care, or leaving care. They are familiar with the transitions and challenges that children and young people experience, for example starting a new school, being bullied, feeling isolated and lacking confidence.
From this pilot TACT hopes to develop a peer mentoring alumni to mentor future TACT children to lessen the potential for contact with the criminal justice system, plus low outcomes in education, health and employment.
Stephen Humphreys said:” The TACT Peer Mentoring/Mentora Cyfoedion project is about care experienced young people building trust and confidence with looked after children who are the most vulnerable and who have suffered considerable trauma and harm. We want to create a positive community for supporting their aspirations and increasing achievement.”
If you are a young care leaver, aged approximately 20 – 30, and interested in volunteering for the peer mentoring project please contact Stephen Humphreys on 07506219752 or email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Industry News: Alliance relaunches new vision for the care system ahead of Children and Social Work Bill debate
The Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers is calling for changes to the care system ahead of the House of Lords debate on the Children and Social Care Bill taking place on 14th June 2016.
The Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers’ ‘A New Vision’ calls for a clearer framework on what care should be aiming for, and for the gaps in the system to be addressed. The care system must promote resilience and emotional wellbeing by helping children and young people to recover from past harm.
Emma Smale of Action for Children and Co-Chair of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers said: “We know that care needs to meet the day to day emotional needs of children and that they must have consistent access to mental health support. We welcome the corporate parenting principles laid out in the Bill but they must be strengthened to promote recovery from past harm.
“What’s more, support should continue even after a young person has left care. The Bill rightly does take account of the needs of care leavers and the Alliance has long called for personal advisers to be made available to every leaver up to the age of 25. However, the Government must ensure that this offer is accompanied by sufficient provision of wider services and accommodation.”
Enver Solomon of NCB and Co-Chair of the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers said: “Looked after children are four times more likely to experience mental health issues than children in the general population. Yet they are still struggling to access the support needed for them to recover from the trauma of abuse and neglect.
“The Alliance is calling on the Government to deliver this by extending corporate parenting responsibilities to health bodies and introducing champions into these settings who would have a similar role to Virtual School Heads in education.”
Click here to download a PDF of The Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers’ ‘A New Vision’ or visit www.actionforchildren.org.uk/allianceforchildren.
When unaccompanied asylum-seeking children turn 18 their support can be completely cut off – no matter how long they have been in the UK
Do you remember your 18th birthday? Was it a time of anticipation, excitement and joy? Your whole life ahead of you and so much to look forward to.
Not so much if you are an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child in the UK. You might have been here for a few years, done well in school, be happily settled with your wonderful foster parents – but your life is about to be turned upside down.
Your journey to the UK is likely to have been harsh, cruel and unforgiving. The country you left was at best impoverished; at worst, war-torn and dangerous.
But you made it here and we cared for you. Social workers, teachers and foster carers have helped you to recover from the trauma suffered. Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASC) tend to learn English quickly, engage positively at school and many could go on to university if allowed.
However, your 18th birthday looms. You are about to stop being a vulnerable child deserving of our care and support and start being a statistic in our Alice in Wonderland immigration system.
The 2016 Immigration Act seeks to: “Reduce pressures on local authorities and simplify support for migrants pending resolution of their immigration status or their departure from the UK.”
They have achieved the second part, because they have all but removed support for UASC who turn 18 while leaving local authorities in the invidious position whereby: “Local authorities will continue to provide support under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 to meet any other needs of a child, or their family, in order to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare.”
For this the Home Office will provide £200 per week – meant to cover everything – but not if the young person’s appeal rights to remain in the UK have been exhausted.
And here we get to the nub of the problem. Like so many political decisions this one is being made on the basis of how politicians wished the world was, rather than how it actually is. Our asylum application and removal and deportation services don’t work very well. This isn’t a political point: Labour have been just as inept as the Tories on this.
As they approach their 18th birthday, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children must apply for extended leave to remain in the UK, and the majority are turned down. However, the Home Office does not then remove them from the UK. The appeals system is byzantine and inefficient. Many young people go off grid and become more vulnerable. Often the Home Office have no idea where they are or how many of them there are. The removals system is inefficient, under resourced and overwhelmed.
You do not become less vulnerable by being 24 hours older. It beggars belief that while we allow foster children to stay put until 21, we are deliberately sabotaging good work undertaken with unaccompanied children by removing support at a critical juncture.
