Hardly noticed in all the attention surrounding the children’s
green paper was a promise of action, albeit a limited one, on that
most shadowy area of child care – private fostering.
Keeping Children Safe, the government’s response to the
Laming inquiry, which accompanied the main report Every Child
Matters, pledged that immigration officers suspecting a child
was at risk of harm would inform social services. Also
“child-specific interview” training would be introduced for
immigration staff, and dissemination of information about children
seeking to enter the UK would improve.
But while Every Child Matters mentioned unaccompanied
children entering this country, it ignored those arriving with
adults, some of whom are almost certainly being privately
The past 18 months have seen the publication of two major reports
on private fostering, by the UN and Baaf Adoption and Fostering,
the first for almost 30 years. But while these have drawn back the
curtain veiling private fostering a fraction, they have also
revealed how little we know about how it affects children seeking
All figures on privately fostered children are, at best, estimates.
But the increase in people seeking asylum raises the likelihood
that they include several privately fostered children. The
non-governmental organisation International Social Service
certainly believes this to be the case.
Although unaccompanied asylum-seeking children are the subject of
much attention, some who are with adults may be more vulnerable. An
unaccompanied child entering the UK is taken into the care of a
local authority. But a child accompanied by adults may or may not
be with their parents or close relatives. And it may be difficult
to establish the nature of the relationship between child and
adult, especially where people lack travel documents.
This year, children’s rights organisation Unicef published a
worldwide study called Stop the Traffic, focusing on
children who are trafficked for sexual purposes or domestic
slavery.1 Many of these children may be privately
fostered, with some subterfuge being used to get them into the
country. The asylum system is one route to trafficking.
Unicef says that while it is not practical or appropriate to
register every child entering the UK, the visa system should be
used more effectively to monitor children entering from known
Alison Harvey, principal policy and practice manager at the
Children’s Society, believes private fostering of asylum-seeking
children is a huge issue that is not being addressed. “Questions
need to be asked, and we need to look again at the definition of
‘accompanied’. The Home Office looks at whether the child has
someone over 18 with them, not whether that person is competent to
care for a youngster, or whether they really have exploitation in
mind,” she says.
Speak to people who work with asylum seekers, and they often know
nothing about private fostering. Indeed, the most common response
to an enquiry is to be referred to material or details about
unaccompanied children, as if to imply that a child with adults is
safe. Many local authority workers do not even know what private
fostering is.2 But, as Sir William Utting pointed out in
his 1997 report People Like Us, private fostering is a
“honey pot for abusers”.
A recent Department of Health circular on accommodating children in
need, refers specifically to children from abroad separated from
their families.3 But it refers to them as lone children,
implying that any child from abroad who is not alone must therefore
be accompanied by their parents.
Bartley Patel, the Refugee Council’s head of policy, suggests
another way in which children might come to be cared for in this
way. This is when “mixed households” – as the National Asylum
Support Service calls them – are created. This happens when someone
seeking asylum applies to join someone already in the UK, whose own
application may or may not have been approved, on the basis that
they are dependent upon them. Most commonly, this will be a wife
and children. But the newcomer could be a minor who might or might
not be related to the asylum seeker.
Unaccompanied children are vulnerable children, and children who
are trafficked find themselves in horrifying situations. But at
least several reports have looked at children in both sets of
circumstances, and the Nuffield Foundation and the Diana Fund are
supporting two separate studies.
However, when it comes to privately fostered asylum-seeking
children, the picture is much more sketchy.
1 United Nations Children’s
Fund, Stop the Traffic, 2003
2 T Philpot, A Very Private Practice, Baaf
Adoption and Fostering, 2001
3 Department of Health, Guidance on Accommodating
Children in Need and their Families, LAC (2003)13, DoH, June