(It may be advisable to print this document as it is
Until now fostering agencies have been free from independent
inspection and regulation. But the launch of national minimum
standards last week should mean both parents and children know
exactly what to expect from fostering. Alex Dobson
Setting the standards for fostering
Some time ago, the government signalled its intention to set
high and non-negotiable standards across the social care sector
with the introduction of new national minimum standards. The
standards have been dribbling out, one by one, over the past 12
months, but the timescale is now tight and last week saw the launch
of the 27 proposed new national minimum standards and draft
regulations for foster care.1
There has been concern for some time that fostering agencies
have not been subject to outside inspection. But this new
consultation document states, for the first time, private, public
sector and voluntary agencies will be subject to inspection and
The draft standards come at a time when the proportion of
looked-after children in foster care continues to rise. Around
58,000 children are currently looked-after by local authorities,
with about 38,000 of those placed with foster carers. While the
majority of foster care is provided directly by local authorities,
there are also now 120 independent agencies offering a range of
services, and some practitioners believe regulation of the whole
sector is long overdue.
The standards (see below) cover key areas of fostering,
including fitness to manage, recruitment and support, and
suitability of premises.
Although the consultation document sets down standards, it
stresses that it is not aiming for a standardised service. Nor, it
says, is it intent on stifling innovation. Standards are aimed at
covering a variety of different models of fostering care, and the
document suggests that the standards should be seen as enabling
rather than preventing individual providers developing their own
Practitioners feel it is not yet clear how the non-mandatory
minimum standards will work alongside the mandatory regulations.
The practical effect though, says Sue Gourvish, head of services at
the National Foster Care Association, is that providers must meet
minimum requirements in order to satisfy the compulsory
“The standards are based largely on what has gone before and we
would expect that members could meet the requirements. Many will
already be working to a higher standard. The 27 requirements are
for minimum practice, not best practice,” she said.
Most providers welcome proposals to standardise practice across
the sector, but there are concerns over some of the long term
implications of the new requirements. Many agencies are also
calling for more time for the consultation – the current deadline
is 16 October.
There are also fears that the registration and inspection
process will push up the cost of foster care. The NCSC is intended
to be a self-funding body, and under draft proposals there will be
a flat fee charged for inspection plus an additional charge,
depending on the size of the organisation. Fees would be increased
over a period of five years. Providers themselves are likely to
have to bear the costs of the new checks, inevitably meaning that
costs will have to be passed on.
Andy Robinson, head of inspection and registration for
children’s services at Kent Council, is launching a pilot
project to assess the way that the standards will work in practice.
He is optimistic that the new proposals will have a positive
effect, but has concerns that the inspection process and the
proposed costs may undermine the work of smaller independents.
“My fear from all of this is that smaller fostering agencies,
where there may be an excellent specialist service, could be
adversely affected. It seems to be directed at larger organisations
and this is something that we have become aware of with the
pre-inspection work for the pilot.
“I know from experience how the preparation for a social
services inspection can be enormously time-consuming, and it is
likely to put huge pressure on the smaller scale independents to
meet the requirements and to pay for the inspection. Larger
organisations are likely to be able to absorb the costs and the
amount of work involved more readily.”
The Partial Regulatory Impact Statement that accompanies the new
minimum standards says that few fostering providers of adequate
quality would have any difficulty meeting the requirements. They
are already expected to meet the National Foster Care Standards
1999, and the new minimum standards are largely based on them. But
there are some significant new requirements that are likely to be
the main focus of the consultation process.
Jenny Hemming is a director of independent fostering agency
Childcare Bureau Ltd. She welcomes the minimum standards, but is
concerned about the effect that one of the regulations in
particular could have.
“The whole thing holds no terrors for us – we will enter into
the new procedures wholeheartedly. We do have a problem, though,
with the section that talks about the non-employment of family
members,” she says.
