As the care system creaks and groans under the burden of diminishing resources, foster care faces formidable challenges in the coming years, writes Alan Fisher.*
It is being swept along by the fast-paced change in care thresholds, driven not by research or policy but the dynamic between services hamstrung by budget cuts and record looked-after numbers as councils remain determinedly risk-averse in the wake of Peter Connolly's death. Fostering is struggling to keep up.
The Fostering Network estimates a shortfall of 8750 foster families this year. The government strongly hints that the assessment process is too intrusive and long-winded, dissuading many would-be applicants. Outcomes for children continue to cause concern. Social workers grapple, often heroically, with unmanageable caseloads and high stress levels. Some evidence suggests approval criteria are being stretched out of shape and numbers per foster home are rising. Demands on carers increase as fostering becomes ever more complex.
In the 'shadow of adoption'
So far fostering has been dragged along behind the government's adoption agenda like a toddler in the shadow of a favoured older sibling. Fostering Fortnight came and went in May without the expected big announcement. An action plan is now due later this year. But the immediate crisis in foster care lies elsewhere - in the fractured relationships between foster carers and children's social workers that hamper good decision making.
A telling Community Care survey last week revealed nearly 90% of foster carers experience difficulties when working with social workers, while almost two thirds of social workers say the same about carers. Carers recite a doleful litany of complaints that is sadly familiar to anyone working in the sector. Their information about the child is marginalised, messages not answered, day-to-day decisions regarding the child's care require permission.
On the same day, also in Community Care, a supervising social worker described the negative perception of her role as seen by her colleagues in the safeguarding team: "They think we do nothing here, just take it easy and have endless cups of tea". No wonder carers are concerned if the professionals themselves can't get it together. Not a good week in the media for fostering social work.
This is far more than an exasperated outpouring of frustration. Good communication is not a goal. Rather, it is a means to an end - to arrive at the best possible understanding of a child's needs, then create and implement a child-centred care plan. Without it, those plans are founded upon an incomplete and inadequate assessment. Opportunities are rife for drift and delay as decay sets in.
Poor relationships are fast becoming the single biggest impediment to improving the lives of children in care. At a time when resources are scarce, it wastes the precious talents and determination of able carers and dedicated social workers. It's seldom specifically addressed. Unless it is, the respective positions will become ever more entrenched in self-protection under high bombardment rates and external pressures.
Training and working together
The way forward lies in developing those relationships at a local level. Joint training should focus directly on ways of defining, creating and maintaining meaningful working relationships. Expectations should be shared and clarified. Communication is a two-way process, requiring give and take on all sides.
Partly this is the intended role of Foster Carer Charters. In my experience they hold little relevance because they've been handed down, rather than being the product of active interaction between carers and social workers.
Training is important but there is no substitute for working together. The new care planning process in England requires the active involvement of carers and children in decision taking. The Fostering Network has an excellent off-the-peg delegated authority format. The tools are there. Invest in those relationships and children's lives will be significantly improved.
*Alan Fisher is director of care at Supported Fostering Service, a trustee of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering and joint chair of Fostering Through Social Enterprise. He writes in a personal capacity.
FtSE Member News: 'End presumptions that siblings in care should be kept together, says Narey' - TACT responds
Martin Narey has today argued that rather than presuming that brothers and sisters in care should be kept together, there should be more flexibility in separating them, if it is in the best interests of the children involved.
TACT is not convinced that proposals to split up sibling groups for adoption will reduce perceived delays. The presumption will rightly remain that an attempt should be made to keep siblings together. If a later decision is made to split them up then it will then take additional time to attempt to match with new families. Other options, such as focussing adoption recruitment on families able to take sibling groups, or public sector assistance with funding to allow home improvement or extensions would also help if there are difficulties in finding families for siblings.
Ultimately, we feel that these proposals once again reflect the Government's belief that adoption should be proritised over other care options. Long term fostering, for example, can be just as effective in helping young people in care achieve their potential. If a long term foster placement avoids the need to separate siblings then it should be considered in preference to adoption.
Separation from siblings, especially for older children, will be extremely traumatic for children who have already experienced separation from their birth families. It should be avoided if possible. TACT's "Aspirations" research shows that nearly 90 percent of our own young people described their relationship with their brothers or sisters as "very important". This is hardly surprising as our relationships with our siblings are likely to be the only life long relationships we have.
If there are difficulties between siblings, skilled theraputic support needs to be available to resolve relationship issues at an early point when children are first separated from parents as this may reduce the need to separate them at a later point.
