Some local authorities have been quick to embrace and implement
the new foster care standards, but organisations for foster carers
believe there is still much to do.
Audrey Thompson reports
In June last year the definitive national standards for foster
care were published after a consultation process that involved
thousands of people, included every local authority in England,
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and which sent more than
15,000 questionnaires to children and young people.
Divided into three sections, the standards contain detailed
objectives built around addressing the specific needs and rights of
the child or young person, providing effective support and
supervision of the foster carers, and establishing a high quality
foster care service from each local authority.
Local authorities had until the end of March to submit an audit
of their services to the Social Services Inspectorate. Although it
is still too early to tell how many authorities failed to comply
with this directive, there is already some anecdotal evidence that
one or two authorities are, astoundingly, still unaware of their
responsibilities in this area - despite receiving a letter from SSI
chief inspector Denise Platt to remind them.
Not all local authorities, however, have been so lax.
Warwickshire social services, for instance, have implemented many
of the standards, and in one or two areas are exceeding them.
The council was one of the first to close all its children's
residential homes and has more than 80 per cent of its 400
looked-after children in foster care, with the other 20 per cent in
voluntary, independent, specialist or out of county homes. For some
time it has had its own foster care standards in place. "Very
comprehensive and with detailed performance indicators too," says
Julia Wilson, the foster care development officer.
Warwickshire still has plenty of work to do though. One of the
objectives of the national standards is that all foster care
applicants should be processed within six months. "We reviewed our
position and have since put in place a system that gets applicants
through quicker," says Wilson. "All the administration for
assessing applicants has been centralised, rather than being split
between our five districts, and we have created a new post and
appointed someone to do that work.
"We are still around the seven- or eight-month mark but we are
getting better. Some people take slightly longer to process because
of their personal circumstances. But we are demonstrably better
than we were."
Wilson insists there is not a lot of difference between the
national foster care standards and Warwickshire's own. All that is
needed is for the department to "sharpen up" what it is doing and
how it is doing it.
In building on the standard about health care and development of
the child, however, the council has a specific indicator that says
"all professional partnerships in the foster care services will be
active in communicating the dangers of smoking to the children and
young people for whom they are caring".
Wilson says: "The national standards have 13 criteria under
standard 10 while we have 16. It may seem like nitpicking but our
standards are very precise and we are very proud of the standard we
have set ourselves."
Telford and Wrekin Council decided to audit its foster care
services in a two-day workshop held jointly with Shropshire
Council. Sarah Moore, team manager of the family placement team at
Telford and Wrekin, found that because the workshop involved all
social work staff, not just those directly involved in family
placement, it was immensely useful in bringing all those with an
impact on foster care up to speed.
Telford found that it scored highly on the NVQ programme for
training foster carers that has been running for two years.
However, the areas Moore considers are in most need of action
revolve around standards on the training needs of the sons and
daughters of foster carers (standard 15.12) and respite breaks from
fostering (standard 22.9).
The council had not previously addressed the needs of foster
carers' sons and daughters except when social workers spent time
with a family on an individual basis. Also, there had been no
payments to foster carers when children were not in the foster
placement, for instance if the child spent a weekend or had a break
with another foster family.
In response, Telford has now established a group where young
people of foster families meet with staff and also get a chance to
talk to children of prospective foster carers. And on the issue of
respite break payments, Moore says: "This is something we've been
wanting to do for a long time and the standard now gives us the
opportunity to really push for it."
Of the 270 conditions listed under the 25 standards, 97 were
fully met by Telford and Shropshire with only nine not met at all.
"We were quite rigorous about asking not just whether the structure
is in place but whether it is working in practice," says Moore.
All of this is to be welcomed but implementing the national
standards is not going quite so well in foster carers' eyes. The
National Foster Care Association is still finding foster carers who
have not even heard about the standards, who have been unable to
get hold of copies of them, and whose local authorities have not
involved them in their auditing processes.
Katrina Phillips, at the NFCA, says: "From talking to our young
people's project worker, and to staff dealing with foster carers,
it seems the impact of the standards still has not really filtered
through on the ground. It's too early, perhaps, to see real results
at the sharp end but the lack of information foster carers have is
an indication that local authorities may not be doing as much as we
Debra Gibbs, an independent foster care consultant, goes a
little further. She expected most foster carers to have been told
about the standards by now but instead has found herself in
training sessions having to explain everything from scratch. "Local
authorities really need to have alerted their carers by this stage.
It's been almost a year," she says.
Over the course of this year there is going to be a national
inspection of foster care by the Social Services Inspectorate using
the national foster care standards as its basis. And the Department
of Health is also planning to have a series of implementation
seminars to encourage local authorities to talk to each other about
how far they have gone with the programme. This will help to keep
the pressure on.
However, says John Simmons head of development at the British
Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, it should be remembered that
implementing the standards is a very big challenge. "Some local
authorities will be coming up from a relatively low base and have a
lot of work to do to catch up."
Certain standards have been given priority by the different
interested parties. It's important for foster carers to have
written guidelines about how they should be working, for the
children of foster carers to have a voice, for fostered children to
be properly assessed and matched with the right foster
The priority for local authorities must be to implement as
quickly as possible all of the national foster care standards. The
NFCA, while acknowledging that resources are scarce, wants the
standards fully implemented by 2002. Three years from publication
to implementation does not seem too unreasonable.
In compliance with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
and UK child care legislation, the government, when devising the
standards last year, agreed to promote:
· High quality care in a family setting - for all children
and young people who need it, to aid their return to their own
family wherever appropriate.
· Priority for the needs of the child or young person in
determining each foster placement - with agencies recruiting and
retaining a wide range of carers to meet every child's needs.
· Respect for and recognition of the importance of the
ethnic origin, cultural background, religion and language of
children and young people, their families and foster carers - in
the planning and provision of each placement.
· Consideration of the gender, sexuality and any disability
of children and young people who are fostered - so individual needs
are met within every placement.
· Continuity in the lives of children and young people - so
their identity and education can be maintained and developed, their
physical and mental well-being promoted and their full potential
· A partnership embracing parents and children, carers and
their families, social work staff and the placing agency - all
planning and working in the best interests of the child who is
· Continuity and consistency in training, support and
information for foster carers and social work staff - to enable
them to meet the needs of each child.
· Respect for foster carers - as the partners of other
professionals in the fostering team.
· Assistance to be made available to every young person
leaving foster care to live independently - with additional
financial and other support made available to foster carers able to
offer continued care and support to young people during this