Fostering News: Make foster carers vaccine priority to prevent ‘catastrophic impact’ on social care system
With the coronavirus vaccine rollout underway, The Fostering Network is urging UK governments to issue guidance to local authorities and health services that all foster carers fall within priority group two as an essential part of the social care workforce.
Foster carers are a vital part of our social care system, and are currently putting themselves and their families at increased risk of contracting the virus through exposure to multiple households as they maintain contact with birth families, as well as meeting with social workers and other professionals in the course of their work. If they are not given this priority access, foster carers remain extremely vulnerable to infection and we face the very real potential for part of the social care system to be seriously diminished at a time when it is needed more than ever.
The Fostering Network’s helplines have been exceptionally busy, with calls from foster carers indicating that they are increasingly under pressure to support face to face contact and to take children to school, regardless of the risks to their own health, that of their family and other looked after children in placement.
Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, said: ‘We have already called on the UK governments to give foster carers priority access to vaccines, and this need is only increasing in urgency every day as foster carers are expected to interact with a range of people from other households in the course of their work.
‘Priority access to vaccinations is the only way to ensure the safety of our foster carers and the children they care for, as well as to prevent a potentially catastrophic impact on the social care system itself.‘Foster carers perform a vital role in society and must be well protected alongside their health and social care peers.’
The Fostering Network has launched a campaign action to encourage its members and supporters in England to ask their MPs to contact the Minister for COVID Vaccine Deployment, Nadhim Zahawi, to urge him to include foster carers in priority group two for the vaccine roll out, alongside health and social care workers.
Fostering News: Fostering capacity still ‘nowhere near enough to meet demand’, despite small rise, warns Ofsted
Official statistics show 3% increase in filled places, from 2019-20, but with unavailable places also rising and an ageing population of carers, Ofsted warns of trouble for the future.
Fostering capacity remains “not anywhere near enough to meet demand”, despite a small increase in capacity revealed by official statistics released today, Ofsted has warned.
The inspectorate estimated that there were 89,200 approved fostering places as of March 2020, 1% up on the figure a year previously of 88,370, based on data submitted by agencies. While filled places rose by 3% to 56,500, there was also an increase, from 15,465 to 16,555 (7%), in the number of approved places that were not available, for example, because of carers taking a break or due to the needs of children currently in placement.
The statistics come against a backdrop of year-on-year increases in the care population, and widespread evidence of substantial pressures on places, leading to children being placed far from home or in unregulated provision.
The figures also showed that two-thirds of carers were aged over 50, with a quarter over 60.
‘Storing up trouble for the future’
Commenting on the figures, Ofsted’s national director for regulation and social care, Yvette Stanley, said: “Although today’s statistics show a small rise in foster carers and places, there still isn’t anywhere near enough to meet demand. The difficulty in recruiting carers with the right skills and experience, along with what is potentially an aging carer population, is a mix that could be storing up trouble for the future.”
She said addressing the problem, as well as the urgent need for more residential provision, had to be a priority for the government’s long-awaited care review, which children’s minister Vicky Ford said last week would be launched imminently.
The figures follow last week’s report by Ofsted on the challenges of matching children with foster families. This found that the shortage of carers was the biggest barrier to successful matches, particularly for siblings, disabled children and teenagers, which meant that “making a decision about the best place for a child to live was often a tricky balancing act between looking for what was ideal and what was possible”.
The matching study – which was carried out last summer but whose findings were still relevant, said Ofsted – was based on case studies of 24 children and focus groups with professionals in four local authorities, meetings with independent fostering agencies and birth parents of children who had been fostered, and online surveys of children in foster care, carers, former foster children and fostering service managers.
The report stressed that there was much councils and agencies could do beyond recruitment, and social workers Ofsted spoke to were able to identify what worked and what could have gone better in terms of successful matching.
‘Little evidence’ good practice learned from
However, Ofsted found “little evidence…that this has translated into wider organisational learning that could improve practice across the whole service”. For example, meetings to consider learning from placement breakdowns were not always held, even when required by local authority policy.
It said there were several areas of practice that could improve, particularly in relation to making the matching process more child-centred. Over two-thirds of children in foster care who responded to Ofsted’s survey felt they had not been asked about their wishes and feelings before they moved into their foster home, while very few of those who were consulted felt their views had made a difference..
Ofsted said that, when children were involved, this helped family finders know what they were looking for in a foster family, help prospective carers know what was important to children and made it more likely that children would feel that decisions were being made in their best interests.
Also, it found that few survey respondents with past or current experience of care received information about their foster home before they moved in, with those that did receiving it too late to help them prepare for the move. This was despite the study finding that being informed helped children to settle, particularly when they were shown pictures of the family, empowered them to ask questions about their prospective carers and helped them start seeing themselves as part of the family.
