A problem shared

This summer the Children’s Society published the findings of new
research into problem-solving in foster care. The original impetus
for the study arose out of previous Children’s Society
research1 that showed how little the complaints
procedure was used by young people in foster care. With two-thirds
of looked-after children living in foster placements, they
represent the largest group of potential users, but in practice
young people and their carers rarely turn to the complaints
procedure for help.

In trying to understand why, the charity began to explore, with its
partner local authorities, how day-to-day problems are resolved in
foster care. As Sir William Utting2 said, the
essentially private nature of foster care means that little is
known about the dynamics of this provision, and this was evident in
early discussions with partners. With key tasks under Quality
Protects aimed at ensuring service users’ views are heard, the
research set out to ask young people and foster carers directly
about their experiences and to see whether their views and
perceptions are shared by those who deliver and manage fostering

The study looks at the strategies young people, foster carers and
social services use to resolve problems. These range from domestic
problems and issues around contact to relationships and the
division of roles between carers and social workers. The research
also explores how young people in foster care and their carers
communicate their views to social services managers, what influence
they had on service planning and their views about using complaints
procedures. The study involved three local authorities in northern
England and interviews with 61 young people, 58 foster carers and
52 social work staff and managers.

Overall, the findings are positive. When it comes to
problem-solving, about 85 per cent of young people and foster
carers feel they are well supported by social workers and fostering
staff. Perceptions about how problems are solved are broadly shared
between the groups. But this leaves 15 per cent who do not feel
they receive the help and support they need.

Many young people listed a range of people they would talk to about
problems, including birth family, friends and teachers. But we
found that most problem-solving takes place within a small core
triangle of support comprising the young person, their foster carer
and their social worker. For most this is a successful model with
good dialogue between everyone. Young people particularly valued
good relationships with their foster carers, with 80 per cent
listing their carer as someone they would talk to and 57 per cent
saying they were the person they would talk to first. As one boy of
11 says: “I talk to my foster mum ‘cos she helps me through it.”

But this is not a successful model for the minority lacking
support. These young people told us they were unlikely to confide
in their foster carers or their social workers and listed few other
options. This leaves questions about how this group of young people
can seek help. The main reasons for their perceived lack of support
were being ignored or having their concerns minimised by adults.
“If your foster parents weren’t nice and your social worker didn’t
listen who would I go and ask?” says a girl of 13.

The study shows that foster carers and social services staff tend
to recognise wider networks of support than young people. These
include fostering workers, line managers and senior managers. But,
from the interviews, it is clear that young people rarely have
access to these wider networks except through either their foster
carer or social worker. This restricts options for young people and
further isolates those who fall within the unsupported group.

Statistically, the study is not able to define the characteristics
of the unsupported group, which makes targeting additional services
difficult. So what can local authorities do? The report makes
several recommendations including taking steps to expand the
support network for all young people, but especially for those who
are not talking. This could involve concentrating on natural
allies, including family members, friends and support within
school, and making independent services more available, such as
children’s rights services, advocacy services and independent

Where foster carers observe weaknesses in support they generally
identify poor social work intervention as the main cause. They
describe the actions of social workers – both positive and negative
– as having a greater impact on problem-solving than the actions of
fostering workers. But many of the social workers interviewed
appear to have limited knowledge of fostering and perhaps do not
always recognise how important their role is in the support
network. The key role of social workers in fostering needs to be
emphasised. Social services also need to place greater value on the
role played by foster carers in both problem-solving and advocating
for young people. Their skills, commitment and persistence come
across strongly in the report.

About 60 per cent of young people and foster carers feel that, on
an individual level, their views are listened to by social workers
and fostering workers but have little influence on management.
Young people, in particular, regard discussions with their social
workers and six-monthly child care reviews as the only
opportunities to tell social services how they feel. When we
explored where this information went, it became clear that systems
to collate young people’s views are lacking, making this
information inaccessible and unused by service planners. As one
senior manager said: “If I’m really honest, I don’t know what young
people in our fostering service think or feel about the care
they’re getting.”

Local authorities need to establish systematic methods of
collecting and collating young people’s views and ensuring that
these influence the planning and delivery of fostering

Young people’s knowledge about the complaints procedure varied
significantly between the local authorities in the study. But more
than half of those we spoke to had no knowledge at all about how to
make a complaint. Generally, they thought there was much less to
complain about in foster care compared with residential care, but
fears exist about the consequences of complaining, particularly the
fear of being moved to residential care.

The study finds similar patterns of knowledge and fear among foster
carers. Most carers are aware of the procedure but knowledge and
understanding vary considerably. Carers voiced fears about possible
repercussions should they raise complaints themselves or on behalf
of young people they cared for. Social services staff saw the
complaints procedure as adversarial and unhelpful and this
contributed to an atmosphere of institutional disapproval. Many
staff and carers saw the procedure not as a tool for
problem-solving but as a serious measure on a par with child
protection or disciplinary procedures.

Therefore, if a child wishes to gain support in making a complaint,
they have to overcome their own fears and the apprehensions of
their carers or social worker. Perhaps this explains why the
complaints procedure is so rarely used in foster care. A series of
inquiries into abuse scandals in public care has constantly
reiterated the need for young people to have good access to
complaints procedures. Information about the procedure needs to be
targeted at young people in foster care and the culture of
disapproval over the use of the procedure needs to be challenged in
local authorities.

With the support of central government funding, the Children’s
Society is acting on some of the recommendations in the report.
Over the next two years the society plans to pilot several schemes
with partner local authorities to explore ways to address the gaps
identified in the research. Knowledge from practical experience and
good practice are to be brought together to produce resource
materials to help local authorities meet these challenges. 

Philippa Padbury is development worker for the Children’s
Society’s Children’s Resource Project in York. Solving Problems
in Foster Care: Key Issues for Young People, Foster Carers and
Social Services
by Philippa Padbury with Nick Frost is
published by the Children’s Society price £12.95 from



1 L Wallis, and N Frost, Cause for Complaint: The
Complaints Procedure for Young People in Care
, The Children’s
Society, 1998

2 W Utting, People Like Us: The Report on Safeguards
for Children Living away from Home
, HMSO, 1997

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