The English Government has issued two consultations today (19 July 2012) one on placing sibling groups for adoption and one on contact. In response to the proposals on sibling groups, Chief executive of the Fostering Network Robert Tapsfield said:
"The relationships we have with our brothers and sisters are often the longest and most enduring relationships that we have in our life. We must do all we can to keep them together.”
"If it is decided that siblings must be separated in order to give them a good experience of family life, there must be a consideration of how they can be helped to maintain these lifelong relationships.
"There must also always be a careful consideration of children’s needs and views before a decision on separation is made and these decisions are always difficult and complex.
"Where it is in their interests to stay together long term fostering should be considered with adoption and when it is possible for siblings to remain together with foster carers, they should not be separated in order that one or more can be adopted.
"We are encouraging our members to respond to this consultation. We need to stand together and use our collective voice to have a say and make changes in the best interests of children."
Details of the consultations are on the Department for Education website.
You can send your responses to these consultations to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday 31 August.
Our fostering survey this week has revealed foster carers want more support from, and communication with, children's social workers, while social workers would like more time to build positive relationships with foster parents and young people in foster care. It highlighted the complexities of managing professional relationships when everyone is under pressure.
If you're a children's social worker, or a fostering social worker supervising foster carers, you might find the following tips and resources helpful.
Tips from foster carers: Five things social workers can do to help carers:
And here are some guides from our sister site Inform, on everything from legal changes to foster carers wishing to make the transition to adoption.
On 11 July 2012, Challenge 4 Change, St Christopher’s young people’s participation panel, had the opportunity to showcase its work at The Who Cares? Trust event in Westminster.
The Challenge 4 Change team (C4C) joined MPs, local authorities, 120 young people, social workers and Children in Care Councils from across the country to celebrate the excellent work being done to encourage young people's participation in the care system and to share innovative ideas.
The C4C team were able to highlight the new participation groups in the West Midlands that offer peer to peer support for our children in foster care; the way any written communication for young people is checked for plain English and endorsed with a 'C4C approved' logo; and the 'What's your problem?' survey that collected views from all our young people and ensured they were considered by senior managers when planning and delivering services.
The evening was part of The Who Cares? Trust's on-going Listen Up! Project; designed to give a voice to young people in care and empower them to influence professionals and policy makers at the highest levels.
Natasha Finlayson, Who Cares? Trust Chief Executive, said:
"It seems that children in care are in the news almost every week. We hear about their poor outcomes, what's going wrong and what the system must do to change. But we don't hear about how, right across the country, children and young people are standing up and making a difference in the care system for their area. This event was a great opportunity to showcase the wonderful work young people are doing and tell people in power how they can change the care system for the better."
Government plans to make local authorities consider concurrent planning (or ‘foster to adopt’ as it is being described) for adoption should be encouraged. Placing children in care in a foster placement with a view to them being adopted by the foster carers if they cannot be returned to their birth families will reduce the chance of multiple placements and disruption. However, concurrent planning will only be possible in a very small number of cases.
Concurrent planning requires that people who want to adopt a child will have to accept the prospect that they will not be able to do so. If the child is able to return to birth parents then that will happen. There are people who are willing to do this but, particularly for families wishing to adopt as they are unable to have their own children, this is a lot to ask. In our experience, it is more likely that people will consider concurrent planning if they have started as foster carers and then considered adoption.
The number of children in the care system for whom the best outcome is adoption is retentively small. Of this number, only a few will be suitable for concurrent planning. This means that the government are identifying a solution that will only benefit a few of the eighty thousand children in care across the UK. Care should be a positive experience for all looked after children. Long term, stable fostering is as important in helping young people lead positive successful lives as adoption. TACT believes that all care experiences can be positive and that each aspect of the care system deserves attention. The focus on adoption should not be at the expense of other care options.
PACT welcomes the government's commitment to improving adoption rates for young children and particularly the concept of 'foster to adopt'.
David Cameron’s vision for children to be fostered by people who go on to adopt them mirrors PACT’s own dual approval scheme, announced yesterday, where carers are simultaneously approved to adopt and foster.
Families who are able to provide a secure and loving home for older children through fostering with PACT will be able to access therapeutic support for their child so that in time they can progress to permanently adopt them.
Satwinder Sandhu, PACT’s Director of Adoption and Fostering said: “The research and evidence available from concurrency models in the UK clearly suggests that children placed under such schemes fare much better than children in traditional foster placements.
“The evidence also suggests that the model allows much more meaningful work to be done with birth families, regardless of the outcome.