Lack of information for carers
Similarly, carers felt that the information they received about the children coming to live with them was variable. Though, perhaps unsurprisingly, information sharing was worse when children were moved in an emergency, Ofsted found that, in several cases, information gaps were not filled after the child moved in. Carers also said they found information from previous carers of the child to be “invaluable”, but it was sometimes left to them to initiate liaison with previous carers, rather than it being facilitated by the local authority. The study also found that carers who were treated as professionals were typically more likely to feel empowered to ask questions about the child, including from previous carers, though in most areas this was embedded in practice.
Ofsted also said social workers needed to do more to help carers support contact between the child and their birth family, with fewer than half of carers surveyed saying their supervising social worker helped them to do so.
The inspectorate also said social workers and foster carers needed more training in helping trans-cultural matches work more effectively, with matches more likely to be influenced by carers’ availability, location, skills and experience, rather than ethnicity, religion or cultural background.
The report’s conclusions were broadly welcomed by fostering and care organisations.
Katharine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of children in care charity Become, echoed Ofsted’s conclusion that matching need to be centred around a child’s background, wishes and needs and that this needed to be a theme in the care review, which the “government needs to bring forward with urgency”.
“Children and young people in care should always feel their views are important and are meaningfully listened to and acted upon – whether that’s by social workers, foster carers or other professionals in the system,” she added.
Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, said the charity welcomed the report’s focus on maintaining relationships with previous carers and that “relationships between children and their previous foster carers are too often overlooked, and more needs to be done to support these relationships”.
TACT, the largest voluntary fostering agency, said that it was pleased that the report highlighted the importance of providing carers with “balanced, full and asset-based information” about the child, with too often information being “partial and focused on negative factors”.
Government recruitment efforts ‘ignoring fostering’
However, TACT also stressed the problem of there being insufficient carers to provide suitable matches, and criticised the Department for Education’s emphasis on adoption – set out most recently in a speech last month by education secretary Gavin Williamson.
“It is clear that we need additional foster carers, but again and again the DfE are prepared to fund national advertising campaigns to encourage people to adopt while ignoring fostering,” said TACT. “At this unprecedented time when so many people are having to look to make a change in their lives it is an ideal opportunity for a national advertising campaign to promote fostering. Having a sufficient pool of foster families would have a very positive impact on matching and the on the lives of many vulnerable children.”
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) also emphasised the national shortage of carers in its response, saying this would be exacerbated by the pandemic, and needed to be addressed through the care review.
The extent of the pressures on the system was also highlighted by Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers.
“Certainly, the pressure on local authorities to find foster carers for children at short notice is one such significant pressure,” he said. “This may mean that local authorities can only consider those foster carers who have an appropriate vacancy that day, not even next week or soon afterwards. Children may then have little say in where they will be living. Matching can be seen as a luxury when time and availability is against a local authority, and that should never be the case.”
We welcome Ofsted’s latest research on matching in foster care, published today. It finds that good matches are not down to luck and chemistry but are something that can be developed through good practice.
Stability for looked after children is vital, this is why matching in foster care is so important. When matches do not work, fostering arrangements breakdown which causes instability for the child and, sometimes, results in the foster carer taking a break from fostering or leaving the workforce altogether.
Ofsted’s report also highlights that the most significant challenge in making successful matches for children is the shortage of the right type of foster carers to match the needs of the looked after children population. However, there were several areas of improvement that did not depend on recruiting more foster carers.
The report’s findings show that best practice when matching children and foster carers includes:
We are delighted to have been advisory board members for this research project and hope that fostering services across England can incorporate the findings into wider organisational learning.
Chief executive of The Fostering Network, Kevin Williams, said: ‘We were pleased to see the importance of confident and empowered foster carers and how this improves the matching process and other aspects of the fostering experience for the child.
‘We also strongly welcome the consideration of maintaining relationships with previous foster carers in the matching process; relationships between children and their previous foster carers are too often overlooked, and more needs to be done to support these relationships.’
Read Ofsted’s full report here.
Fostering News: FosterTalk conducts survey into impact of government amendments on fostering and adoption regulations
FosterTalk is a not-for-profit organisation providing high quality independent advice and support to foster carers and their families throughout the UK. Part of the Martin James group of companies, FosterTalk is currently supporting 20,000 fostering families through its comprehensive membership package. It also delivers Fosterline England on behalf of the Department for Education, offering advice, support and information to foster carers and prospective foster carers via an interactive website and free to use helpline.
On July 14, the government announced in a written statement that most of the amendments introduced to the Adoption and Children [Coronavirus] [Amendment] Regulations 2020 are no longer required. However, these legal provisions will remain in place until September 25, and it is stated that some of the amendments may be extended beyond this date.
