Dangerous liaison?

Children in care are moved too frequently and are often left to drift in a system struggling with permanence. The government green paper, Every Child Matters, highlights a possible approach imported from US to counter this: concurrent planning. This involves two plans for the child running at the same time – for a return home or adoption with specially-trained carers who are fostering the children during this process.

Three pilot projects – the Coram Family in London, Manchester’s Goodman project and Brighton & Hove social services’ concurrency team – have produced results that seem to indicate the positive potential of concurrent planning. But it remains controversial.

“Although it would appear to make a great deal of practical sense, there are some serious dilemmas around the foster parents becoming too attached,” says Paul Johnson, a social work professor at the University of Southern Maine, US, who has worked in fostering. “One baby was placed with a couple who indicated during training they might consider becoming adoptive parents. They knew the permanency plan was return to the birth parent. Yet it soon became apparent that they saw themselves as the child’s ‘parents’. At agency visits when the birth mother said ‘mommy’, the child would look at the foster mother. This was very upsetting for the birth mother.”

It is one of many worst case scenarios known to Gill Gray, project leader, concurrent planning project with Coram Family. “How we sort out genuine concurrent carers from people who are mainstream adopters but who would do anything to adopt a baby is a major difficulty. Our training is around the worst possible scenarios. When carers hear the worst that can happen that’s when they get a sense of whether they are up for it,” she says.

However, despite this understanding, if a child is returned home this can be traumatic for the carers. This has happened rarely so far in the UK projects – but, understandably, has been extremely painful for the carers and those supporting them. Indeed, Gray says that she is familiar with carers saying that they didn’t come into this scheme “just to foster”.

But that is exactly what they did. “We tell them in their training that the child is placed with them under fostering regulations and the expectation is that they behave as foster carers. They aren’t to see themselves as adopters until we give them the go-ahead,” says Gray.

The project works with children up to the age of two. “Partly we are trying to give the children a secure attachment from as early on as possible, bearing in mind all the research about development in the first year of a baby’s life,” says Gray. Working with carers can be beneficial for birth parents also, knowing that their child will be well looked after.

Of the three pilot projects only Brighton & Hove’s concurrency team is based in a local authority. Gray warns: “Sometimes we feel a bit envious of their position because they take on casework responsibility for the child from the outset – organise care plans, write court reports, everything. Whereas we have to wait on local authority social workers making the referrals, being up to speed about what concurrent planning is and what needs to happen and, of course, staff change and we have to start again.

However, cost is a huge downside. It is a very labour-intensive way of working. No concurrent planning team would be able to carry the volume of referrals that perhaps other children’s teams would be expected to have. This means that, if ever there was a round of cuts or reviews, concurrency teams would always feel vulnerable.”

Learning power

Lessons from Coram Family

  • Councils have their set ways for fostering and adoption, so will need to think differently.
  • Be patient. The project took about a year of discussion and negotiation with partner authorities before being ready.
  • Solve practical questions, such as: do carers get paid out of fostering or adoption budgets? How are decisions made about placements?
  • Staff continuity, commitment and openness to ideas are essential. “It’s a bit like yoghurt really – you have to establish a culture and then keep it going,” says Gray.
  • Involve local courts in planning – they also need to be committed and prepared to make slots available to prevent delays.

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