Cafcass chief: ‘Recruit more older foster carers and adopters to help deal with care system pressures’

Anthony Douglas writes about the problems facing the care system and potential ways to fix them

mother daughter child
Photo: Christin Lola/Fotolia

by Anthony Douglas

At Cafcass recently we have been trying to better understand the lessons that data can tell us to improve systems in a period of limited resources.

While there are all sorts of lessons in the regional variation data around court processes, timeframes and local authority results, we also need to be mindful of the national lessons this data highlights. Chief among these is the inexorable rise in the numbers of children in care in England.

The number of care applications received by Cafcass is currently tipping 14,000, compared with around 6,500 10 years ago.

The main drivers of this huge rise include:

  • more risk aversion in decision-making since Baby P;
  • a determination to stop drift;
  • some key case law that is driving more cases into the courts – particularly ‘voluntary’ care cases;
  • better reviewing and understanding the lessons of research – particularly around the harm to children from emotional abuse and neglect;
  • and the austerity agenda meaning more families are hitting crisis points than before.

By and large this means better outcomes for children but this will only be the case if their care plans meet their long-term needs.

This is where the real issue lies for the care system at the moment. The resourcing of care plans, including placements and therapeutic care, is not keeping pace with the number of children coming into the care system. Other systemic shortages include the number of foster carers, adopter and secure accommodation beds.

I think we need to approach some of these resource shortages by revisiting some of our current assumptions.

For example, we could recruit more foster carers and adoptive parents in their 50s and 60s.

By and large these are an excluded group, with older carers only being approved as an exception.

But there are many older experienced parents with a proven track record in caring for children and who understand children.

‘Isolated nuclear family model’

Training and mentoring can help potential older carers understand the needs of children who have been neglected, abused or traumatised, just as new younger carers are helped.

Active and fit older parents can often bring a network of support with them – relatives and friends – who can become a family, team or community raising a vulnerable child or young person.

With the busy lives parents lead today, all children benefit from having a small pool of caring adults who can help to look after them. An isolated nuclear family model is a far more difficult caring proposition.

Inclusive parenting is a safeguard for children, which is why disputes in private law cases are so unfortunate for children – the children involved would benefit dramatically from an absence of conflict and building up relationships with a wide adult network of families and friends.

To recruit the foster carers and adoptive parents we need in the future, agencies including local authorities should reach out to groups they have ignored before or not communicated effectively with.

Older parents as a group in society have a seriously untapped capability. We should actively seek their engagement and put them through the same rigorous process as everyone else, but without a bias against age.

With 50% of babies born today likely to live to 100, we need to think of 50 and 60-somethings as at the tail end of middle age, not as being on the edge of old age.

Many 50 or 60-somethings take up volunteering as a way of helping them to navigate the potential cliff-edge of retirement. Instead, we should try and communicate that becoming foster carers or adoptive parents could be a positive retirement option, for those who would like to spend two decades or more helping some of the most vulnerable children in the country.

Anthony Douglas is the chief executive of Cafcass

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13 Responses to Cafcass chief: ‘Recruit more older foster carers and adopters to help deal with care system pressures’

  1. Cathy Phillips November 2, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

    I would not consider at age 55 that I am at the tail end of middle age or I am on the edge of old age. I don’t know how old Anthony Douglas is but he needs to be more careful in his language.

    • Tom J November 2, 2017 at 2:17 pm #

      True 🙂 Oxford English Dictionary: ”middle age is between 45 and 65”

  2. Andrew November 2, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

    “By and large these are an excluded group, with older carers only being approved as an exception.”

    What world does Anthony Douglas live in? What evidence does he have that people in their 50s are being turned down as foster carers?

    Not in the world I inhabit where all the fostering services which I work, both Local Authority and independent, with would happily approve suitable applicants in that age group.

    This is worryingly lazy thinking from someone in his position in his position who was also Chair of the board of BAAF when it suddenly closed with staff being made redundant at a few hours notice.