“I recognise that where agencies are using members of staff to
foster for them there is obviously going to be a lack of
impartiality, because there are no safety measures in place for the
children. There are also problems with the complaints procedure in
cases like that and that is not acceptable,” she admits. “But I
would like clarification on exactly how the regulation will impact.
Many of the independents that I know are made up of family
I will be writing to explain my concerns over the practical
implications of this. Companies set up after April next year will
be aware of this requirement but what about those already employing
Felicity Collier, chief executive of British Agencies for
Adoption and Fostering, also notes the importance of the new
provisions relating to family members.
“It has been a matter of concern to us that one or two of the
independent fostering agencies would appear to have had managers of
the service also fostering children. There are clear potential
risks in that in relation to safeguarding children,” she says.
“The separation of roles needs to be clear,” she adds. “We would
be concerned about the rigour that it is possible to exercise when
managing and protecting children when you are supervising
managerially members of your own family.”
Collier also welcomes the establishment of fostering panels that
allow thorough consideration of all the issues. She is less
enthusiastic about the lack of a right of appeal for carers,
contrasting it with proposals to set up an independent body to look
at appeals in adoption.
“Under the minimum standards for fostering, while there is a
system of review and the opportunity for foster carers to have
their case looked at again, they are not proposing using any
independent access to an appeals system. I can’t see the
logic of extending access to an independent body in the case of
adoption but not in fostering,” she says. “The government needs to
look again at what messages they are giving out, and there needs to
be consistency in the treatment of carers.”
When the standards come into being, it is not only fostering
agencies and carers who will be affected. The laying down of
minimum standards will mean that users, both parents and children,
will know exactly what they should expect from foster care, whoever
is providing it. And that, say many practitioners, is long
1 Department of Health, Fostering Services National
Minimum Standards Fostering Services Regulations, DoH, 2001. Also
Proposed minimum standards for fostering:
1. Clear statement of the aims and objectives of the service and
of what facilities and services they provide.
2. The people involved in the service possess the necessary
business skills and experience of child care and fostering.
3. Those managing the service are suitable people.
4. Clear procedures are provided for monitoring and controlling
the activities of the fostering service and ensuring quality
5. The service is managed effectively and efficiently.
6. The service makes available foster carers who provide a safe,
healthy and nurturing environment.
7. Children and their families are provided with services which
value diversity and promote equality.
8. Each child placed in foster care is carefully matched with a
carer capable of meeting their assessed needs.
9. The fostering service protects each child from abuse,
neglect, exploitation and deprivation.
10. Each child is encouraged to maintain and develop family
contacts and friendships as set out in their care plan.
11. Each child receives appropriate health care, together with
information and training appropriate to their age and understanding
to enable informed participation in decisions about their health
12. A high priority is given to meeting the educational needs of
13. Services help to develop skills, competence and knowledge
necessary for adult living.
14. Any people working for the fostering service are suitable
people to work with children and young people.
15. Staff are organised and managed in a way that delivers the
best possible foster care service within the resources
16. There are an adequate number of sufficiently experienced and
17. Employers are fair and competent.
18. A good quality training programme is provided.
19. All staff are properly accountable and supported.
20. Employers ensure there is effective management and
supervision for staff.
21. Employers provide supervision for foster carers and helps
them to develop their skills.
22. Foster carers are trained in the skills required to provide
high quality care.
23. An up-to-date, comprehensive case record is maintained for
each child and relevant information from the case records is made
available as appropriate.
24. Administrative records contain all significant information
relevant to the running of the foster care service.
25. Premises are appropriate for the purpose.
26. The agency is financially viable at all times.
27. The financial processes of the agency are properly
Plans to end the role of approved social workers in consenting
to a patient’s compulsory admission to hospital have provoked
fears that an important safety net will be
removed,Claire Laurent reports.
Safeguard under threat?
