Several factors inhibit a more rigorous child protection approach to the assessment of prospective foster carers. A continuing shortage of carers for older children and sibling groups, and competition in recruitment between public and private sectors, mean that the process is targetdriven and the judgments of assessing social workers’ can be impaired.
This is particularly true if concerns surface at a later stage in the assessment process, when much time and resources have been invested in obtaining a positive result.
Many fostering workers have limited, if any, experience in assessing gay applicants. Practice and safety will improve if more gay people feel welcome to apply in the first place, and workers feel able to share what they fear as well as what they learn when training, assessing and supervising gay and lesbian carers.
In my experience it is not unusual for foster carers – especially those who seem to be able to cope with “hard to place” children – to start “calling the shots”. This is dangerous where the supervising social worker or child’s social worker – or both – are inexperienced or poorly supervised themselves.
Also, the targets on reducing placement moves for looked-after children and reducing numbers placed with expensive external providers can add to a reluctance to act on concerns. This is all apart from the child-centred imperative to weigh up the impact of another separation to a child’s burden of loss, rejection and trauma.
Many fostering workers will have experienced carers who say they will be unable to continue with a placement unless financial or other demands are met; or carers whose response to being questioned “intrusively” is to resort to formal or informal complaints about the worker.
Both scenarios can deflect attention from potential dangers posed to children in placement at the time.
One of the best safeguards is for fostering workers to have a practice background in child protection before moving into the specialist area of fostering. Group supervision models also provide valuable opportunities for workers to share concerns and learn from each other’s experience. This should be in addition to regular individual supervision.
It is also important for applicants and foster carers to be directly known to more than one worker in the team, and to other foster carers. An obligation to attend support groups and training events means that other foster carers, social workers and perhaps managers may be able to raise, corroborate and address concerns that could be missed by an individual worker.
● Simon Colbeck is a fostering social worker with 25 years in residential and childcare social work.
What a wonderful learning tool the investigating team has produced in the inquiry report; it should be on everyone’s reading list. It is full of indicators about good practice – and the systems required to deliver it.
The myth of objective assessment springs to mind. There is still a lot of work to be done to refine our skills of recruiting foster carers. There is much knowledge out there from other disciplines to complement the current practice of historical descriptive analysis and competency assessment.
The report documents many of the indicators that set alarm bells ringing while vividly describing the pressures field staff were under at the time. I daily come across similar situations in which social workers have overly high caseloads, priority is given to targets and outcomes, sickness is prevalent, morale is low, and there is a lack of opportunity to obtain knowledge and expertise through training. In this case, everyone concerned lacked knowledge of how paedophiles operate.
Senior managers – whose focus is usually on protecting their careers, managing budgets and fearing newspaper headlines – compound the situation for those in the field. All these factors increase the difficulties faced by young or inexperienced social workers supervising foster carers who challenge weaknesses in the system in order to disguise their own shortcomings.
This, along with the common perception that their supervising social worker is their “buddy”, means the important role of quality assurance becomes blurred. The frontline workers should expect expert and supportive supervision but all too frequently this is not available.
Having said all this, 30 years ago our introduction to fostering was a half hour chat one evening with a person from the children’s department, with two children arriving unaccompanied by taxi the following day.
So it is not all doom and gloom, and things have improved. Certainly I work with some independent fostering agencies whose standards meet all those suggested in the inquiry report.
● Ian Crosby is an independent social worker, previously in charge of family placement at Leeds Council for 17 years. He has also been a foster carer for over 30 years.