by Andy Elvin
Delegated authority was introduced in 2013 and allows foster carers to make everyday decisions about the children and young people they care for, just as parents do.
When it was introduced, the Department for Education (DfE) was clear in its initial guidance that day-to-day decision making should be delegated to a looked-after child’s carers “unless there is a valid reason not to do so”.
However, while there are examples of good practice, at TACT we still regularly see situations where this does not occur. The consequences of social workers not properly and fully delegating authority are felt by children, young people and their carers.
Why delegated authority is important
The idea is that foster carers can agree to their foster children going to friends’ houses for sleepovers, sign consent forms for school trips and activities without involving the social worker.
All of this is vital as it removes daily reminders for children that they are “different” because they are in care. Nothing is more frustrating for foster carers than having to say to children: “Sorry, we’ll just have to check with the social worker.”
Children’s social workers are hard pressed and hard worked. They neither need to, nor should want to, get involved in the everyday life of foster children.
Foster carers are thoroughly assessed, committed, caring and expert parents. We trust them to look after some of the UK’s most vulnerable children 24/7. Not trusting them with the decisions regarding their child is nonsensical.
When children are placed under section 20 or care proceedings are ongoing, the views of the birth parents are equally important.
However, unless there is a valid reason why not, it should be delegated to the foster carers to liaise with birth parents to check they are okay with the everyday things and that they are kept informed.
Inserting the social worker as go-between or gatekeeper is a waste of the social worker’s time and is likely to cause delay and frustration on all sides.
In truth, we find that birth parents rarely block permissions. It is more often the case that social workers do not prioritise getting quick agreements.
Where the child is on a section 31 care order then the local authority has legal parental responsibility, and can fully delegate authority to the foster parents.
This is important as foster carers never have parental responsibility for a fostered child, so they can only take decisions about the fostered child where the local authority and/or the parents have delegated that authority to them.
Clarifying who is best placed to take everyday decisions depends on many factors: the young person’s age, views, legal status and care plan, the parents’ views and the experience and views of the foster carers. Collaboration and consultation are essential for a successful working partnership.
Decisions about delegation of authority should, of course, take account of the looked-after child’s views. Consideration must be given as to whether a child is of sufficient age and understanding to take some decisions themselves.
Making a difference
How’s this excellent idea working out?
Where this is making a difference for many carers is with the little things.
This includes being able to sign for a school trip so the child, like almost all of their peers, can take the form back the next day. Going on sleepovers is no longer a big deal. Things like this really have made a big difference.
Where it is properly used it’s a real positive for the children in foster care.
For example, a placement recently made with TACT involved a 10-year-old boy. The local authority social worker came prepared at the placement-planning meeting and immediately delegated reasonable and proportionate authority to our carers and recorded this in the placement agreement.
The child is very active and enjoys sports, and because they had delegated authority, our carers could support him to start making good links locally in their area and enrolled the boy at a local sports club. The child loves spending time there and is settling well and developing friendships at the club. Our foster carers feel empowered and valued by the local authority.
Sadly, for every one story we hear about delegated authority working as it should we hear about three where it is not.
We recently had a new placement for an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child. The local authority social worker arrived at the placement meeting without paperwork. Our staff carry copies of all placement paperwork as a back-up for occasions such as this.
However, the social worker refused to sign off on delegated authority because he did not believe he had the power to do so. He tried to call his manager but could not reach them. The social worker took the paperwork away but failed to return.
Our carers then had to seek emergency medical treatment over the weekend for their young person. A consultant advised immediate surgery was necessary but medical staff refused to proceed until they had something physically signed, this had to be done via the emergency duty team.
This all caused unnecessary delay and distress for the young person and our carers.
Another carer household of TACT’s had two girls placed with them. Both were booked on a residential arts course, the money was all agreed from their education allowance, and the carers were happy to take the lead in organising the trip as the social worker was overwhelmed with other work.
As it was a 5-day course, the foster carers did not have the delegated responsibility from the local authority to sign off on it. They sent all the paper work to the social worker in good time and reminded them by phone and email. However, the social worker never got around to signing the consent form so the girls missed the course. This all could have been avoided had responsibility been delegated.
Finally, we look after a young asylum seeker who had a great sporting opportunity, which he earned through his talent and hard work.
The opportunity was to train with a professional sports club and would have helped his integration into the local community and his self-esteem. However, the local authority didn’t sort out an identity document for him so he couldn’t attend.
This last example is a common issue with passports for British children being another frequent bone of contention. Our experience is that when foster carers are delegated the authority to obtain such documentation then it happens.
Delegated authority is empowering, good for children and good for hard-pressed social workers. All local authorities need to return to the basic idea that it is automatically agreed unless there is a valid reason why not.
It is ludicrous that we trust our foster carers to look after vulnerable children 24/7 but don’t trust them to make everyday parenting decisions.
Perhaps the regulations should be strengthened and enforced by independent reviewing officers at the first review to make sure that defensive practice, overworked social workers and maddening bureaucracy don’t curtail any more opportunities for our children.
Andy Elvin is chief executive of TACT. He tweets @millinerstale1