By Paul Adams
There is much in the government plans for long-term fostering that are to be welcomed.
The fact that regulations and guidance will be amended to define long-term foster care as a genuine permanence option, that the role of foster carers within the review process will be strengthened, and that the issue of delegated authority will be considered at each review meeting are all positive developments.
These steps will empower foster carers and have the potential to significantly improve outcomes for children and young people in foster care.
However, it is disappointing that in other areas the government has decided not to move forward, and dropped proposals from the original consultation that could have supported these developments.
For example, it would have been helpful to require local authorities to publish a permanence policy, as this is already recognised as best practice and would have brought struggling authorities into line with sector leaders.
Similarly, the decision to not specify a particular process for decision making about permanence in fostering is disappointing.
The fostering panel is an obvious vehicle for this work and is used as such in many local authorities. Using fostering panels for this would serve to emphasise the importance of these decisions and quality assure the social work practice.
The Who Cares? Trust have expressed concerns about plans to allow for more flexible social work visiting. In recognising that the impact of ongoing social work input can be unsettling and disruptive in certain long-term fostering contexts, a real and genuine problem is identified, but the proposed solution – to reduce the frequency of visits – misses the point.
What matters is not how often a social work visits (within reason), but the approach they come with when they do visit.
Do social workers turn up as the ‘expert who knows best’, with arrogant demands and unhelpful and ill-informed interference, or do they recognise that their role is to work with the child or young person, and to support those who are permanently fostering (‘parenting’) the child?
Do they empower the foster carers and promote a sense of stability and security, or do they undermine their authority, and create uncertainty? Do they work with children and young people to strengthen their sense of being a full member of that family, or do they encourage ideas of ‘moving on’ and ‘independence’ outside the family?
Recent research emphasises that abuse in foster care happens even in ‘apparently settled placements’ and that ‘risks of non-disclosure can be heightened when children lack opportunities to confide in social workers’.
We can only hope that serious case reviews of the future do not identify these changes in social work visiting requirements as having contributed to abuse going unchallenged.
The nature of social work involvement in foster families is an important matter, and a social worker who visits only very occasionally is more likely to be viewed as an intruder on family life, as compared with someone who provides regular, helpful, and sensitive input.
The answer to this problem is not to reduce the frequency of social work visits, but to address issues of consistency and performance. What matters most for children and young people, and their foster carers, is the quality of the relationship they have with the social worker and the role they play, not how often they see them.
Paul Adams is fostering development consultant at the British Association for Fostering and Adoption (BAAF)