Effectively assessing how a parent interacts with their child during care proceedings can be difficult for practitioners and parents alike. Often, the assessment takes place in a sterile, uncomfortable room at a family centre or social services department – hardly an environment conducive to establishing whether a parent properly responds to and cares for their child.
A new initiative from Foster Care Associates (FCA), one of the UK’s largest independent fostering agencies, aims to tackle this and make the process easier for parents, children and practitioners. The organisation’s south and eastern regional office in Ipswich has started a Parent and Child Assessment Foster Placement project which, as its name suggests, puts a child and their parent in foster care together.
The premise of the scheme is simple: such a placement stops a child being taken into care alone while their case is pending and they remain with their parent, who is continually assessed by experienced foster carers and social workers during the placement.
The driver behind the scheme is Debbie Sharratt, manager of FCA’s Suffolk team. She says the idea to create the initiative struck her when she was a social worker for Essex Council: “I was inspired by a 15-year-old called Shelley, who had a baby. We were concerned about her ability to cope so we placed the baby in foster care and she had a parent’s assessment at a family centre. She only saw the baby three times a week and I thought we were setting her up to fail. She gave up coming because it was too difficult.”
On joining FCA from Essex Council 14 months ago, Sharratt was determined to see if parent and child placements could be developed. FCA regional director Eleanor Vanner backed the scheme, so Sharratt liaised with a colleague in the Midlands branch to develop a training programme for foster carers willing to take on a parent and their child, and the practitioners working with them. The seven-day training course covers numerous issues including attachment assessment skills and court work. The initial training programme began in September last year and 16 approved foster carers have completed it to date.
Sharratt says: “We hold a lot of weight in what our foster carers tell us as they are there all the time, with the parent and child. We continue to supervise them but it’s the foster carer who does the day-to-day work of assessing the parenting skills.”
The first to experience a parent and child placement was Natalie and her son Lewis.* In March 2006, Natalie, then aged 15, joined Suzanne and David Durrell’s family when Lewis was nine days old. They stayed with the Durrells, who have their own seven-year-old son and three other teenage foster children, as they underwent training in the initiative. Natalie successfully completed her placement in January and now cares for her son alone.
Suzanne Durrell says being the first foster carers to go through a parent and child placement meant they got a lot of support from their senior supervising social worker, Lize Markham, as well as other colleagues in the multidisciplinary team.
She says it was also positive that Natalie was keen for the placement to work: “We were very lucky with Natalie because she desperately wanted to be with her son and she proved herself over and over again.”
Markham says that one of the benefits of having parent and child foster placements run by FCA is that the parents being assessed are more likely to trust an independent agency than a local authority. “In the beginning, Natalie was very much against social workers. But by getting her involved in all the activities we do, like family days out for parents and carers, she realised we weren’t that bad.”
Markham was available to support the Durrells as they completed the assessment forms on Natalie, answer any questions, and then write up the final report on the placement to present to court.
FCA’s parent and child assessment foster placement scheme was officially launched at the end of May. Sharratt is confident it will help provide a more detailed and accurate parenting assessment than traditional methods, while also using approved foster carers’ skills.
*Not their real names
How to make it work
Ingredients for a successful parent and child foster placement:
● Stress to the parent involved that being fostered means they remain with their child, and they also get support and advice on their parenting skills from the foster carer.
● Communicate openly and honestly with the foster carer and the parent about how any difficulties can be resolved.
● Ensure the foster carer assesses the parent properly and completes the necessary paperwork.