A girl has assaulted her mother, a huge row has followed and the mother has refused to allow her daughter back home and wants the council to take her into care.
“That could have been another child in the care system,” says Jenny Baker, manager of Parents and Carers Together (Pact) support care, Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s support care fostering service. Instead, the girl stayed with a support care foster carer for three days and was then taken back by her mother.
Support care fostering involves short-term placements to help families stay together. At Hammersmith and Fulham, where the service has been operating fully since 2004, the placements are usually for 48 hours, rising to a maximum 72 hours, and usually take place over a weekend. The scheme is open to children and young people from birth to 18 but has so far focused on teenagers. However, Baker wants to recruit more carers to work with younger children.
The service is designed to give a parent or child a break while maintaining parental responsibility. Arrangements are made under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 rather than section 20 so children do not become looked-after. Baker says parents’ initial responses to the idea range from interest to ambivalence, but once they have thought things through many do not want their children to become looked-after.
“It’s about understanding that the parents need a break,” Baker says. “But they are getting a clear message that the best place for their child is home. We say to them you love your child. They calm down and say, ‘actually, I don’t want them accommodated’.”
A placement plan is formulated for each child stating how regularly they should stay with support foster carers. This can range from every weekend to once a month or less frequently. The length of time for which people use the service also varies from one weekend to 20 months.
Baker says that, although families need support, it is important that they do not avoid the issues at stake.
“If the child is at school Monday to Friday and we give them respite over the weekend, the parent doesn’t have to work with the issues and the situation,” she says. “So after a while we will tailor it down.”
Pact support care sits in the council’s Assist family support team. To qualify, families have to be receiving social services already. Where the issues concern teenagers, parents usually have parenting support, while for younger children the scheme has been used with families with domestic violence or mental health problems.
The scheme can also be used to reduce the emergency duty team’s work. Baker explains that if an issue flares up out of hours, parents are now starting to call their support carer rather than the EDT.
Hammersmith and Fulham has 12 support foster carers. Baker says parents are more willing to take advice from the carers than social workers, seeing them as less threatening.
Suzette Richards-Selano has been a support care foster carer for two years. She says it is important for parents to understand that the carers are there to support them as well as their child. She says it is good for the carer to talk to the parent just before the weekend placement. “The person feels supported in that I’m listening to what went on that week and I’m going to try to address it with their son or daughter.”
Few councils have support care fostering schemes. But the government is keen on the initiative and Baker expects the number to rise. But she warns that some schemes have had difficulties. “It’s going well here because Hammersmith and Fulham is putting preventive social work high on the agenda,” she says “but some of my colleagues elsewhere say their scheme was marginalised.”
For Baker, it is keeping young people living in their own homes with their parents that is key to the scheme’s success.
“We are staying at home and working with the family,” she says. “We don’t just run away from problems, and we don’t shift the problems somewhere else.”
This article appeared in the 31 January issue under the headline “A timely response”