At a meeting last week, I asked the immigration minister James Brokenshire if it would not be simpler and more humane to offer the same leaving care support to unaccompanied children as to other care leavers. His answer was that this would “not be appropriate as we are not preparing them for adult life in the UK so the approach must be different”.
This is as casually callous as it is nonsensical. Is he seriously suggesting that allowing an unaccompanied child to stay in their foster home until 21 and attend further education college or university (for however short a time) is a worse preparation for returning to their country of origin than being made functionally destitute? Or maybe he just accepts that destitution is what we are sending the young person back to?
Our whole approach to UASC is confused, grudging and wrong. It seems there has been a very cynical political calculation made that we can’t deport children so must be seen to be caring and magnanimous but, at 18, all bets are off.
The only reasonable approach to returning UASC to countries of origin is to do it soon after they arrive in the UK. This would be after a proper best interests determination by a family court which has also been given control over the immigration decision. If a young person has a viable situation to return to in their country of origin, or with a relative in another country, then that can be pursued. If not then the local authority should take a care order and the young person be given permanent leave to remain.
The Home Office will howl that this will encourage more children to travel to the UK. This totally misunderstands why children travel; it is often to escape an existential threat. We live in a dangerous, desperately unequal and uncertain world. Our corner of it is safe, prosperous and, despite the best efforts of successive home secretaries, tolerant and welcoming. This is why children travel, not because of this benefit or that service.
Local authorities that support UASC are already worried about the impacts of removing services. There are conflicts between the Immigration Act and local authorities’ statutory obligations, and the added cost implication if they do have to provide some form of support. The constant threat of judicial review which almost always proves a lengthy and expensive way of dealing with inequitable policy is very much present.
Today, in the Lords, The Adolescent and Children’s Trust – the charity where I am chief executive – will try to undo the damage done to vulnerable unaccompanied and refugee children who turn 18. We are introducing an amendment to the children and social work bill to give unaccompanied young people the same access to leaving care services, university and further education and training as all other care leavers until they leave the UK.
These are our children. Every child leaving care matters and we must not let the government divide up care leavers into the deserving and undeserving for narrow and cynical political ends.
A number of interesting findings are emerging from a major experiment involving Glasgow children in foster care.
The Glasgow Infant and Family Team (Gift) is a programme aimed at supporting parents of young children who have been removed to foster care.
It is based on a scheme pioneered in New Orleans, which aims to make quicker, better informed decisions about whether families can be helped to be safe places to return children to, or whether different, permanent options should be considered.
A major research effort is underway, comparing a Glasgow version of the New Orleans model with existing social work interventions and caution needs to be exercised about the early results. But, as this paper reported last week, it is striking that although nearly all the parents of the first 50 infants involved accepted the offer of intensive holistic support and parenting advice - only six of the children have been able to return to their biological family.
Apart from asking challenging questions about how we support families to give them the best chance of having children returned to their care, consultant psychiatrist Dr Graham Bryce is also raising other issues.
The research is likely to throw up significant considerations for the Children's Hearing System, whose panel members can benefit from much more detailed expert advice.
But decisions about contact are often far from helpful, Dr Bryce says, and not reliably in the best interests of the child. "We went back and looked at in how many of the cases we had a concern about contact arrangements," he adds. "It was virtually all of them."
He understands the position of children's panels, he says, when they know their decisions are frequently appealed if they reduce family contact. But there are other issues too. The three members of a panel are usually different for every hearing in Glasgow, with a child and family unlikely to see the same person - unlike in New Orleans where a judge will oversee a case from start to finish. "I can't see how it would be unhelpful to have continuity of panel members," Dr Bryce says. There are also concerns about whether lay panel members can easily ascertain the views and needs of young children across the table in such an intimidating setting, he says.
He stresses that the system often works well and panel members welcome reports from Gift. But that doesn't mean this research won't ultimately be a strong argument for change.
We were featured in The Times yesterday (7th June). The article is about the contribution made to the UK economy by co-operative businesses and organisations. It also highlights the amount of co-op members there currently are in the UK.
