Take a break ….. if you can

There are few schemes to provide short-term placements for
able-bodied children and support for parents – and those that do
exist have to struggle, finds June Statham

June Statham

A senior research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit,
Institute of Education, London University. She manages the unit’s
programme of “fast-response” research studies to meet the needs of
policymakers in the Department of Health and Department for
Education and Skills. Her research interests include social care
and welfare services for children and young people, family support,
grandparenting and early childhood services.

Support foster care schemes aim to work with families
experiencing stress and difficulties by providing a series of short
breaks for children and help for parents. Under section 20 of the
Children Act 1989, short-term placements of children in out-of-home
care can be provided by local authorities with foster or other
families. Most placements are used to support the families of
disabled children, but they can be used in other

Only a few authorities operate formal support care schemes.
However, many offer short breaks to a small number of able-bodied
children on an ad hoc basis, usually with existing foster carers.
There is a lot of interest in developing this kind of support for
families, and researchers from the Thomas Coram Research Unit at
the Institute of Education, University of London, have carried out
a study for the Department for Education and Skills to explore the
barriers there might be to establishing more schemes.

The schemes included in the study varied in size and scope. This
could involve providing weekend breaks, daytime care, overnight
stays or short periods of full-time care. Most schemes were based
within fostering services, although some had moved to family
support teams. This reflects the emphasis on working in partnership
with parents. One support scheme co-ordinator said: “What we’re
trying to do is give parents the message that they have not given
up any control, they’re still the people in the driving seat with
their child. All we’re doing is giving them a few breaks to help

The authorities offering support care schemes had often set them up
in response to concerns about a lack of preventive services in the
area and an increase in looked-after children. As one project
manager said: “There were a lot of repeat referrals. Families
coming in and asking for support, fairly low-level stuff but,
because there weren’t any preventive services there, they were
being fobbed offÉand it was coming back at a far higher level.
It might come back in as a child protection matter.”

Other schemes were started as a way to avoid the breakdown of
mainstream fostering placements and were extended to support
children returning to the care of relatives. One had developed from
a specialist childminding scheme.

These services, despite their popularity with social workers and
families, were faced with problems. Many were underfunded and
lacked administrative support. Consequently, they were unable to
increase payments to carers or offer much input from social
workers. Some had also experienced difficulties in convincing
senior managers to continue to fund and sustain projects. Top-down
commitment was essential to ensure the survival and development of
schemes. Local authorities where such support was lacking had
poorly funded, piecemeal services which survived only because of
the dedication of the staff and carers.

Among authorities that had not developed a support care scheme, a
significant barrier was the difficulty in recruiting foster carers
to mainstream services and a fear that other services might divert
scarce resources. But the study found that recruitment for support
care targeted different groups from mainstream services. Schemes
were described as a way for people to “dip a toe in the water” if
they were unable to offer full-time foster care. “Burned out”
foster carers, who might otherwise have left the service, could
also be interested in taking on these short-break placements.

Other perceived barriers were: difficulties in attracting carers
with the right mix of skills to work closely with parents; payment
levels for carers; and difficulties in attracting funding for
preventive work. Issues were also raised on children’s legal
status. Some co-ordinators complained that paperwork for
looked-after children was too unwieldy and inappropriate for
support care and that social workers were reluctant to follow full
procedures when a child was being accommodated for only occasional
periods. It was clear from the study that clarification, guidance
and some modification of these procedures would be welcomed.

The study found that incorporating projects into a local
authority’s strategic plans for children’s services made a huge
difference to the funding and recognition of the service. Carers
were paid more or less in line with mainstream colleagues and
co-ordinators felt less isolated and more supported. One said: “I
haven’t quite known where I belong and who’s going to be backing me
and what’s going to happen next year. It does feel different now, I
feel establishment now.”

Overall, there is a need for a more integrated approach to
providing support foster care to families, both at a local
authority and national level. There needs to be more communication
between the bodies responsible for regulating childminding and
foster care. Evidence shows that providing short breaks for
children in need helps them to stay within their families and may
avoid longer-term care. The flexibility of these schemes is highly
valued by parents who have a positive view of the service as being
caring, but not “care”.


This article presents the findings of Department for Education
and Skills-sponsored research into support foster care schemes in
the UK. These provide short-term placements for children and
support for parents under pressure, and have proved popular. Yet
few schemes are operating and, despite widespread interest in
setting up more, those that do exist are often beset with problems,
including insecure and poor funding and a lack of commitment from


  • J Aldgate and M Bradley, Supporting Families through Short-term
    Fostering, Stationery Office, 1999
  • J Howard, “Support care: a new role for foster carers”, A Wheal
    (ed), Working with Parents, Russell House Publishing, 2000


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