    • Tim November 3, 2017 at 1:22 pm #

      Yep Andrew is right. This article may represent adoption (I don’t know because it is not my area). It does not represent fostering (I do know because it is my area)

  3. Ken Talbot November 2, 2017 at 12:51 pm #

    An immensely sensible idea. Older people tend to have raised their own children and have a few “life experiences” which give them a more balanced view of the world. My wife and I both left traditional careers in our late 50’s to become foster careers. We wanted to do something together, that would give us both a focus and “give something back”. Fostering is tough but very rewarding, Local Authorities should target our age group because many of my contemporaries believe they are too old to be accepted

  4. Brid Featherstone November 2, 2017 at 9:24 pm #

    As an older person who has been a respite foster parent for 14 years and an academic researching care demand, can I respectfully suggest we stop taking children into care and use people like me to do support birth families … keep children at home and focus support services on them and their families rather than take them away from their families with all the pain that involves and use expensive services to compensate!
    Change of paradigm needed!

    • Tom J November 3, 2017 at 12:33 pm #

      Totally agree Brid. There is no clear evidence all of these children being placed into these placements will have significantly better outcomes.

      But unfortunately it’s very much fallen out of fashion. Viewed as costing too much and taking too long. The reality is that not every family can have a quick fix. some will need long term support (and not just assessment) to keep them safely at home.

  5. Common Sense November 3, 2017 at 2:07 am #

    What will Cafcass do in 2018 when even more fostered children that are kicked out of their fosterhomes and fail to retain a family unit after having children of their own?

    2019 will be even worse, but no where near as bad as 2020 or 2021… The more children seperated from their biological families will lead to even more children needing child protection applications approximately 10-15 years later. It’s a direct correlation, not rocket science.


    Perhaps by 2025 there will be a need to import foster parents from the commonwealth to cope with the disaster?

    Taking children away from their biological families is an absolute disgrace and the peaks seen now directly correlates to the number of children placed into care in 2007.

    • Tim November 3, 2017 at 1:25 pm #

      If you read the daily referrals for children that I read you would be blown away at how many children remain or have remained too long within the most neglectful and abusive environments. If you think that the numbers represent a society where too many children are coming into care, then you don’t know much about the children who are not being protected but should be. If we protected children properly there would be twivce as many children in care. Could we do more about it with early intervention? Absolutely but that is a seperate question.

      • LongtimeSW November 3, 2017 at 2:09 pm #

        Well said Tim.

  6. LD. Parents November 4, 2017 at 10:40 am #

    Why not pay older people with all that experience to mentor birth families and provide support. Or provide grandparent support to adult care leavers who are at risk of losing their children ‘breaking the cycle’. Certainly parents with learning disabilities who have never harmed a child but who’ s children are removed foo ‘risk of future neglect’ could really benefit.

  7. Fustrated sw November 4, 2017 at 6:28 pm #

    In my world we have a lot if 50 ÷ foster carers and adopters and we have lots if succesful matches. Just look on link maker they are certainly not excluded. There is just not enough of iether of any age hence children still drift longer than we would wish. Then you have courts making crazy decisions where you just know the plan is going to fail and the child is further damaged by neglect or other catergory and come back into system older and less lukely to be adopted.
    Sw are on their knees working long hours and weekends trying to keep children safe. If the government started by recognising this and put money where the mouth is then maybe a lot less children would suffer and more time could be placed on encouraging people of all ages religion and ethnicity to care for children who are unable to stay within their families.

  8. Deborah Clements November 5, 2017 at 9:06 am #

    Firstly, I haven’t seen people in the age group mentioned bring turned down as potential foster carers, unless their are serious concerns such as health issues or inflexibility in thinking. But the writer is clearly unaware of the reality of the situation if he believes that years of parenting experience can equip a person to parent children who are severely traumatised by unthinkable neglect and abuse, or brain damaged due to prenatal drug and alcohol abuse. Yes, fostering has been a real eye opener for us (we were in our late 40s/50s when we set out) and I wouldn’t now want to do anything else. But people need to be prepared for the stress, exhaustion, 24/7 on call lifestyle that caring for these children requires, not to mention that it severely restricts your own flexibility to go out and have the life experiences you may have always wanted while you still have health and mobility. Caring for damaged children requires more than just conventional parenting experience, it calls for an open mind and willingness to learn new ways of thinking and doing. In a nutshell, it’s seriously worthwhile but not for everyone. Maybe the issue that needs more serious consideration here is the increasing social problems created by austerity.