Foster care has long been an option for youngsters in need of
good parenting, but until recently it has not been associated with
the criminal justice system, writes Craig
In recent years, specialist foster carers have been taking in young
offenders on remand in some areas, but the line between parenting
and punishment was further blurred last November when the then home
secretary David Blunkett announced ‘intensive
fostering’ schemes. These were hailed as an alternative to
custody for persistent offenders as young as 10.
Intensive fostering is a highly structured programme where the
young person in care has to earn points to gain privileges, such as
a few hours unsupervised time or the right to make a phone call to
their birth parents.
The idea comes from Oregon in the US where it has been running
for 30 years. Research there suggests that it halves the likelihood
of re-arrest in boys when compared to those in care alongside other
children in institutions.
Lack of support
Barbara Russell, director of one of the three UK pilots, NCH Wessex
Community Project, says that they accept referrals for children
aged 10 to 17 who are not getting the support they need at home to
prevent them re-offending.
Placements are for 12 months and are very limited in number
– only 18 over the three-year life of the pilot.
“We only take young people who would otherwise have a very
substantial sentence,” Russell says. “We have got to be
proportionate about over use of this very scarce commodity. But in
the right circumstances we would take a 10-year-old.
“Really, intensive fostering should be very last resort
when everything else has been tried, such as working with the
family. That’s because there’s a history of new
initiatives that tend to be used too much early on.
“I see us as replacing the positive parenting that some
people have not got the physical or mental resources to
provide,” she says.
For the first three weeks the regime is very restrictive – no
unsupervised time, no TV or computer games in the bedroom –
but as points are earned for good behaviour, the child
‘graduates’ to the next level and gains privileges
“It’s not easy for them – these are children who
have been living without boundaries for a considerable length of
time,” says Russell.
There is a huge amount of support available. Each child has a
programme supervisor, a skills trainer and an individual therapist,
while their birth family has a family therapist. No other
professionals are involved – even if the child has drug, alcohol or
mental health problems, says Russell.
In addition, all the foster carers meet as a group with the
programme supervisor weekly, and the meeting is videoed and emailed
to Oregon for advice and support.
One notable change from the US model is the amount of training
given to the carers. In the US, state-approved foster carers have
just five hours training – in the UK it is six months.
The three areas chosen for the pilots are also attached to Youth
Offending Teams that had experience of remand fostering.
One of the two carers to date fostering a child at the Wessex
pilot is Helen Wilson, a 62-year-old widow with five grown-up
children of her own who has six year’s experience of remand
“It’s all structure – times to get up, to go
to bed,” she says. “Had you been just an ordinary
foster carer you would find it quite difficult, but once you have
done remand fostering it comes easy. It’s just the points
system we find difficult and all the red tape.”
Fifteen-year-old Darren, who she is fostering, is currently
under a two-year supervision order. “They do start to get
bored,” says Wilson. “It’s understandable as he
has no friends here, just me. It’s tiring finding them things
to do. We play golf, go swimming, visit museums, walk the dog.
“A lot of these youngsters have had no childhoods. We try
to show them other things in life, simple things. The idea is to
help them turn themselves around, sort out their offending, give
them security and safety and above all to listen.”
Drop in the ocean
Few doubt the value of such schemes, especially as an alternative
to custody for young people, but with around 2,500 under-18s
currently in prison and over 3,000 in some form of custody, the few
dozen who will benefit under the pilots are a drop in a very large
Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform,
says: ‘David Blunkett originally announced this as
“secure fostering” and was talking about putting bars
on people’s homes – it was a barmy idea.
‘His civil servants tried to retrieve it from his very
muddled announcement and came up with intensive fostering, which is
not dissimilar to schemes run by the voluntary sector for a number
‘If a child is on streets or their home life is abusive,
then intensive fostering can be a very good response for that
child. I’m absolutely in support of it, but it needs
resources, it needs the right families, and it needs support from
social services. It can also be very expensive.’
Alternative to custody?
Crook is also concerned that courts will use intensive fostering in
addition to custody instead of as an alternative to it.
Chris Stanley, head of policy at rehabilitation agency Nacro,
points out that this has already happened with the Intensive
Supervision and Surveillance Programme. ‘Courts used ISSPs
because they were attractive instead of as an alternative to
custody, but if there’s a breach in the order the penalty
might be a custodial sentence, which otherwise would not have been
given,’ he says.
‘It’s important that intensive fostering is only
used if they really are on the custody threshold.’
The other problem he envisages is a national rollout of the
pilot schemes, given the national shorage of foster carers –
particularly those with the relevant experience of remand
fostering. ‘I suspect the pilots will be successful, but
pilots rely on the skills of those involved. A national rollout
will be more difficult.’
The other big question for the government is cost. But as
Stanley points out, the cost of keeping a child in a young offender
institution is around £50,000 a year, while secure training
centres can run to £150,000 a year. “Intensive fostering
is unlikely to cost more.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “Intensive fostering will be
piloted with foster care providers in Hampshire; Staffordshire and
London and will target the most disaffected, disengaged and
excluded young people.
“It will provide specialised, highly intensive care for serious
young offenders who might otherwise face custody. The intensive
fostering pilot started in March 2005 and will last approximately
“At present Treatment Foster carers receive £26,000 a year, we
are hoping that Intensive Foster carers will receive a similar
amount. (roughly £2,000 a month),” he concluded
• Names of the foster carer and young offender have been
Information sessions for professionals working in criminal
justice and welfare; and foster carers
NCH Wessex Community Project Remand/Post Custody and ‘Intensive
Fostering¹ Information Sessions for professionals working in
criminal justice and/or welfare:
Tuesday, May 17th, from 8.30am 1pm
The Novotel Hotel, 1 West Quay Road, Southampton
8.30am 10am; 10am 11.30am; 11.30am 1pm
To book your place on a session, please telephone: 01329 225 720 or
Information Afternoon for prospective carers 2pm at the Novotel
Hotel in Southampton on 17th May
(The afternoon session 2pm 4pm is open to people who are
interested in becoming Intensive Foster Carers and takes place at
the same venue).