Private lives

The world of private fostering is one ruled by
ad hoc agreements and unsupervised arrangements. It is also a world
of which social services and government have little knowledge.
Terry Philpot explores a history of indifference and argues for
action on private fostering to avoid deaths such as that of
Victoria Climbie.

Successive governments have had a standard
reply to complaints that the law on private fostering needs
strengthening – what we have on the statute book, they say, is
sufficient; the problem is that local authorities are lax in
implementing it. There is much truth in the second claim; when
local authorities do anything, most do the bare minimum. Almost all
give very low priority to private fostering. But even were they to
shake themselves up, to whom would they offer services?

The endemic problem with private fostering is
how little we know. A child is considered to be privately fostered
when living for 28 days or more with someone whom the law does not
recognise as a relative or someone with a parental responsibility.
A relative, then, is a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt or

In 1988 the then Department of Health and
Social Security estimated that there were 2,127 privately fostered
children in England and Wales and said that the numbers were
falling off progressively. Everyone else in the field took the
opposite view – that the numbers were growing. This was partly
evidenced by the increase in advertisements for private foster
carers then published in Nursery World. The Department of
Health stopped collecting statistics because they were inaccurate
in 1991. Yet in the same year the now defunct African Family
Advisory Service (Afas) produced the most reliable (indeed, the
only reliable) statistics on the basis of a very careful survey of
12 local authorities. It estimated that there were 6,000 to 9,000
privately fostered children throughout the country. However, Afas
was concerned with black (mainly West African) children who form
the majority of such children.

The Utting report in 19971 reckoned
that there were 11,000 private foster placements. Earlier this year
the Social Services Inspectorate, on the basis of no new evidence,
put the figure at 10,000. At the same time Denise Platt, the chief
inspector, referred to “the estimated 8,000-10,000”. The SSI also
said that 50 per cent of placements were unnotified although
notification is a legal obligation on parents and carers. Where
this percentage came from is anyone’s guess – indeed, it must be
anyone’s guess because no one knows how many children are looked
after in this way.

Ask a local authority how many children are
privately fostered in its area and the figure quoted will be that
of notified placements, which tells us nothing useful at all.
Indeed, when the Association of Directors of Social Services
surveyed its members earlier this year, only 41 per cent (71)
responded and only 48 of those said that they were recording
numbers. The number of cases ranged from 0 to 50 with an average of
seven across the 47 social services departments offering figures.
Unsurprisingly, the association stated that no conclusions could be

The 1993 SSI inspections3 had said
that no true figures could be arrived at and this year’s (as yet
unpublished inspections) are expected to say the same.

The commitment of the 18 local authorities who
told the ADSS that they had an officer with a specific
responsibility for the subject varies enormously. For example, when
I spoke to the officers, one confused independent and private
fostering, one said that the numbers could not justify a service,
most said they had other priorities, and there were others who
proved impossible to track down.

One local authority that offers no services at
all told the DoH that private fostering work was being undertaken
by a new voluntary project. It had not consulted the project, which
had not started the work it planned to do, and even if it had, the
project would not have had the powers or legal responsibilities of
the authority.

Little is known about the children, their
parents or those who care for them. Black children make up the
majority of privately fostered children but others include those
who have left the family home after a dispute; children at language
schools; children at boarding schools who do not return home in the
holidays; and those on exchange visits. The Utting report referred
to private fostering as “a honey pot for abusers”. There have been
cases of abuse but only in the most extreme cases can social
services departments remove children. They are required only to
satisfy themselves of the child’s welfare. What that often means in
practice was summed up by one social worker who said: “It was
hellish trying to come to terms with what was good enough when
something had to be bad enough to remove the children.”

Black children are typically cared for by
white carers in all-white areas. They become detached from parents
and their heritage and some parents have lost their children when
residence or adoption orders have been made in favour of their

There are, however, a few isolated areas of
good practice. Hampshire has a long-standing interest in the field,
as does Swindon. Gloucestershire offers an example of what can be
done by even one person – Brendan McGrath, its private fostering
co-ordinator – with social services support and commitment. Only in
the post for three years, his cases have risen from 11 to 224.
Replicate that across the country and we would be moving toward
credible numbers and good practice.

But government complacency has abetted the
indifference of local authorities. Successive governments have
resisted calls for private foster carers to be registered and said
that local authorities should use the (inadequate) legislation.

Governments have also stated that the prime
responsibility for safeguarding the welfare of children is that of
parents. That this statement was last made in connection with the
death of Victoria Climbie4 is not merely tasteless but ignores the
obvious fact that even the best intentioned parents – and ignoring
those who may live abroad – cannot gain access to police records,
or know whether their child’s carer has had her own children
removed by the local authority, or has been rejected as a local
authority foster carer. A promise of an awareness campaign by chief
inspector of social services Denise Platt produced a leaflet for
professionals this year.

The government pumped £380m into Quality
Protects over three years. But one of the few recommendations from
the Utting report, from which Quality Protects sprang, which the
government refused to implement was the call for registration of
private foster carers.

In 1997, in the wake of a television
expos‚ of private fostering, Felicity Collier, chief
executive of British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, states:
“We cannot wait for a tragedy to happen.” But we did, and now the
Laming inquiry is looking into the circumstances that led Victoria
Climbie to her horrific death. Registration might conceivably have
saved Victoria.

Whatever other conclusions Lord Laming and his
team reach, it is important that in the welter of issues that
surround her death, Victoria’s status as a privately fostered child
should not be lost.

1 Sir William Utting,
People Like Us: The Report of the Review of the Safeguards for
Children Living Away from Home
, The Stationery Office,

2 ADSS, ADSS Survey
February 2001: Local Authorities and Private Fostering

3 DoH, Signposts:
Findings from the National Inspection of Private Fostering
DoH, 1994

4 S Israel and T McVeigh,
“What happened to Victoria will happen to someone else”, The
Observer, 23 September 2001

Terry Philpot is consultant editor of
Community Care, and is the author of A Very Private
Practice: An Investigation into Private Fostering
this month by British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering at
£9.95. Available from 020 7593 2000.

Regularly updated website on Laming
inquiry at

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