“PACT absolutely believes in better life chances for all children and our own Dual Approval scheme which allows older children to be fostered with a view to adoption is a great example of this.
“PACT welcomes anything the government can do improve permanence planning for all children and we now routinely discuss concurrent options with all our prospective adopters."
PACT Chief Executive Jan Fishwick said: “As a fostering and adoption charity, we are best placed to achieve results quickly. We are encouraged by discussions with local authority children’s services who are increasingly open to these new approach to finding forever families for children.
"We also call for effective support and processes from the judiciary service as critical to the success of these innovative new schemes.
“I would ask anyone interested in becoming a concurrent or dual approved carer for PACT to contact out duty team today on 020 7492 3923."
PACT’s dual approval scheme was launched yesterday (5th July) at BAAF conference on concurrent planning. The presentation by Satwinder Sandhu and PACT’s Assistant Director of Fostering Jean Smith was well-received and generated lots of positive interest and comment.
New-born babies being taken into care should be fostered by people who want to adopt them, the prime minister has said.
David Cameron has said the law in England will be changed to encourage more councils to do this - so more babies can find a loving home earlier.
He says it is "shocking" that so many babies taken in to care at one month wait 15 months to be adopted.
The government has pledged to simplify and speed up the adoption process.
It wants babies to be placed with prospective adoptive parents before the courts have decided to remove them permanently from their natural parents.
This is already being done by some councils, such as Harrow, which is working with the Coram children's charity.
In some cases, there might be disappointment for those trying to adopt, because the courts might eventually decide to return the child to its natural parents.
Most often, children are moved from foster carers to adoptive parents once the courts have decided that the child should be adopted - a process that often takes more than a year.
On average, a child waits two years and seven months to be placed with an adoptive family.
Last year ministers highlighted figures which showed that of the 3,660 children under the age of one who were in care in England in 2010-11, only 60 were adopted.
Damaging disruptionDavid Cameron said: "Children's needs must be at the very heart of the adoption process - it's shocking that we have a system where 50% of one-month-old babies who come to the care system go on to be adopted but wait 15 months to be placed in a permanent, loving home.
"These new plans will see babies placed with approved adopters who will foster first, and help provide a stable home at a much earlier stage in a child's life. This way, we're trying our very best to avoid the disruption that can be so damaging to a child's development and so detrimental to their future well-being."
The legal change is supported by the government's adoption adviser Martin Narey, who said he had seen the "fostering for adoption" scheme work well in East Sussex.
People who wanted to adopt would be prepared to take the risks involved, he said, "because they know how important early stability is to a neglected child".
'Early permanence'"This development is great news for adopters and even better news for neglected and abused children and infants."
Local councils say finding permanent families earlier can increase stability and reduce delays for some children, but that it is also vital to find more people willing to foster and adopt.
Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said: "Some good local authorities are already taking steps to place children with families who will become adopters earlier in the child's journey to adoption.
"This process will not be right for all children or all adopters, but can offer the benefits of early permanence for some."
FtSE Member News: PACT launches Dual Approval scheme to help find new homes for older children in care
PACT’s plan is to dual-approve carers to both foster and adopt and provide a home for older children who need extensive therapeutic support before they can be permanently adopted.
Satwinder Sandhu, PACT Director for Adoption and Fostering, unveiled the scheme today (5th July) at BAAF’s Conference on Concurrent Planning in London.
He explained that PACT’s dual approval scheme aims to help the older children in care, from around age six upwards, who are unlikely to be adopted and may need extensive therapeutic parenting before adoption can be considered.
PACT recruits people with the skills and experience to love and nurture children with complex needs who can, in time, become a permanent member of their family.
Satwinder said: “The dual approval scheme run by PACT can offer older children in care a successful route to a forever family, even when their age or needs deter prospective adopters.
“PACT’s extensive therapeutic services, FACTS (Fostering and Adoption Consultation and Therapeutic Support), have helped severely traumatised children to express their feelings, come to terms with their early life experiences and to ultimately form successful attachments with their new carers.
“When the bond is strong enough and the child is ready, PACT’s team guide the family through the steps to adoption.”
Luke & Giselle Taylor, who have been just been approved by PACT to long term foster as part of the dual approval scheme are ideal candidates for this new approach. Mr Taylor has been a step dad to the two older teenage children in the family, and the couple have a birth son age 12.
They are very nurturing people with excellent parenting skills. They also have lots of experience, through Mr Taylor’s work as a vicar, of supporting parents and children struggling with various emotional and practical issues.
