The Narey/Owers review is not the overhaul many wanted, but makes realistic and affordable recommendations for improving care
Advocates for radical reform to the fostering system in England should look away now. Sir Martin Narey, a government adviser on children’s social care and former chief executive of Barnardo’s, and Mark Owers, a children’s services adviser, have conducted a review for the Department for Education, and they are strikingly positive about what they have found.
The care system has an undeservedly poor reputation, and fostering is a success story that rarely gets the credit it deserves, they say. Although they have strong views on how and why fostering could be improved, children in care are remarkably positive about fostering and their sense of wellbeing is “surprisingly high”, according to Narey and Owers.
The review, conducted over the past six months and published on Tuesday, is based on interviews with and submissions from hundreds of people with an interest in fostering, including foster carers, care-experienced children and young people, fostering providers and social work leaders. It is eagerly awaited by the care sector, with many hoping it will bring about fundamental change. Last week Kevin Williams, chief executive of the Fostering Network, wrote about his hopes that the fostering review would recognise the need for urgent reforms.
Those awaiting a rallying call for change may be disappointed. On the key issue of fostering allowances, widely criticised by carers, the review concludes that they are adequate – particularly once tax and benefit arrangements are taken into account – and are not an obstacle to recruiting high-quality carers at current levels. Despite claims of a shortage of fostering families, the review finds that, at any one time, there are about 16,000 fostering households without a child living with them.
The review rejects the notion that foster carers should be defined as professionals with the same status as, for example, social workers. And it warns of the adverse consequences of extending employment rights to foster carers, as being sought in a claim against Hampshire county council. “This could negatively affect the heart of fostering,” write Narey and Owers.
This is not to say that the review’s suggestions for change are not significant. Indeed, Narey and Owers recommend the creation of a permanence board, chaired by the most senior official in the department responsible for the care system. Its purpose would be to promote a whole system approach, including adoption and residential care, lasting well beyond the age of majority.
They also call for an overhaul of the way local authorities plan and commission fostering, saying there is significant potential to reduce spending on fostering while securing better placements for children. They propose scrapping the role of the independent reviewing officer – saving £70m a year – and question the benefit of fostering panels.
But the most profound change recommended by the review is a renewed focus on the parenting aspects of fostering, as opposed to caring. For example, it strongly recommends giving foster carers greater discretion over everyday decisions that would normally fall to parents, such as haircuts, clothes and friends. Needless bureaucratic barriers that prevent foster carers from treating foster children as they would treat their own children should be removed.
It also urges the DfE to issue guidance to encourage foster carers to feel confident in showing physical affection and comfort to foster children, which is vital to a healthy childhood.
“... A shifting philosophy of fostering which has seen ‘foster parents’ become ‘foster carers’, children discouraged from calling their long-term carer Mum or Dad, and sometimes a framing of carers as just another professional in a child’s life, needs to be arrested,” says the review. “Carers should be in no doubt that, unless it is unwelcome to the child, they should not curb the natural instinct to demonstrate personal and physical warmth.”
In response to frequent concerns from foster carers, the review also makes robust recommendations around birth family contact, which often goes ahead against the advice of carers and despite clear evidence of distress to the child. The law was changed in 2011 to specify that contact arrangements should only be in place where they are in the interests of the child’s welfare. Yet evidence submitted to the review suggests that practice has not changed.
“Professionals should not shirk from offering evidence to the courts about the potentially damaging consequences of contact,” say Narey and Owers. As a parent, if your gut instinct is that contact is wrong, then say so.
The review makes realistic and affordable recommendations to improve foster care, but at its heart is a simple call for carers to be well-supported, well-trained, treated as the experts they are, and allowed to lead on decision-making for and with children. They want carers to be biased and tenacious in pursuing the interests of their foster child. This may not be the root-and-branch overhaul that many anticipated, but I believe the review’s positive impact will be felt for many years to come.
Martin Barrow is a foster carer and writer. He is co-editor of Welcome to Fostering, a handbook for foster carers
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