Since the introduction of these amendments, FosterTalk have been concerned that rather than strengthening the core duty of safeguarding children in care, the flexibility of these regulations may have the opposite effect.
Concerns centre around the fact that the amendments relax some of the statutory duties to be carried out by fostering services and presented potential safeguarding risks for both children in care and foster carers.
FosterTalk has acknowledged that the government’s intention is that amendments are to be used in exceptional circumstances. However, it also believes that proper planning removes the need for the majority of amendments being implemented.
For example, FosterTalk highlighted that existing legislation already allowed for panels to be conducted virtually with a full complement of members, but the amendment allows for a reduction to three panel members and also, if deemed necessary, removal of the need to hold a panel altogether. This reduction in panel numbers means that assessments for carers and adopters can be approved with reduced rigour. There has also been a relaxation in the timescales for the production of a placement plan and care plan from five days to “when reasonably practical”; emergency placements can last for six months; there is no requirement for temporary foster carers to have a connection with the child; all of which leaves the foster carer and child at potential risk.
The concerns have also been echoed by other organisations. Harvey Gallagher the chief executive of the National Association of Fostering Providers [NAFP] highlighted his organisation’s concerns in an article published in Community Care back in April and was present alongside FosterTalk at a recent discussion regarding the use of the amendments with the DfE.
Children’s rights charity Article 39 has also been granted a judicial review challenging the legality of the amendments, stating that many of the changes made under the new secondary legislation had been seen before, under 2016 proposals to allow councils to opt out of some duties, which were heavily criticised at the time and then withdrawn by government.
In response, FosterTalk has undertaken a survey to explore the impact of these amendments on its members and to better understand the ways in which the amendments have been used, with a view to presenting their findings to the Department for Education.
In a report accompanying the survey’s findings, FosterTalk’s managing director Steve Stockley commented: “There is no question that foster families have faced exceptional circumstances and often been forced into making decisions in the absence of other professionals and social workers during the lockdown period.
“Foster carers’ lives and the lives of children in care have been impacted upon and although the minister’s statement said the amendments were to be used to overcome exceptional circumstances, some of our foster carers have expressed concerns that the amendments have been used inappropriately or misinterpreted at best.
“For example, while social workers had been advised not to make home visits or undertake face to face contact with children or families, we have been made aware of foster carers being forced to travel over 150 miles to make introductions with adoptive families, forced into attending family contacts, placing themselves and their families at risk, while social workers were following advice not to make face to face statutory visits.”
Results of the Survey
FosterTalk sent two surveys out to members to gauge how many fostering services had used the amended provisions and the affect upon foster carers where they had been used. Both surveys asked similar questions but framed from the perspective of the target audience.
It is important to stress that the response to FosterTalk’s surveys reflect the views of those fostering services that chose to respond to the request for information. FosterTalk received 59 responses from fostering services. Of those fostering services that have made use of the provisions it is clear that they have been selective in the amendments used. There are some provisions that have proven to be beneficial to both the foster carers and the fostering service and it is these that need to be considered for extension after September 25.
Fostering services have strongly been in agreement that with the appropriate preparation, the majority of amendments were either not required or necessary.
45 per cent of responding services indicated that they had made use of provisions outlined in the amendments, while 55 per cent did not.
Detailing their reasoning as to why they believed the amendments were unnecessary, fostering services noted the following:
This runs contrary to the belief that fostering services had called for the amendments to be implemented.
With the amendments, the potential to remove independent panels has raised concerns and potential safeguarding issues for looked after children. Although this removal of panels is minimal from the responses FosterTalk received, the risk would be amplified if they remain in place post September.
One independent fostering service commented:
“Through the temporary regulations, the independent panels which approve foster carers have become optional. This means that an assessment of a foster carer can proceed straight to the decision maker for approval. As an independent fostering agency, this would ultimately have a positive impact from a business perspective as speedy approvals could lead to more placements. However, our agencies view is that this is a retrograde step in terms of safeguarding children, as it removes a layer of scrutiny for these highly important decisions on the suitability of people in whom we will be entrusting the care of vulnerable children and young people. We are taught that a holistic approach is needed in securing better outcomes for children and young people. The diversity of expertise in panels supports this theory, and, to remove this, would fall short of promoting better outcomes for foster children.
“We feel that a combination of the amendments would potentially culminate in a greater risk. If we take the temporary medical self-declaration by prospective foster carers in the assessment process.
“The relaxed regulations provide for fostering applicants to be assessed and approved without a full medical report under the proviso that one is obtained as soon as is possible. A medical report on prospective foster carers is needed to ascertain the applicant’s emotional stability and physical health to prevent children being placed in a volatile environment. Approving foster carers with a temporary self-declaration on their health and without a full in-depth report from their GP places an additional layer of risk The emotional, mental and physical health of a prospective foster carer is a crucial part of the Form F assessment and we do not take short cuts when it comes to safeguarding children and young people.
