Councils are choosing to place parents and children with foster carers rather than in family centres to be assessed. Amy Taylor asks whether changes to legal aid funding are responsible
For any woman who has just given birth, the thought of having to leave hospital with your newborn baby to live in a stranger's home would be a stressful one. But this is often what happens during care proceedings. Parent and child placements involve the parent - normally a mother and baby, although it could be a father, an older child or a father and a mother - living with a foster carer who observes their parental capabilities.
Although no figures are available, Community Care has heard anecdotally that the use of these placements is rising, prompting some to ask if cuts in legal aid are behind this.
Last October the Legal Services Commission brought in significant changes to legal aid funding for parents involved in care proceedings, including an end to funding for placements in family assessment centres - sometimes used by courts to assess parents' parenting ability.
Now if a council or the court decides such a placement is necessary, it is local authorities who must solely foot the bill. Given that these can cost anywhere between £32,000-£60,000, for a standard three-month period, the change has serious financial implications for councils.
Compare this to about £500-£600 per week for a parent and child placement in a foster carer's house and it's easy to see why these have been used by councils as an alternative to residential parenting placements, and why they are gaining in popularity.
Traditionally they have been used for younger mothers, but Sharon Donnelly, head of adoption and fostering at Brighton and Hove Council - which uses a high number of the placements - says that this has changed over recent years.
"It used to be young people but not anymore. Now we have women in their forties who have had, perhaps, six other children removed," she says.
As well as being a mixture of ages the mothers can have a range of conditions such as mental health problems, learning disabilities or drug and alcohol misuse problems.
The stressful nature of the situation means that pre-birth assessment work by councils is essential, so that mothers know where they are going to be staying prior to giving birth. But Donnelly says that while the council endeavours to do this, it isn't always possible.
"Often they [the mothers] don't know [where they will be staying prior to giving birth]. Often a lot of them don't engage in the procedure and are opposing it right up to the court hearing. It's often difficult to do it in a planned way," she says.
At the beginning of the placement a risk assessment is carried out and a plan drawn up which includes the purpose of the placement and the level of supervision that the parent requires with their baby. This can be reduced over time depending on how the placement goes. In the first instance it can be 24/7 and regular meetings are set up to review the plan.
Placements, as in residential centres, are usually for about three months, but they can go on for much longer and are often dependent on the court process, says Jayne Gillham, a centre manager with lead responsibility for parent and child (placement) development at Families for Children, an independent fostering provider in the South East.
Taking a parent as well as a child into their home places great demands on foster carers, and the emotional impact should not be underestimated, she says.
"There can be a great deal of pressure on the foster carer as the placements impact on family life, but a family setting can have real benefits for parents and their children. We have worked successfully with some very complex situations and have some extremely skilled carers who offer such placements."
One of the key differences between parent and child fostering and other types of fostering concerns assessments. Foster carers have to record their observations of the parent daily. Parents are made fully aware of the foster carer being part of the assessment process and what's at stake.
But, "there can be quite a lot of tension if the mother thinks it's going quite well and the foster carer doesn't and they are living together. These tensions have to be worked with so that there can be an honest working relationship", says Gillham.
Foster carers share their recordings with the parents, ensuring nothing unexpected arises in court. The parents then sign them and they can also record their views. The foster carer's observations then feed into the social worker's overall assessment and are used in court. The foster carer can also be called to give evidence.
Giving evidence in court is stressful for foster carers, especially when they have had the parent and child in their home for some weeks. Offering good supervision and training to carers is crucial, says Gillham.
While recognising parent and child placements provide positive outcomes for many children, which may not necessarily result in the child remaining with their parents, campaigners warn against financial constraints dictating which service families receive.
Views on whether parent and child placements are preferable to family assessment centres are mixed. Donnelly says they are inappropriate for some families, for example when parents have learning disabilities and a very specific assessment is required, but she sees them as preferable to family assessment centres on most occasions, adding: "Often, some of the issues of concern relate to parents' networks in the community and some of that you don't get from an assessment in a residential setting," she says.
But Caroline Little, chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, disagrees, arguing that assessment centres are preferable. She says: "A parent and child foster placement is a poor substitute where a residential assessment is required. Residential assessment is able to look at the whole family."
It is unclear if the change in legal aid funding has led to the increase in parent and child placements but the possibility had been recognised by some. John Simmonds, director of research, policy and development at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, says the change in the law is "definitely an issue" alongside councils choosing such placements due to a general lack of funding.
He says parent and child placements can be hugely positive for families but they must only be used when they are the best option.
"It should be driven by the welfare of the child and the birth mother and not by financial constraints. If it's just driven by money there's a real risk because the needs of those babies and those mothers can be very intensive and to expect foster carers to cope with those details is a very big ask," he says.
Recruiting foster carers generally is difficult and finding people prepared to provide the level of care required in parent and child placements even harder. Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, says that as demand for placements rises corners must not be cut.
"The change in legal aid may encourage local authorities to place more mothers and babies with foster carers as opposed to residential centres and while this may be absolutely fine we need to be careful we are not pushing young families into arrangements where foster carers are not properly trained or supported."
Unfair repercussions of legal aid changes
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Amy TaylorThis article appeared in the 17 April issue under the headline "Home improvements"