Long-term foster care has been overlooked of late as attention has switched to other models of care. Academic Anna Gupta reflects on research that suggests it deserves more serious consideration
Authors: Gillian Schofield and Emma Ward with Andrea Warman, John Simmonds and Jane Butler.Schofield is professor of child and family social work and co-director of the Centre for Research on the Child and Family at the University of East Anglia. Ward is a research associate at the centre.
Available: Published by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering
The importance of finding stable and lasting family placements for looked-after children who are unable to return to their birth families is well recognised. However, recently the debate has been has been dominated by options outside the public care system, in particular adoption and latterly special guardianship. As a result long-term or permanent foster care has become something of a “Cinderella option” by Lowe and Murch (2002).
However, foster care is the option most likely to be able to offer thousands of children in England and Wales stability and security, a sense of belonging to their new family, as well as a sense of personal and cultural identity. Several studies have recognised the need for improvement in policy and planning around long-term fostering and this was acknowledged in the white paper on looked-after children, Care Matters: Time for Change (DfES, 2007).
This study is part of a wider programme at the Centre for Research on the Child and Family on policy, practice and outcomes for children in long-term or permanent foster care. The primary focus of the study is the planning and supporting of permanence in foster care. The specific aims were:
● To map the range of existing policies and practice models for planning, commissioning, matching and supporting long-term foster care placements in England and Wales.
● To investigate the advantages and disadvantages of different models and services.
● To develop and disseminate practice guidance, based on research findings.
The research project consisted of three phases. A national survey mapped policy, procedure and practice through three separate questionnaires sent to councils in England and Wales. These covered the planning process: recruitment, assessment, preparation of long-term and permanent foster carers and the supervision, training and support for these carers. Questionnaires combining relevant aspects of the three local authority questionnaires were sent to independent fostering providers. There was an overall response rate of 47%.
The second phase further explored policy and practice models through telephone interviews with key professionals, including managers, social workers and independent reviewing officers, in a sample of councils representing the different models identified via the questionnaires. Forty-six telephone interviews were conducted with professionals from 24 different local authorities.
The third phase involved three focus groups of long-term and permanent foster carers. The second and third phases explored the advantages and disadvantages of various care planning models and practice.
A significant finding was the existence of two distinct models for providing permanence in foster care across local authorities. Most have a single system of foster care described as either long-term foster care or permanent foster care, with most of these using the term “long-term”. However, almost 40% of councils had a dual system of long-term and permanent foster care, with different definitions and often procedures.
There was considerable diversity both across and within these broad models, including whether placements were intended to last until leaving care or into adulthood. In local authorities with dual systems there was an expectation that a child in a permanent placement would remain there into adulthood, whereas children in long-term placements were expected to be until they left care or for as long as there was no plan to move them. Local authorities with single systems tended to have different definitions for the length of placement, depending on the individual circumstances.
The age of the child was identified as a critical factor in definitions and systems. Children in their middle childhood (6-11 years) or younger were more likely to be placed for permanence in dual system authorities. There was a greater expectation in both systems of family membership into adulthood for these children.
In dual systems adolescents were more likely to be in long-term foster care and generally there was less focus on any need for foster family membership and a permanence plan for this group. In the case of teenagers there was often an expectation that the placement would only be required until the child left care, either to return home or move into independent living before they were 18. The researchers noted that this was not necessarily based on an assessment of a young person’s needs. The study concluded that both the single and dual systems could be responsive to the full range of ages and needs presented by children in the looked after system, but this range needs to be explicit in policy and practice, with young children as well as adolescents.
Another factor affecting the definition and planning of a placement was the expected role of the foster carers and birth families. In some cases there were assumptions that the children’s “strong attachment” to their birth family meant they were unable or unwilling to become a full member of the foster family. The authors remind us that children can form multiple attachments, including secure relationships with foster carers while maintaining birth family contact. For many children this is a challenge, but one that can be overcome by sensitive and effective carers, supported by social workers.
Permanent or long-term foster carers who are entrusted with parenting children through into adulthood do not have parental responsibility and have restrictions on the decisions they can make. This study, like others such as Sinclair et al (2007), highlights the importance of social work practice, including placement agreements and looked-after children’s reviews, being tailored to the status of the placement and the parenting role. Most social workers and carers identified a need for more powers to be delegated to carers.
Inflexible services around leaving care requiring children to move towards independent living, irrespective of their needs. Children in long-term or permanent foster placements should be offered the opportunity to leave as children leave their parents, ie at their own pace. This would allow the chance to come back, and continuing support from those who have been caring for them. There is a need for sensitive, responsive support services, including financial support for young people and their foster families before and after they are 18.
The study confirmed that the long-term or permanent foster care task requires high levels of skill, commitment and resilience. This needs to be reflected in the practice of social workers who recruit, assess and support placements. Children who are unable to return to their birth families require responsive services that meet their need for a sense of permanence and a promotion of their personal identity. This study recommends that more attention be paid to recognising the benefits of long-term or permanent foster care.
Looked after children’s reviews: These meetings need to be tailored in light of the care plan and status of the placement, particularly when there is a change of social worker or Independent Reviewing Officer. A sensitive balance needs to be struck by reviewing the placement whilst also promoting a sense of permanence and stability for the child and carers.
Role of the birth family: Decisions about contact need to be draw upon an understanding of children’s development and relationships, and be focused on maximising the benefits that continuing contact can offer, while minimising the risks to the child’s development and placement.
Leaving care services: These need to be flexible and responsive to the individual young person and their place within the foster family, with attention paid to trying to maintain supportive and enduring relationships between the young person and their foster family, in accordance with their needs and wishes.