“In addition to the relaxed fostering regulations, DBS guidelines have also been amended during the Covid-19 period. The amended guidelines state that if a fostering applicant or adult member of the household has a DBS from a social care setting which was completed within the last three years, then this can be used by the fostering services. This again adds another layer of risk and undermines safeguarding of children, as an applicant could have had a conviction after the date of the last DBS.”
Stockley commented: “On their own these risks present significant questions but when placed together the sum of all their parts could be devastating.”
Survey responses from foster carers
FosterTalk also hoped to establish a holistic view of the impact of the amendments and how they were affecting foster carers themselves. The organisation commented that it had received an increase in enquiries to its support services with foster carers expressing anxieties and seeking advice on good practice.
1,600 foster carers were included in the survey to help formulate a response. 53 per cent were part of an independent fostering agency, 44 per cent worked for their local authority and three per cent worked for the Children’s Trust.
Of those carers, a majority of 59 per cent indicated they were unsure whether their service had used any of the amendments. Meanwhile, 38 per cent reported that their services had, with a mere three per cent indicating that their services had not done so.
The responses seem to indicate that foster carers have used their resilience and maintained their fostering status quo with the majority of foster carers not knowing if the situations they have faced are actually within the amendments or not. It highlights that foster carers adapt and carry on, putting the wellbeing of the children they look after at the heart of what they do.
FosterTalk’s previous survey, conducted with the Martin James Foundation, explored the mental health of foster carers and from the enquiries received through FosterTalk and Fosterline, indicate it is without question that fostering has experienced massive changes during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, the response to the survey seems that foster carers have been unfazed by the changes and continued to put children first.
33 per cent of those surveyed welcomed another child or young person into their home during the pandemic, and from those foster carers that welcomed children, just 40 per cent received a placement plan at the time of the child’s arrival. 21 per cent had still not received the plan at the time the survey was taken.
One of the major amendments that foster carers have experienced relates to statutory visits taking place during the pandemic, with over 70 per cent of respondents reporting that visits were conducted virtually, compared to just over ten per cent saying that they had been conducted in person with social distancing in place.
Stockley said: “The merits of virtual visits and supervisions should be evaluated with a view to retain the provision post September. A mixed balance of virtual and face to face visits would complement busy schedules of both social workers and foster carers and contribute to a more efficient way of completing statutory requirements.”
But what does the future hold?
The government has told councils that most exemptions from children's social care duties introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic are no longer required.
However, children’s minister Vicky Ford has said that the laws will remain in place until the end of September as planned and councils can still relax their duties to vulnerable children when they have “strong justification” to do so.
Some restrictions may also be extended beyond September, the government has confirmed. In a written parliamentary statement, Ford said that the emergency legislation was brought in during the pandemic in anticipation of councils finding it impossible to meet their duties, due to staff shortages and sickness.
In the parliamentary statement, it references protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of the government’s response to the virus. These regulations formed part of that response, alongside keeping schools and other settings open for vulnerable children, substantial additional investment, and additional support direct to children, young people, and their families.
The government states it has always been clear that these temporary amendments should be used only when absolutely necessary and only if consistent with the overarching safeguarding and welfare duties that have remained in place.
What has been clearly evident in the communications FosterTalk have had with fostering services and foster carers alike is that a new way of working has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis. Forward thinking fostering services and foster carers alike have adapted and created positive engagements in the support of children in care. The initial evidence received by the Martin James Foundation has shown that placements were more stable with less breakdowns in the early months of lockdown.
Stockley said: “If we truly want to place the child at the centre of their own care planning then we should look to conduct planning in an environment that they are more comfortable in rather than move children and young people into what we expect.
“The use of virtual platforms has proven successful for conducting panels, training and supervisions. Conducting everything in the virtual space would increase potential safeguarding risks however a balanced combination and forward thinking could improve the engagement and availability of both foster carers and children in care.
“While we would not wish to see all the amendments adopted nor dismissed the approach should be measured. Many will be familiar with the work Cornerstone produce with their VR programme and have evidenced that people trained within the VR environment report 340 per cent more confidence to employ what they have learnt. There is no reason why we could not apply this technology into the care planning for our looked after children.”
Alison Alexander, CEO of The Cornerstone Partnership, added: “We now teach children through Zoom and so why can we not have a weekly check in with children in care using tech. Imagine the hours of travel time no longer needed and the increased flexibility – social workers and young people can meet virtually over breakfast or at gaps in young people’s day. It’s now time that children’s services are given approval, by the DfE, to make the leap and join the rest of the world in delivering their business using tech.”
On July 16, the Department for Education opened a consultation on the amendments with a proposal to retain 3 main areas: virtual contact/visits; medical reports; and Ofsted inspection frequency, with the remaining amendments reverting to the pre-amendment situation. The consultation closes on August 5.
