Private fostering: a child protection issue

Private Fostering Week (19-25 January) was organised to promote awareness of a form of child care with major implications for child protection. Ruth Lewy reports on the issues

Thousands of children across Britain live with adults who aren’t their parents in private fostering arrangements. Many are at risk of abuse, and yet no one knows who they are, where they live, or who is looking after them. They may be teenagers who have a poor relationship with their mum or dad, children from overseas sent to live with family friends for a better life, or their parents may be in prison, ill or serving in the armed forces.

Private fostering may often be safe and appropriate, but the case of Victoria Climbié, who was murdered while being privately fostered by her great aunt in 2000, demonstrates the potential vulnerability of this often hidden group of children. Very few people realise that if a child lives with someone who is not their immediate family member for longer than 28 days, it is a legal requirement that the council is notified.

Widespread ignorance

The Department of Health estimates that 10,000 children are living in private fostering arrangements. However, research carried out for the first national private fostering week (19-25 January), run by British Association for Adoption and Fostering (Baaf), suggests this figure is a gross underestimate, and has highlighted widespread ignorance of the issue. A campaign will urge both professionals and the public to report signs of informal care arrangements such as the arrival of an unknown child in a house nearby.

David Holmes, chief executive of Baaf, says: “Children in private fostering situations can be invisible and it is very difficult to estimate accurate numbers. What concerns us is that when asked, only 26% of people knew what private fostering was. We suspect that even fewer know that the local council needs to be informed of these arrangements.”

When the council is told about an arrangement, they carry out background checks and interview the children. In some authorities, such as Tower Hamlets, the home is also visited within 24 hours. Many foster carers are intimidated by this level of contact and are reluctant to get authorities involved in what they see as a private issue. In houses with foreign residents, people may fear the council will investigate their immigration status. Alternatively, they may not realise that what they are doing counts as fostering at all.

Public apathy

A further barrier is people’s unwillingness to get involved in their neighbour’s or work colleague’s personal life – the Baaf survey found that 22% of people would do nothing if an unrelated child suddenly appeared living next door. Sukruti Sen, a family support and protection service manager for Tower Hamlets, described tracking private fostering as a “constant challenge”. She has found that the problem of public apathy is compounded by social care professionals who are often ill informed about the meaning of private fostering. She says: “It can be quite shocking how little awareness there is. Some nurses have come up to me and asked if private fostering is where you get paid to foster a child. That level of misunderstanding is worrying.”

Wide variation

The variation in the ways councils deal with private fostering makes it difficult to target the right people. Some see it as a matter for adoption and fostering, while others manage it as a safeguarding issue.

Sen adds: “I absolutely see it as a safeguarding issue. But in every council it is imperative that there is a dedicated team to work on private fostering who have support from director level. There must be strong links with mosques and faith communities, where these arrangements are particularly common.”

In East Sussex, private fostering is managed by Action for Children at the Tall Trees Family Centre. In its second year of operation more than 60 referrals were made by the council to the charity. There are currently 35 children in private fostering arrangements there, five times the number two years ago.

The centre supports carers and children in private arrangements and provides mediation where necessary as well as holding activity groups including anger management sessions and fun days. They also run a crisis support centre and are planning to hold a series of online and text messaging forums to reach more young people.

Councils across the country are organising awareness raising events this week, such as in Gloucestershire where the safeguarding children board is running a conference for teachers, social workers, school nurses and pre-schools. It is hoped such moves will help lift the veil of secrecy that still covers many private fostering arrangements.

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