Gisele said: “We are keen to use our skills and experience to help a child who isn’t able to be adopted at this time and needs specific support and care to bond and consider becoming part of a family in the long term.
“We have seen through our own eyes the effects of trauma on innocent children who haven’t been adequately cared for and the negative effects on their outlook on life.
“But I also know that the right support and intensive care can make a huge difference, and if Luke and I can help just one child, we’ve got to do it.”
She added: “It’s going to be a huge challenge to foster an older child but we are confident that being part of PACT’s team as foster carers, and with their access to expert therapy services, we will have the back up we need to cope.”
Other speakers at the conference were: Margaret Adcock, Social Work Consultant; Alexandra Conroy-Harris, Legal Consultant, BAAF; Elaine Dibben, Adoption Development Consultant, BAAF; Karen Devine, Service Manager, Adoption & Permanence Service, Brighton & Hove City Council; Dr Carol Homden, Chief Executive, Coram; Jeanne Kaniuk OBE, Head of Adoption & Permanent Families Service, Coram; Perspectives from Concurrent Adopters
PACT is a member of the CVAA, Consortium for Voluntary Adoption Agencies.
For more information about PACT’s fostering and adoption services, including Dual Approval, phone 0800 731 1845, visit the website www.pactcharity.org or come to a PACT Information Evening on Tuesday 17th July at St Saviours Church, Pimlico, London at 6.30pm, Wednesday 5thSeptember at RISC, Reading at 6.30pm, or Wednesday 26th September at The Brix, St Matthew’s Church, Brixton at 6.30pm.
Private equity firms are making huge profits from the care of damaged children in the UK care system, with one fund making a return of more than 500 per cent in only six years, The Times has found.
Wealthy global investors have bought out smaller care homes and fostering services, leading to accusations that standards are being sacrificed under the guise of efficiency savings.
The head of a leading children’s charity last night questioned the logic of a few large companies playing such a dominant role in the care of vulnerable young teenagers, asking whether it was morally “right for venture capitalists to profit from children who’ve been abused and neglected”.
Local authorities placing children in a private home pay average annual fees of £200,000 per child. Some private investors maximise their returns by clustering homes in deprived areas of north-west England and the West Midlands, where property prices are low.
Companies can further increase the fees they charge by registering a property as both a children’s home and a private boarding school. Every year hundreds of troubled children are sent from the south of England to care homes across the country, despite guidelines suggesting this should be done only in exceptional circumstances and experts saying the practice increases the risk of teenagers falling prey to sexual predators.
Kevin Williams, the chief executive of TACT (The Adolescent and Children’s Trust), Britain’s largest fostering and adoption charity, said that huge sums of money were passing from local authority children’s services budgets “into the pockets of global venture capitalists”.
“There’s a moral question about people making large sums of money from children who’ve suffered abuse and neglect,” he said. “If they do profit from such children, can they demonstrate that they’re delivering the best possible outcomes for those children and not simply making money through efficiency savings, by increasing workloads and reducing training and support? I would question whether they can.”
England’s biggest operator of children’s homes, Advanced Childcare, with 143 homes and 1,400 staff, was purchased last year by GI Partners, an American private equity house, from another private equity firm, Bowmark Capital. In April, Advanced Childcare, whose head office is in Stockport, Greater Manchester, bought Continuum Care and Education, previously owned by 3i, also a private equity firm.
The 15-year-old girl who was at the centre of a recent sex-grooming trial that ended with nine convictions was sent from Essex to live in a Continuum home in Rochdale, Greater Manchester.
Two of England’s three biggest private providers of foster placements are owned by private equity firms.
London-based Sovereign Capital bought the National Fostering Agency in 2006 and sold it this year to Graphite Capital for £130 million, tripling its original investment.
Acorn Care and Education, which owns Fostering Solutions, was purchased from a private equity firm for £150 million in 2010 by Teachers’ Private Capital, the direct investment division of a Canadian teachers’ pension fund.
Castlecare, which runs 40 children’s homes from headquarters in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, was bought by Baird Capital Partners Europe for £9 million in 2004. The company has expanded by buying two smaller childcare companies, Quantum Care and Sovereign Care, for £1 million and £1.3 million respectively. In 2009, Castlecare charged annual fees of £378,000 for a place at one children’s home; another opened an independent school in a converted double garage.
The role of private equity in residential childcare was defended by Simon Havers, the chief executive of Baird, who said its investment ensured that “the young people in Castlecare homes receive first-class care from experienced, specialist staff”. “Castlecare provides care to young people with exceptionally challenging behaviour. Fees reflect the high level of specialist support that the individual young people need.”
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