Stockley concluded: “This is to be welcomed and in the next round of discussions we need to ensure our planning is capable of flexing to allow for our children returning to school, potential of local lockdowns, further reduction of social distancing, and any onset of a second wave entering the winter.
“Most importantly we need to ensure safeguarding of children and young people is placed at the heart of all planning in social care. Children at risk in the community have not had the safeguards of teachers or other responsible adults looking for signs of neglect and abuse. We, in the fostering sector, fully expect there to be an increase in the numbers of children entering care once schools re-open and statutory visits resume.”
There should be tailored transition arrangements for children in foster care when they head back to school, the Fostering Network has warned.
The primary focus of the initial return of foster carers to school should be on students’ mental health and wellbeing, the charity states, after a survey they carried out found that almost eight in 10 children in foster care did not attend school during lockdown restrictions imposed in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Chief executive of The Fostering Network, Kevin Williams, said: “The evidence shows that the education offer that children in foster care have received during lockdown has not been sufficiently tailored to their looked after status. The experience of educating during lockdown has brought to the fore the need for more individualised education plans for looked after children.”
The survey found that 74 per cent of foster carers were unaware of any specific arrangements for children in care on returning to school.
Many foster carers told the charity that there has been insufficient support tailored to the needs of looked after children. In England, 62 per cent of foster carers reported not receiving any support from their virtual school - the body with oversight of the statutory duty to promote the progress and educational achievement of children who are, or have been, in care. Just over one in three (36 per cent) foster carers stated that they had been provided with laptops or tablets to facilitate learning, and 14 per cent reported having had no individual contact from schools about the child in their care.
However, lockdown had proved an opportunity for foster children and foster families strengthen their relationship, the survey found.
Foster carers raised concerns about how the children would readjust when they go back to school and the requirements of the formal curriculum, the impact on their mental health, particularly in the context of pre-existing attachment and trauma issues, and how they would catch up socially and academically.
Foster carers highlighted three forms of support they would like to see in place for the children in their care:
The Fostering Network says that foster carers are integral to the process of children returning to school. They are well placed to understand the child’s needs and feelings, and as the vast majority have been educating their children at home throughout this time, they will be essential in the dialogue with schools and other professionals.
The report calls for:
Chief executive of The Fostering Network, Kevin Williams, said: “The transition back to school for all children is extremely important, but this is especially the case for many looked after children. Foster carers will be essential in the dialogue with schools and others involved in decision making for the education of children in foster care.”
“We welcome the funding already announced by governments to support children as they return to school, but the funding requirements will need to be reviewed as children transition back to school. Additional funding must be provided, as necessary, to support children with their educational, emotional and social needs as part of a recovery curriculum,” he concluded.
Member News: TACT in the Huff Post - 'We'll Treasure This Time.' The Reality Of Fostering During A Pandemic
TACT has reported an 11% increase in queries from people hoping to become foster carers since lockdown.
Barnardo’s recently called a ‘state of emergency’ in the care system, reporting that the numbers of children referred for foster care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had risen by 44% during lockdown. The charity also revealed a 47% decline in the number of people coming forward to become foster carers, compared to last year.
However, Andy Elvin, CEO of fostering and adoption charity TACT Care, told HuffPost UK they have actually seen an 11% increase in queries from people hoping to become foster carers since lockdown began.
Elvin believes some people have been reevaluating what they’re doing with their lives as a result of the pandemic – and says that while they’ve had to be honest with carers that they can’t guarantee a child hasn’t been exposed to Covid-19, most have still gone ahead with their placements.
“We’ve actually seen stability in the foster care environment,” Elvin tells HuffPost UK. “More stability than instability. We haven’t had many kids leaving foster homes, and a lot of the children have relaxed into it. Placements have, on the whole, gone ahead – the only ones who have not been okay with it are those with underlying health conditions or health risks.”
While referrals of new cases from local authorities have decreased by 5%, perhaps as a result of school closures, Elvin believes the pandemic may have actively prompted interest from some carers. “Unemployment is rising and people are looking at doing other things,” he says. “Fostering is recession-proof. Hopefully in three to six months time we’ll have a new cohort of foster carers.
In many ways, social distancing and homeschooling has helped children relax into their new environments, says Elvin.
“For some children, not having the social and academic pressures of school has made things better and easier,” he explains. “It’s improved their mood and given them less anxiety. Often, in foster homes, the evenings are spent dealing with the fall-out of the school day. So, in many ways, if it’s going to work in a new placement - if children are going to settle – it’s a good thing to do it in lockdown.”
HuffPost UK spoke to one family who recently took in two young brothers about what their experience has been like during lockdown – and how it’s affected the way they feel about fostering for the first time.