When the government’s Reforming the Mental Health Act
white paper was omitted from the Queen’s speech, many mental
health social workers and organisations breathed a sigh of
They felt it gave them more time to publicise their concerns
about some of the proposed changes and so give the government more
time to get this piece of legislation right.
However, there is growing concern that the white paper could be
discussed in the second session of this parliament, meaning that
legislation could be on the statute books by 2005.
Mental health organisations are concerned that the current
proposals threaten to dilute the role of social work, especially in
relation to compulsory detention. At present only an approved
social worker (ASW) can apply to compulsorily admit someone to
hospital. Two doctors, one a consultant psychiatrist and the other
a doctor known to the client, must recommend detention, but it is
the job of the ASW to assess the client socially, talk to the
family and look for the least restrictive alternative.
“The ASW has to ask the obvious question: ‘Are you
prepared to be an informal patient and would you agree to take the
medication at home?’,” says Paul Jewitt, an ASW at Orchard
medium secure unit in Luton, Bedfordshire. “If the person is
prepared to do that, that’s where they stay. You can’t
put them in hospital if they are prepared to co-operate with a less
The government proposes to remove the requirement for an ASW to
be involved in sectioning. Instead, two doctors will be backed up
by “a suitably trained mental health professional,”.
Observers are concerned that the removal of the legal
requirement for an ASW to be involved means clients’ home
circumstances, family and social needs will not be given due
consideration. Jewitt, who is launching a campaign against the
proposed changes, says, “ASWs take a holistic view. They are
independent of the health service. A consultant psychiatrist has
enormous power and a nurse is vulnerable.
“If the role of the ASW is watered down, we could be in a
situation where one or two doctors and a nurse are actually making
decisions to lock up people against their will. I think
that’s extremely dangerous.”
ASWs are employed by local authorities, which reinforces their
sense of independence from NHS colleagues. “The ASW role is the
only independent arbiter role that exists under the Mental Health
Act,” says Jewitt.
Government proposals to develop advocacy services are not robust
enough to protect the client and uphold the law, he argues, partly
because advocates are poorly paid and not professionally trained,
but also because their role is to support the client’s view
whether or not the circumstances indicate that detention is
Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of mental health charity Sane,
says: “It is an enormous shame that we are diminishing the role of
the ASW – in a world where skill and experience are in short
supply, they are performing one of the most important tasks. We
feel that instead of becoming more specialised, mental health
workers will become increasingly de-skilled and less able to
respond to the complex needs of people with serious mental
However, David Joannides, director of Dorset social services and
chairperson of the Association of Directors of Social Services
mental health group, says the ADSS supports the extension of the
ASW role to other suitably trained professionals.
“We are not so arrogant that we believe this work can only ever
be done by ASWs. The opinion in the past was that the strength of
the ASW was that they were outside the clinical team so were able
to carve an independent role. That argument is less sustainable
because mental health teams are becoming increasingly
“The need for an independent, objective view still remains – but
in future everybody is going to be part of the same team. What will
be important is the rigour of the assessment when staff undertake
this role. Everyone is going to have to learn to assert their own
He adds, too, that while the role of the ASW can be taken on by
others it will be important that they are well trained. “What we
don’t want to lose is the competence of the ASW
The fears of mental health groups and ASWs that their
independent role is being written out of the equation could be
given weight by care trust pilots.
The NHS cannot employ ASWs directly because of the need for them
to be independent of medical staff. This has raised an interesting
dilemma for the five pilot sites concentrating on mental health,
which are in the position of being unable to employ their own ASWs.
Instead they are relying on ASWs employed by local authorities –
leaving mental health services split.
The danger is that ASWs will come to be seen as superfluous. It
seems likely that the new mental health white paper will make ASWs
optional, leaving future care trusts free to employ all three of
the professionals necessary to detain someone against their will.
From an organisational point of view this is nicely streamlined,
but whether it’s in the interests of service users remains to
Department of Health, Reforming the Mental Health Act, The
Stationery Office, 2000