Recent years have seen significant attention at both policy and practice levels to improve outcomes for looked-after children. This is not surprising when for so many young people our care system, at best, fails to compensate for toxic childhoods and, at worst, exacerbates their problems.
It is of concern, however, that outcomes are not improving and, arguably, are actually getting worse. Government research shows the the number of young people in positive destinations aged 19 has stagnated, while the number not in touch is increasing. It supports my argument that outcomes are not improving, despite all the policies targeting this.
The latest policy to try and improve outcomes is ‘Staying Put’, which will see a new legal obligation for local authorities to offer young people in foster care the opportunity to stay with their carers until they turn 21.
‘Misleading and discriminatory’
This hastily put together legislation is both confusing and discriminatory. It is confusing because there is very little evidence to indicate the policy in its current form will actually improve outcomes. Further, despite all of the rhetoric, it is misleading to say that all young people in foster care who wish to stay in care will be offered this choice.
The reality is this will only be feasible if carers are able to afford the significant drop in income. Many professional carers – although not necessarily fostering for the money – cannot afford this, a key message from the evaluation of the Staying Put pilot.
Further, young people placed with independent providers (approximately 33%) are also unlikely to be able to stay put because no provision has been made for agency fees – again a key finding from the evaluation that has not been addressed.
If a child or young person was fortunate enough to be given a choice in placement, they will not have considered the importance of the foster carer’s financial situation or if they are an independent fostering provider
‘A national disgrace’
The final discriminatory element (and the most grave) is that the policy fails to support our most vulnerable young people in residential child care – a population consistently found in research to be the most at risk.
The discrimination toward children and young people in residential care is a national disgrace, but it is not a new prejudice. In many ways, those young people for whom foster care or adoption is unsuitable are the ‘undeserving poor’ of the 21st Century.
There are many questions to be asked of Staying Put and how viable the policy is. Its architects have failed to address problems highlighted in the pilot and the evaluation had only 21 young people – a woefully inadequate number to base national policy on.
I wholeheartedly support the spirit of Staying Put, but believe this is a missed opportunity to improve outcomes for all children in care. It is likely to only benefit a select few – those in stable placements whose carers can afford to lose the fostering allowance. In reality there will be very few who can, and it’s contrary to the drive to professionalise foster care: Professionals want to be paid.
If we want to improve outcomes in areas such as educational attainment, we need to look at the educational level of foster carers.
The Achilles Heel of care
Research has shown that a relationship exists between parental educational attainment and that of their children, but we have no minimum qualification level to become a foster carer. Yet we hear repeated calls for increased qualification requirements for those working in residential care where arguably these are already higher than foster care.
If we are to increase the number of looked-after children with positive outcomes we must reassess the whole care continuum. We must commit to ALL looked-after children and young people, not just those served by charities with the most effective lobbying.
Despite the introduction of the Care Leavers Act, support for care leavers is the Achilles heel of our care system and is where the focus needs to be – whatever the form of care.
This critical part of the care continuum is where the budgets are most likely to be cut to fund the cost of Staying Put; one must remember that most care leaving support such as setting up home grants have no minimum amount in legislation.
Staying Put is far from a universal entitlement for looked-after children, a key factor that will no doubt be the subject of a Judicial Review by a young person who finds the government commitment to their stability hollow, in the same way as the Care Leavers Charter.
The discriminatory nature of the policy will mean a looked-after child’s opportunity to stay put will likely be based on whether their carers are reliant on the fostering income, or whether they are placed with an independent provider.
When people successfully parent their own children, they love and care for them equally; it is shame this government does not.
Mark Kerr is a PhD researcher and assistant lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent at Canterbury.
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