Fostering information gap puts families at risk

Councils are still not giving foster carers the information they need to care safely despite two court rulings, finds Gordon Carson

A quick internet search reveals countless references to fostering services that claim to treat their carers as “equal partners”.

However, the reality does not always match the rhetoric, according to a Fostering Network survey published this month, which found many councils do not provide enough information to carers about the young people placed with them.

This is despite nearly 10 years having passed since the second of two landmark judgements stated that Essex Council could be sued for failing to meet its duty of care towards a foster family.

The council had failed to tell them that a 15-year-old boy placed in the family’s care in 1993 had admitted indecently assaulting his own sister and was being investigated for rape.

The boy went on to physically and sexually abuse the son and daughters of the foster carers, who had expressly told Essex Council that they were not willing to look after a child who was known or suspected of being a sexual abuser.

The judgements – in 1998 and 2000 – gave the birth children of the foster carers, and then the carers themselves, the right to claim compensation from Essex.

But despite these precedents, the Fostering Network survey found more than half of foster families have looked after a child in the past three years for whom they were not given all the information they needed.

Terrible consequences

This failing can have terrible consequences for the family and the foster children, as experienced foster carer Bernice Taylor can testify after not being made fully aware of the background of a child in her care (see panel).

Malcolm Phillips, manager of the Fosterline advice service run by the Fostering Network, says councils and their social workers often overlooked this duty because of pressure of work, poor training or a lack of understanding of what it means in practice.

“The severity of abuse in the Essex case is thankfully rare,” he says, “but there are hundreds of cases where we have discussions with carers who feel unable to do the best job they can because social workers haven’t passed on information. Far too often, local authorities say they don’t need to or shouldn’t have to pass on information to foster carers but discuss it among themselves.”

Phillips says scores of foster carers have decided that they and their families “can’t be exposed to these risks and pressures any longer”. With an estimated shortfall of 8,200 foster families in England, and a surge in care applications likely to add to the 42,000-plus children already in foster care, the loss of experienced and dedicated carers would be devastating.

Information sharing improved

Although the survey shows dissatisfaction among foster carers, John Coughlan, spokesperson for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, believes information sharing between authorities and foster carers has “vastly improved” since the Essex judgements.

“There’s a need for us to work together to make sure placements will succeed,” says Coughlan, director of children’s services at Hampshire Council. “Placements where matching is worked out based on the assessment of carers and the needs of the child have the best chance of success.”

But a separate Fostering Network survey found failings here too ( Half of those looking after disabled children said they had not received the necessary specialist training.

Financial penalties

Although the Essex judgements proved there could be financial penalties for councils that fail to provide full information, they can also be called to account through the inspection regime.

The National Minimum Standards for Fostering Services say that each foster carer must be provided with “full information about the foster child and her/his family to enable the carer to protect the foster child, their own children, other children for whom they have responsibility and themselves”.

Ofsted uses the standards in its inspection of fostering services, and can order enforcement action if it finds failings.

Last year, for example, it found that Leeds Council provided a lack of information to carers regarding placements, while not all files contained risk assessments.

Fosterline’s Phillips says a failure to share information shows a “cultural habit” among councils of not treating foster carers as “full professional partners”.

“Foster carers are seen as amateur supporters of what local authorities are trying to achieve, but they are offering professional services and have to use their professional qualities,” he says.

Carer describes her ‘sense of failure’ after council kept file closed

Foster carer Bernice Taylor feels “a sense of failure” after she was left unprepared by her local authority to cope with the full range of needs presented by a boy she started looking after last July.

He was initially only supposed to remain in her care for the summer holidays, but the placement was extended several times until he was removed this March, a week before he was scheduled to move to another family, when his behaviour deteriorated.

Taylor, who has been fostering on and off for 47 years and has also adopted two adults with Down’s syndrome, says Nottinghamshire Council failed to provide access to the file on the boy’s previous placement until he had been staying with her for three months. Only then did she find out he had attempted to drown other children and attacked the mother in his previous foster family.

Risk assessment

Although the risk assessment she received at the outset disclosed that the child had admitted indecently assaulting another boy his own age, she believes the seriousness of the incident was downplayed.

During his stay with her and her husband, she says the boy tried on four occasions to “perpetrate a sexual act”, including one where he touched another boy’s genitals at a party.

“We were careful,” says Taylor, “but not as careful as we might have been if we had very thorough information”.

She also had to wait more than three months to be allocated a supervising social worker, and was only visited five times between then and the end of the boy’s placement.

“I would have expected to have had a lot more information and support from the very beginning,” she says.

Joint solutions meeting

Taylor’s displeasure prompted her to write to the head of department at Nottinghamshire Council in October, requesting a meeting to discuss the case, but this was turned down. She also asked if she and her husband could attend a joint solutions meeting in February, but was told it was “not appropriate for foster carers to be there”.

She emphasises that the boy’s childhood had been “horrendous”, and has complained to the council to highlight that children in care, as well as foster families, suffer huge damage when placements are not properly managed.

Nottinghamshire Council is not commenting on the specifics of Taylor’s allegations because she has launched a formal complaint.

However, it says it undertakes to provide full written information about a child being placed in foster care, which includes a full risk assessment, care plan and minutes of looked-after reviews.

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