To protect the identity of children, some personal details have been changed or omitted.
Ceri and Tony, a couple in their 40s, were officially approved to foster for TACT in March this year. Two weeks later – just days after lockdown began – they welcomed two brothers, aged 10 and six, into their family.
“They came to us at the end of March, once lockdown had started,” Ceri tells HuffPost UK. “We had never done it before, so we didn’t know what to expect - but things had to be done very differently.” And in addition to the initial shock of being given just a day’s notice that the boys would be placed with them, they also had to acclimatise to not leaving the house due to the government’s self-isolation guidelines.
“We had to get used to each other quickly, because it was a very unique situation,” Ceri says. “There was an expectation beforehand that they would be in school, and we had an idea of the clubs they might like to join, and the places we would take them. The whole idea we had in our minds of what fostering would be like changed overnight. It’s not more or less stressful, it’s just totally different to the way I imagined it would be.”
She adds: “Schools had closed, so they didn’t do any of the ‘normal’ socialising they would’ve usually been doing, with all the challenges that might have brought. Instead, we were given the opportunity to get to know them really well, and they got to know us - with continuity, and without distraction. It helped in terms of them getting used to routines – our way of living.”
Ceri admits the first day and night was challenging – the older boy was angry when he first arrived, while the younger boy wasn’t used to sleeping in a bed on his own. But the intensity of lockdown helped the brothers get used to the new ‘house rules’ – fast.
“They had to swiftly acclimatise to things that were acceptable, and things that weren’t,” Ceri says. “Being siblings, there was some fighting – that was quite difficult. They had to get used to how we deal with conflict. We don’t use any kind of physical reprimand, we tend to talk things through and explain why something is wrong and why it isn’t right, to hurt each other. That’s been different, for them. They’ve not been used to having that kind of respectful relationship.”
Ceri, a social worker, and Tony, who works in social housing, had to juggle working from home around introducing the boys to the family – including Ceri’s 16-year-old daughter, Rhian. The couple also have a dog and cat – and the presence of the additional family members seems to have had a positive effect in helping the boys settle in.
“Rhian was fantastic, and a huge part of the assessment,” Ceri says. “She was really keen to be involved with the boys – she does baking and modelling with them, and they love and idolise her. She’s really helpful and they learn a lot from her, because she’s sensible and level headed, but fun, as well. And she’s learning a lot from them, too.”
“For the initial four weeks we were both still working full-time from home,” Ceri adds. “We muddled between taking annual leave and managing Skype meetings so we could make sure the boys have something to do – I’ve never bought so much Lego in my life! In many ways, we’ve been winging it, like the rest of the country.”
The younger boy had significant communication challenges but is now happily chatting away, something he was not able to do when he first arrived. The siblings’relationship with each other has also started to improve. And weekly ‘virtual’ contact has been maintained with the birth mother via Whatsapp video.
“If it wasn’t for lockdown, the boys would’ve been going to a contact centre, to meet face to face,” Ceri says. “That’s been very unusual in terms of the divide between ‘home’ and ‘contact’, because we’ve had to bring that contact into the house. It’s been quite strange, and there’s been pros and cons. Even as adults, we can find video calls intimidating. It’s been interesting, but again – we’re muddling through.”
And even though lockdown is easing, Ceri says they’re not going to rush the boys into a hectic social whirlwind, just yet. “We’re not going to rush to do things now we can do them,” she says. “We’re just going to go easy. This whole experience has taught us that doing lots of different things would’ve been more stressful for the boys – and they weren’t used to doing those things anyway.”
She adds, with excitement: “We can plan some nice summer experiences now, maybe a couple of days over the summer in a cabin somewhere. We’re not going to overload them. We’re really just looking forward to having some sort of normality – even simply going shopping.
“The time we’ve spent getting used to fostering during lockdown has been so rewarding. They’ve made so much progress in such a short space of time, in terms of their confidence, their relationship with each other and communication. We’ve even been able to teach them to ride bikes. They’d never done that before. I’ll look back and treasure this time. We all will.”
Fostering News: Two companies account for one-third of independent fostering placements, Ofsted figures show
Regulator and directors' body warn of risks to provision for children in care should any of bigger providers go bust, but provider leader says foster carers would simply move agency ensuring continuity
Ofsted and children’s services directors have warned of the risks to fostering provision caused by the degree of market concentration after the regulator revealed two companies accounted for one-third of independent placements.
In a report today, Ofsted said that half of independent fostering agency (IFA) placements in England were managed by six providers. It said the Outcomes First Group, whose fostering arm is known as National Fostering Group (formerly the NFA Group), and Nutrius UK, whose fostering service is known as Polaris, accounted for 31% of IFA placements between them. As of March 2019, 35% of children in foster care were placed through IFAs.