The section we're featured in reads:
Ian Brazier is executive director of The Foster Care Co-operative, based in Worcestershire, which has 350 members across the country. He was not surprised that the co-operative model was expanding, he said, because his company offers flexibility, making the value-based model even more attractive to employees.
"The values are built in," he said. "A co-op is in many ways founded on the principle of we are all working together for each other, and the point I make to our members when we travel around the country is that they don't work for me - I work for them. It's my job to facilitate for them their skills for the co-op."
An annual report published by Co-operatives UK has revealed that businesses and organisations trading as co-operatives contribute £34.1bn to the economy each year. It also stated that some 17.5 million people - almost a quarter of the UK population - are members of a co-op.
You can read the full report here
What is a Co-op?
Co-operatives are run not by institutional investors or distant shareholders, but by their members. These members could be customers, employees, residents, farmers, artists, taxi drivers...
In terms of FCC, we are overseen by board members who have no financial interest in the agency – which means we can stay focused on our prime objective: to put children first above all else.
Not only are we proud to be just one of the few not-for-profit fostering agencies in the UK, but the way we run our organisation is member-centred due to being a co-operative.
Watch the video at http://www.fostercarecooperative.co.uk
The NSPCC has condemned the “virtually non-existent” mental health support for babies and infants in the care system.
Despite increased recognition of the mental health problems suffered by young people in care, the charity says not enough consideration has been given to the impact of infant mental health. It has called for a rethink in how this group of children are supported, with more emphasis placed on offering help earlier.
The NSPCC has launched a campaign to improve mental health provision for looked-after children under five, and says more interventions are needed that focus on helping the child to form strong attachments with carers.
It is investigating whether the US developed New Orleans Intervention Model, which focuses on attachment-based practice, can be widely adopted in the UK - it is being tested by the charity in Glasgow and Croydon.
NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “The wider system has vastly under-estimated the importance of looking after infant mental health. Acting early can have significant benefits to future life outcomes. Yet public money is mostly spent on ‘late intervention’, rather than preventing problems occurring in the first place.
“It is time to rethink the way we work together across agencies to better identify and address the mental health and well-being needs of infants and young children.”
Research by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence shows that 45 per cent of looked-after children experience mental health problems.
The launch of the campaign has been timed to coincide with the UK’s first Infant Mental Health Awareness Week (June 6-10), which has been organised by the Parent Infant Partnership (PIP UK).
PIP UK executive director Claire Rees said: “Good mental health begins in early childhood. When a baby has the opportunity to form a secure bond with their caregiver, it can support their ability to form healthy relationships throughout life. The first 1001 days of life, from conception to age two, provide a crucial opportunity to influence this development.”
Last month, the education select committee inquiry into looked-after children's mental health condemned the lack of mental health support in the care system. The government has set up an expert group to investigate how support can be improved.
Community Foster Care has opened a new office in Wootton Bassett.
The not-for-profit agency has been providing carers for children in Swindon and Wiltshire for more than 16 years from its Gloucestershire base.
The new office at the Lime Kiln Business Centre, just outside Swindon, is a commitment to its growing team of carers in the region, which covers Swindon, Trowbridge, Devizes, Calne, Chippenham, Corsham, Devizes, Melksham, Marlborough, Lyneham and surrounding areas.
Registered Manager with CFC, Lyn Taylor, said: “The decision to open new premises is part of the high level of support that our carers know us for. It means our foster carers have a base close by. They know we value them and that we’re always here to help.
“We will also be running our training courses in the Swindon area so they have less far to travel.”
CFC was set up as an independent agency with charitable status in 1999. Its head office is in Gloucestershire. There are also offices in Cumbria and Lancashire.
As the number of cared-for children in Swindon and Wiltshire keeps rising, the search for foster carers is relentless.
“People often think it’s difficult to become a foster carer, but there is lots of help to get you started and plenty of support,” said Lyn.
"Making a commitment to children and young people as a carer is one of the most challenging and rewarding things a person can do. Having someone there for them through difficult times can mean the world to a child and, in some cases, even save a life.”
CFC is actively looking for carers who can provide safe, nurturing homes for children for short, long-term and respite care.
Foster carers come from all walks of life and can be male or female, single, married or divorced. They must be over 25 and in generally good health.
Anyone who is interested in becoming a foster carer can call the Wootton Bassett team on 01793 858232 or go to www.communityfostercare.co.uk.
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