As Fostercare Fortnight gets underway a parliamentary committee has weighed in on how to improve foster care. But some of its proposals run contrary to government plans, reports Louise Tickle
As a child who is taken into care, your life chances instantly take a statistical tumble. You’re more likely than average to end up in the criminal justice system, and much less likely to have a successful school career or go on to university.
How to help prevent looked-after children’s futures from being compromised is the focus of parliament’s children, schools and families select committee’s recently published report.
Given that more than two-thirds of looked-after children (71%) are now placed with foster carers, ensuring that these placements offer the very best possible opportunities for children to thrive is critical. Yet achieving this is far from simple.
Finding good people to apply to look after the older and most disturbed children is one problem that has proved difficult to solve.
“One of the reasons people don’t go into fostering is fear of the unknown and that they’ll end up with a horror story,” says Annette Webb of simplyfostering.co.uk, a portal that gives prospective foster carers information about fostering agencies.
“Yes, such stories do happen, but only rarely. But because local authorities are desperate to find placements, they don’t always give full information and hide behind human rights [privacy] legislation. That can’t happen. If local authorities were bound by a code to be totally honest, and people knew they were certain to be told the full story, then that would help to recruit foster carers.”
Placement stability is key
The select committee’s view – and that of most experts in the field – that placement stability is key to successful long-term outcomes for children informs many of its recommendations, not least those relating to the choice looked-after children are supposed to have over who they end up living with. If children are placed with families simply because they’re the only ones available, it’s hardly surprising these placements break down.
Big cities, in particular, are struggling. Pauline Newman, director of children’s services at Manchester Council, says the government’s target of foster care placements for 80% of looked-after children is already proving a tough enough challenge, never mind having additional vacant placements so as to offer children significant choice.
Newman is unwilling to compromise on the quality of foster carers in order to create more placements. She is trying to attract good people to the job by simplifying and publicising her council’s pay structure, providing priority psychological support for foster carers who meet a stumbling block, and recruiting social workers who are dedicated to supporting fostering placements.
She has also put in place pre-assessment NVQ training for prospective foster carers to improve the qualifications and self-confidence of those who apply.
Paying foster carers a fee – separate from the allowance designed to cover the costs of caring for a child – is also recognised by the select committee as a helpful step towards recruiting and retaining committed and qualified foster carers.
Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network. says: “No one is saying foster carers should foster for the money – motivation should be assessed at the assessment and subsequent supervision. We want to recruit people who are prepared to alter their lives to meet the needs of children. Many local authorities are now expecting one of the foster carers to work only part-time or not at all. But everyone accepts that socially and economically in Britain today, people need to work. ”
However, the British Association for Adoption and Fostering chief executive David Holmes says the issue of pay is complicated by the range of existing practice on additional fees. “That’s a reality of the fact of having 150 different care systems,” he says. “To bring consistency in, foster carers would cost a huge amount of money. And so it would need a huge [central] government commitment.”
Giving foster parents more autonomy, authority and respect , on the other hand, comes absolutely free, he adds, predicting this would go a long way towards motivating those who already care for looked-after children.
“They are the people who are with the children 24/7 and know best what is happening,” he says. “If they feel part of the team surrounding the child, it helps in retaining them and helps them feel good about the work they’re doing.”
One major recruiting problem has always been the scramble to secure what is inevitably a scarce resource.
“Councils don’t co-operate, they compete,” Webb says. “Every foster carer a local authority gains is one the neighbouring authority doesn’t.”
But some councils are coming round to the potential benefits of co-operation, and are now in the process of working together on recruitment campaigns. Eight local authorities in the south west, for example, will be running a 20-second advertisement on ITV West during Fostercare Fortnight, specifically aimed at attracting new carers willing to provide a home for older children and teenagers.
The question of whether foster carers should be registered has divided opinion between MPs on the select committee and the government. Although the government has already come out against it the select committee is convinced by arguments that registration would improve the status and recognition of foster carers, provide an expectation of training and continuing development, and lead to a requirement for a standard code of conduct.
Support for registration
Tapsfield believes registration would also help foster carers who need to move from one local authority area to another because it would allow them to take their local authority approval with them. It would also mean councils would not have to cough up £2,000 to repeat the assessment procedure for someone who has already been approved in another part of the country.
Importantly, it would boost the safeguarding of children too, Tapsfield adds, “because information about the foster carer would travel with them”.
Kevin Williams, chief executive of fostering agency Tact, believes commissioning on the primary basis of cost is another mistake councils make that leads to foster placements collapsing. As well as yet more trauma for the children involved, this results in disillusioned and demotivated foster carers who may well opt out of ever having another child to stay.
“In a tender, you might find that 40% is weighted to outcomes, and 60% is weighted on cost,” Williams says. “And there is a price obsession in local authorities.
“What we’d like to see is commissioning by outcomes for children. We think that this would actually save local authorities money in terms of placement stability.”
How the government’s stance differs from that of MPs on the select committee for children, schools and families
Care Matters says that agencies must publish their payment schemes for foster carers, but the government says it will not impose any standardisation of fees across the country.
MPs say: Potential foster carers need to be clear about the financial terms on offer in order to be able to consider fostering as a possible career, therefore a national framework of fee payments should be developed, including retainers when carers do not have placements.
Care Matters says that children should be given a choice of placements by their local authority (although this is not explicitly repeated in the Care Matters: Time for Change white paper).
MPs say: The government cannot simply impose a duty on councils to magically produce more quality placements. It must do a national assessment of the supply of places required to give looked-after children a choice, and then do more to help councils meet their target numbers.
Care Matters makes no mention of a mandatory national registration scheme for foster carers, despite registration being strongly endorsed by Lord Laming’s working group.
MPs say: The government should reconsider its opposition to a national registration scheme, which would help to improve quality and take-up of training for foster carers, and also increase their status in the teams caring for these looked-after children.
• More about Fostercare Fortnight
This article is published in the 14 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading How to improve foster care?