Special report on plans to make councils police private fostering

New local authority duties:

• Make all reasonable efforts to raise awareness among
local communities of the need to notify private fostering
arrangements to the local authority
• Check a private fostering arrangement before a child is
placed in it, where advance notice is given
• Closely monitor the operation of the existing notification
scheme locally, with a view to ensuring they comply with existing
and new duties.

After years of inertia on the issue, the government
indicated this week that it is prepared to tackle the issue of
private fostering
, writes Derren

However, proposals to beef-up the existing system by giving
local authorities new duties for paying greater attention to
raising awareness of the issue and proactively monitor and inspect
private foster carers, have fallen short of campaigners’

While all welcomed the new plans – outlined in a letter
from children’s minister Margaret Hodge to children’s
charities – some felt that the only way of effectively
regulating private fostering is by establishing a register of
private foster carers and for them to be inspected against a robust
set of standards. They argued this is needed because too many
private foster carers are either unaware of the requirement to
notify authorities or deliberately fail to.

The proposals, which Hodge hopes to include in next
month’s Children’s Bill, will be underpinned by
regulations requiring councils to appoint individual officers to
monitor the effectiveness of arrangements. She said the proposals
will be paid for out of the £90 million safeguarding children

The government also announced plans to introduce national
minimum standards for private fostering to be enforced through
inspection in September as part of the response to the Victoria
Climbie inquiry.

In her letter, Hodge said the government rejected a formal
registration and inspection system because “it might drive
some private fostering arrangements underground and would not work
any better than a notification scheme”.

Professor Bob Holman said that while a register would be
“useful” it isn’t a panacea.

He welcomed the emphasis on local authorities being more
proactive in identifying private foster carers, plans for a
designated officer and ringfenced money to fund it.

“It will depend how much is given,” he said.
“It should be enough for one specialist officer, with help
from support and clerical staff and travel expenses. A minimum of
£50,000 per authority would be needed.”

Brendan McGrath, private fostering co-ordinator for
Gloucestershire Council, said the key to creating a successful
system is ensuring all agencies share information about children
rather than setting up a register.

“I know of a case where immigration, education and police
officers have known of a child that has been privately fostered,
but social services hasn’t been told about them until
something has gone wrong,” he explained.

McGrath believes councils need to inform all agencies involved
with children and families, faith groups and community groups about
the responsibility of private foster carers to inform social
services of arrangements. Some children are sent to the UK from
west Africa to live with carers so that they can get a better

“Every child is known to someone: a neighbour, teacher or

He agreed that some private foster carers “feel
uncomfortable about giving information to an authority”
because of immigration issues and admits standards are sometimes
lower than those applied to local authority foster carers.
“You have to do a lot more than just letting people come to

Angus Geddes, a senior social worker at Swindon Council, said he
has been lobbying for a register for years, but thinks the new
proposals will work if councils take being proactive seriously.

“The problem has always been that it is a low priority for
councils. Since we had an awareness campaign last year we’ve
received more referrals from education welfare officers,
particularly of local teenagers privately fostered,” he

Geddes explained that the campaign had highlighted the growing
number of 14-15-year-olds that were being privately fostered
– many had run away from home to live with friends,
boy/girlfriends, or other families – and expelled the myth
that most children were sent from west Africa.

“The number of west African children privately fostered
has dropped from 40 to 10 in recent years. Now between 10-15 per
cent of our fostered children are living under private
arrangements,” he added.

Both the Fostering Network and Baaf Adoption and Fostering
welcomed the new measures, but still believe that a register is the
right approach over the long term.

Beverley Clarke, a health visitor at Lambeth Primary Care Trust
and chairperson of the private fostering special interest group at
the Community Practitioner Health Visitors Association, wass not
convinced the proposals would work because standards would still
not be high enough.

“We need to say that you are either approving a carer or
not. Registration seems to be the only way of doing that. You could
then have a pool of people that you’d take referrals

Clarke also raised concerns over the amount of time the
government intends to give the beefed-up system, before considering
whether to introduce a register through a clause in the new

“It could be as high as four years. This is too long; two
years should be the maximum. We should know after the first set of

“We need to get a clear message out to the community that
this is what is required and this is who you need to contact. If
you don’t have that it makes a mockery of the whole thing and
reinforces that system,” she added.

New regulations are likely to require councils

• Appoint an individual officer with responsibility for
monitoring the effectiveness of the local authority’s private
fostering notification system
• Make clear the general duty of co-operation between
agencies outlined in the Children’s green paper includes
private fostering
• Ensure inter agency co-operation and discharge of the
duties on private fostering becomes a specific function of the
local safeguarding children board
• Ensure the new inspection regime covers the effectiveness
of inter-agency co-operation on private fostering.

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