The news prompted concerns that the degree of market concentration created risks should any of the big providers fail, at a time of insufficiency of supply overall.
‘Storing up trouble’
“Demand for children’s social care services continues to outstrip supply, and the need for placements for the most vulnerable children is only likely to rise in the wake of Covid-19,” said Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for social care.”
“The domination of the fostering market by a small number of operators creates an additional concern that the loss of any of the bigger providers could leave major gaps in supply. We worry that the narrowing of the market on top of the sufficiency issue is storing up trouble for the future.”
Edwina Grant, chair of the ADCS health, care and additional needs policy committee, echoed Stanley’s concerns about the overall lack of foster carers, adding: “Children’s services have long operated in a mixed economy with a range of providers involved in the delivery of children’s services locally, however, we are concerned that the trend towards consolidation and the concentration of placements in the hands of a small number of providers represents a level of risk in the system, should any of these providers fail no single local authority could step in meaning vulnerable children would suffer the greatest consequences.”
However, this was rejected by National Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP) chief executive Harvey Gallagher, who said: “The loss of a large provider does not equate to leaving a ‘major gap in supply’. Foster carers are self-employed and could transfer to another IFA or local authority fostering agency, thereby re-establishing that placement with another provider. This happens on occasion now when agencies change ownership and is managed smoothly with little, if any, disruption for children.”
The figures mark the culmination of significantly increased concentration in the IFA market in recent years. The government-commissioned review of foster care, carried out by Martin Narey and Mark Owers, that reported in February 2018 said that larger IFAs had grown by 7.7% per year over the previous five years, from both organic growth and the acquisition of smaller providers.
Over the subsequent two years, the biggest provider, then known as the NFA Group, continued to grow, acquiring Child Care Bureau, Brighter Futures Foster Care, Reach-Out Care and familyplacement.com. It then joined with special school and children’s home provider Outcomes First Group in December 2019, with the latter taking the company name with the fostering arm rebadged as National Fostering Group.
It now accounts for 6,304 places across 21 separate IFAs, 17% of the 36,890 places offered by independent agencies.
The second biggest provider, Polaris (part of Nutrius), was formed by the 2019 merger of the Core Assets Group and Partnerships in Children’s Services, bringing together 26 IFAs under one roof, including Foster Care Associates, Orange Grove and ISP. It now accounts for 14% of IFA places.
The Narey and Owers report raised concerns about the debt burden carried by IFAs run by large providers, as a result of their ownership by private equity firms, saying they made agencies vulnerable to increases in interest rates and led to higher prices because of the need to service debts.
However, the Ofsted report showed high performance by IFAs run by the biggest six providers, with 29% rated outstanding and 69% good, compared with 16% outstanding and 75% good for other IFAs.
Responding to the figures, NAFP head Gallagher highlighted the strong performance as demonstrating that size was not detrimental to quality.
He added that the separate IFAs run by large providers were distinct from each other and, given that services were commissioned locally, not nationally, the key issue was whether there was adequate supply and choice for local authorities.
Gallagher also said that the numbers quoted by Ofsted referred to the total number of children foster carers were approved to care for, not the numbers living in households and, in reality, the total capacity was not available because of the need to match children to carers.
He also referred to the number of investigations carried out by regulator the Competition and Markets Authority into IFA mergers and acquisitions as demonstrating there was oversight of the market to ensure adequate competition.
Fostering News: Three-quarters of foster carers happy with social work support during pandemic, survey finds
Only 20% of carers responding to research by the Independent Foster Carers' Alliance say they have received extra funding from local authorities
More than three-quarters of foster carers have been satisfied with the support provided by social workers during the coronavirus crisis, a survey has found.
Asked to grade on a five-point scale their dealings with practitioners since the onset of the pandemic, 77% of respondents scored it three or above, with 52% giving a rating of four or five.
The research was carried out by the Independent Foster Carers’ Alliance (IFCA), which represents and campaigns on behalf of foster carers. More than 600 foster carers responded to the survey, around 90% of them from England, with the rest made up of people living in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Eighty per cent of people who answered the survey said they had not accessed extra financial support during lockdown from their local authority or independent fostering agency. Those that did typically received one-off payments in the range of £50-£200 for assistance towards home schooling or activities, or in lieu of cancelled respite.
Official guidance for children’s social care providers does not make specific provision for extra funding to foster families in adverse financial circumstances under coronavirus, merely stating that the government has provided an extra £3.2bn to local authorities (a sum since increased by £500m).
A report published this week by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) cited government figures showing 8% of the £3.2bn had been spent on children’s services. In an answer to a Parliamentary question published this week, the children’s minister Vicky Ford said the government was aware that local authorities and fostering agencies “are responding to the challenge by finding innovative ways to continue to support their foster carers”, and would be monitoring the situation over the coming weeks and months.
