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.
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