Not the only route

Whatever the terminology in which they are dressed, government
welfare policies are driven by economy and expediency, for needy
people are the weight likely to overburden the finely poised and
ever-vulnerable scale of social balance.

British children are low-status; those entering care fall to the
bottom of the heap – vilified as the source of social evils, a soft
target for media moralising. There is a symbiotic relationship
between government policy and societal pressures, for which the
media are the mouthpiece. But stereotyping these children as
vicious and unworthy guarantees public hostility to their plight
and, consequently, no investment in their welfare.

In 2000, the north Wales child abuse tribunal of inquiry stressed
the need for a range of properly funded child care strategies,
including residential facilities staffed by fully qualified staff.
While then pushing to have as many children as possible adopted
from care, the government subverted public outrage at the horrors
of the past in order to slash residential placements on the basis
that institutions were dangerous places. Some were, but many had
done their best for children, despite poor funding, poor staffing
levels, dreadful working conditions and little thanks. Nearly three
years since the tribunal, many more children’s homes have closed,
social work recruitment is in crisis and the pool of trained and
experienced workers diminishes apace.

For some children, fostering will always be the best option.
However, it is fast becoming the only option – another child care
disaster waiting to happen. Fostering has been in the ascendancy
for a quarter century or more, “professionalised” first by Kent
social services and now nationally at the government’s behest. Even
with payments to foster carers and financial input into their
training, fostering remains immeasurably cheaper than the most
basic institutional care. Enforced preference for this one strategy
has almost halted investment in alternatives. Yet fostering’s vast
history of breakdown and failure remains unacknowledged and

Fostering, it is asserted, provides the best adult-child ratio. In
my own professional experience, because of the dearth of
alternatives, foster placements were routinely over-burdened to the
point where, and to the despair of many foster carers, they became
small institutions. Children being removed from home are generally
in crisis and, placed in what are seen as optimum conditions, may
find the intensity of that ratio onerous and overwhelming. There is
also the issue of emotional commitment to the foster carers – the
two-way street these children often cannot negotiate. Given the
choice, which in today’s climate is hardly ever possible, children
may well prefer the relative neutrality of an institution, the
variety of adult carers, the absence of obligation to carry out
emotional transactions.

National minimum standards for fostering have been in force since
April 2002 as part of the Care Standards Act 2000. Structures that
support, supervise and protect both carers and children are to be
welcomed, as are the measures to enhance the training and
development of carers. Nonetheless, on the evidence of reports in
recent issues of Community Care, one is bound to wonder
whether there is not already a divergence between what is purported
to be the state of fostering and its reality. The Welsh assembly
has been asked to investigate why so many English children are
fostered in Wales, leaving Wales 700 placements short. A review of
children’s services in 32 councils by the Quality Protects
programme found that lack of resources had forced 22 per cent of
looked-after children into out-of-area placements. Not only were
these placements often inappropriate, but their cost was pushing
the councils involved into huge overspend.

The emphasis on creating pools of professional foster carers will
inevitably result in a two-tier system. This is not in itself
problematic, provided that the neediest children obtain the most
intensive input. Social work, however, is in the main reactive
rather than proactive, placing children where there is room, not
tailoring the placement to the child.

Social ills afflict every society. Unchecked, they are as
pernicious as endemic diseases, and I question the wisdom of
entrusting the treatment of the most difficult children to people
who, training and motivation notwithstanding, remain amateurs.
Imposing similar standards on the nation’s health care would create

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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