‘We are being pressurised’
Elsewhere, the survey found that a minority of foster carers had felt pushed into taking part in potentially risky activities.
Ten per cent of foster carers said they had felt pressured to send a child to school against their wishes during lockdown – an issue that IFCA has recently taken up with at least one council.
Many social workers who have been in touch with Community Care during the pandemic have said their employers have taken a relatively soft line on parents and carers of ‘vulnerable’ children – who have had their school places kept open – keeping them at home due to justified fears over infection.
Meanwhile 7% of survey respondents said they had been asked to undertake in-person adoption introductions while restrictions have been in place, and 14% said they had been asked to attend face-to-face contact sessions.
“What is best and safe for our family is not being considered at all,” said one respondent. “We are being pressurised by a social worker who admits to being terrified to leave her house – this is not acceptable.”
‘Important positive message’
Sarah Anderson, a director of IFCA, told Community Care that “the important message [was] a positive one in regards to three-quarters of foster carers saying the support from their frontline social workers was good to excellent”.
But this did not always reflect foster carers’ opinions of organisations, rather than individuals, and should be seen in the context of an overall experience that nationally was still too inconsistent, she said.
Anderson added that for many foster carers and children, the new, more flexible and informal ways of working introduced during coronavirus – such as contact by social media or video call – had been beneficial and that IFCA would like to see these continue. In a recent interview with Community Care, the ADCS chair Jenny Coles said that many children’s services leaders were of the same view.
Ford, the children’s minister, announced this week that, subject to consultation, regulatory flexibilities around carrying out virtual visits could be extended beyond 25 September when they are due to expire. But consultation documents subsequently published state that the government envisages this would only be permitted due to local lockdowns or families self-isolating.
Responding to the survey findings, Andy Elvin, the chief executive of the TACT fostering and adoption charity, said the organisation had now “provided extra financial support for all our foster carers, as the DfE chose not to, despite the reality that most carers clearly faced additional costs”.
“A survey of TACT carers showed that over 90% were happy with the service we offered through lockdown but only 60% were satisfied with the service they received from their foster child’s local authority,” Elvin added.
Fostering News: Bristol student says care leavers with no family need more support during coronavirus
A student who lived in 40 different foster homes before starting her degree at the University of Bristol says more needs to be done to support student care leavers.
Nadia Sajir went into care at 13 years old. She says too often foster children are forgotten about when they move to university which can be one of the most challenging times for care leavers.
In 2018-2019, only 6% of care leavers were known to be in higher education.
Nadia says, "Care leavers aren't encouraged to pursue higher education, nearly half drop out, and it's such a shame because they could be lawyers, doctors, if they were just encouraged to pursue higher education which they're not."
She now says she wants to raise awareness about the lack of support for care leavers at university.
She's launching a new network to offer support and advice to care leavers and is calling on local authorities and universities to offer more consistent support.
There's a video Nadia created with her team to help spread the word in this article
Nadia says it is now more important than ever during the coronavirus pandemic to provide the right support for care leavers.
She says, "Bristol's empty right now because all the students have returned home and everyone's being encouraged to return home and be with their loved ones but that's really really tough for any care leaver to hear. I can't return home because I don't have a home."
Maria Tottle is a Mature Students' & Peer Support Adviser at the University of Bristol.
She says there needs to be consistent support for care leavers and estranged students at university and says it's the years after that can often be the hardest.
The director of The Fostering Network in Wales said that transforming the lives of young people through foster care has "never been more important".
Colin Turner, who is also a foster carer, said the network is appealing for more people to foster at this difficult time.
Every day around 3,700 foster families across Wales are looking after 4,800 fostered children and young people.
Foster carers provide support and stability to those who can’t live with their birth families, and this commitment is ongoing during the coronavirus outbreak.
The Fostering Network said carers have also been helping to maintain the children’s relationships with the people who are important to them but who they cannot currently see in person.
It said: "Every year hundreds more foster families are needed across Wales to make sure fostered children can live with the right foster carer for them."
Colin Turner added: "Foster carers help children and young people flourish and fulfil their potential, as well as provide a vital service to our society. Because this happens mainly in the privacy of their own homes – especially at the moment – their contributions too often go unnoticed."
Terry, from Llanelli, has fostered for 15 years with his partner, and they are currently looking after two siblings and a baby.
"What motivates me to foster is knowing that I had a loving, solid upbringing and I simply want to return what I received to the children in my care."
– TERRY, FOSTER CARER
Terry said: "Fostering will always have challenges but the rewards far outweigh these. Being a foster carer you have to be a strong, sometimes assertive, to get what's best for your child. You need to have patience, be tolerant and show empathy. Stability is key too – my first foster child was with me for 12 years.
"Seeing a child achieve, however little it may be, is a step in the right direction."
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