Childminders step in to fill foster care void

A network of childminders is proving that foster care need not be the only option for children requiring temporary care, reports Julie Griffiths

A network of childminders is proving that foster care need not be the only option for children requiring temporary care, reports Julie Griffiths.

Picture caption: Buckinghamshire Council has been using trained childminders to fill the short-term placement gap. Here, with some of the children involved are Kathy Forbes, social services manager for children and families (far left); Laraine Spragg, co-ordinator (centre) and Debbie Davis, childminder (third from right)

Project details

Project name: Buckinghamshire Community Childminders Network.

Aims and objectives: To use a network of childminders to help provide short notice temporary placements and respite care for children with disabilities and those having problems with their family. Early intervention work done during the temporary placement can then often avoid the need for a foster placement.

Numbers of service users: 500 children.

Cost of project: Cost of a child staying with a childminder to the council is a fixed weekly fee of £475.

Timescale: Five years.

Finding temporary placements at short notice can be a horrendous task for social workers but in Buckinghamshire childminders are filling the gap and offering early intervention work at the same time. For the past five years, Buckinghamshire Community Childminders Network (BCCN) has been running a service to which social workers can either refer families or suggest parents make contact themselves. The first point of contact is Laraine Spragg, the county’s National Childminding Association (NCMA) services co-ordinator.

She says the award-winning service has proved so popular among social workers that they can be reluctant to share the good news: “Often they find out about us and decide not to tell their colleagues. They want to keep it to themselves so they have somewhere to place their children.”

The service came about because social workers were finding it difficult to place children with disabilities. Childminders were already used but the council believed it would be beneficial to formalise the arrangement and ensure extra training was given.

The service quickly expanded to cover non-disabled children who were having problems at home and needed a break from their families. The network provides respite care, which can be a regular day arrangement like that of any other childminder, and overnight stays for longer periods.

Kathy Forbes, operations manager in the safeguarding division of children’s services, says childminders are not foster parents.

“They are not approved first carers,” she says. “The network is the stage before fostering and the hope is that it avoids the need to foster. The childminders are able to offer a home environment to children instead of them going to residential units. It is a better outcome for children because it gives them another family to relate to.”

Debbie Davis, one of the BCCN childminders, says the first thing she does when a child arrives in the household is explain that they are now the sixth member of the Davis family (she has three children of her own). “Often they’ve forgotten what it’s like to function in a family,” she says. “We give them positive feedback and they start to relax. When you’re surrounded by adults telling you that you’re useless your self-esteem goes through the floor.”

The service is cost-effective. Childminders are paid their standard hourly fee, which is usually about £4.50, plus £1.65 if they are looking after a child with a disability. The cost of children staying with a childminder is a fixed weekly fee of £475.

Forbes points out that a short break of a month can help families address their difficulties and avoid the care system. “Sometimes we’re saving money on fostering that could have lasted years,” she says.

The network has been involved in the care of about 500 children since it started. Starting with just six childminders, it now has 25 and plans to recruit five more by 2011.

The network has a multi-agency management group, which includes young carers and representatives from, say, a teenage pregnancy project. Training takes up four days per year.

The network is now diversifying. Recently, it helped support the children of a travelling family in which the mother was undergoing chemotherapy. “The family were parked in a farmer’s field with no mains connection, so we were called in,” Spragg says. “It could have gone to a protection procedure but we didn’t want mum’s last days to be taken up with that.”

For nearly nine months, a childminder gave the three children hot dinners and did their laundry before returning them to their mother each night. “It was a big piece of multi-agency working and it made a real difference to that family,” Spragg adds.

Case study: ‘If I can stop them doing something silly it’s worth it’

Debbie Davis was one of the first to join the Buckinghamshire Childminding Network in 2005. She specialises in looking after babies, teenagers and autistic children.

By the time a child stays with Davis, their family is often in crisis and the young person is at a low ebb. She provides listening, empathy and counselling; she is also upfront about the choices and responsibilities the young people have.

“It’s making them think beyond the next few days,” she says. “We talk about what aspirations they have for their future. I know what happens to kids who don’t turn their lives around and I lay it on the line with them. I explain that if they carry on doing what they’re doing, these are the likely consequences.”

Although teenagers are often appalled at the idea of going to a childminder, none has refused to stay and many end up finding it a refuge from their own difficult home life.

“We’ve had quite a few teenage girls stay after things broke down at home,” Davis says. “They’ll come to us for a 28-day placement and we try to turn things around in that time and help the teenager to get their head together.”

She admits it is a tough job and it can take its toll emotionally. “But,” she says, “I’ve got to think about the bigger picture and think about the difference I’m making to that person. If I can say something that they’ll remember at some point in their life that stops them doing something silly then it’s been worth it.”

Setting up a network

● Getting the right calibre of child-minder with a can-do attitude is important. The work is often demanding and can be emotionally tough. The focus should be on quality rather than quantity.

● Expect it to take time when recruiting childminders. When BCCN was set up, it aimed to recruit six people every six months, but this proved to be over-ambitious.

● The right type of childminder is not primarily motivated by money. They need to be happy to go the extra mile to make a difference to the young people involved rather than think about financial gain.

● Childminders need to be confident in dealing with parents who can be difficult and pushy.

● When recruiting to a network, make it clear how tough the work can be so childminders know what they are getting into.

● It can help if the selection process includes an interview by a panel of young people.

● Training and continuing support is essential.

Source: Laraine Spragg, NCMA services co-ordinator for Bucks

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