Research: Is intensive fostering more effective than custody?

Many consider intensive fostering a better alternative to custody for troubled young people. Maggie Mellon reviews research supporting this view

Many consider intensive fostering a better alternative to custody for troubled young people. Maggie Mellon reviews research supporting this view (Pic: Alamy)


Key words: Foster care, Youth justic,  alternatives to custod,  offending

Authors: Biehal et al, University of York; Kay and Green, University of Manchester; Bonin and Beecham, London School of Economics

Title: A report on the intensive fostering pilot programme

Publisher: Youth Justice Board, 2010, pp38.

Aim: To evaluate intensive fostering as an alternative to custody for young people whose offending was assessed to be strongly related to poor home life and peer-group associations.

Methodology: Young people, carers, parents and project staff in three pilot areas in England were interviewed and their views and experiences compared and analysed. Reconviction rates, education and employment impacts, financial cost and other factors were compared with outcomes for young people sentenced to custody or to an intensive supervision and surveillance programme.

Conclusion: Intensive fostering produced nine “improvers” with no or diminished offending, eight “non-improvers” who continued to offend, and five who did not complete and were returned to court for sentence. Young people who had spent time in custody were more likely to be homeless, in prison, and not in work, training or employment but direct costs for intensive fostering were higher.


As highlighted in the Prison Reform Trust report Punishing Disadvantage, the outcomes of incarcerating children usually entail increased offending and poor life prospects. So foster care as an alternative sentence to custody is an attractive proposition.

Young people who had previous experience of institutional care or custody were most likely to feel positive about intensive fostering, whereas one younger child who had never been separated from his parent was reported to find the idea of going to another family as “weird”. The quality of relationships and engagement between the young people, carers, birth families and the programme providers was important in the success of the placements.

It is not surprising that, one year after the end of the sentence or release from custody, the young people on the fostering pilots were doing better than a comparator group. However, these findings should be treated with some caution because of the small numbers involved.

The pilots were not fully up and running at the time of the evaluation and worked with fewer (23) than expected (30) young people over a two-year period. This was partly due to a lack of referrals, plus the fact that two of the pilot sites were run by a voluntary organisation and one by a local authority, which meant that it was not implemented uniformly across the sites.

There were also staffing shortages – for example, one site did not have a dedicated manager, and another did not have a family therapist. This was apparently caused by funding for the programme only being released following a young person’s placement with it. Therefore, the low numbers and slow start directly impinged on the funding available to establish the schemes properly. Such factors impacted on the ability to deliver the model on which intensive fostering is based and in turn reflected on the study’s capacity to properly evaluate the programme.

There are some surprising gaps in the information provided in the report. There are few details about the nature of the family problems which intensive fostering is designed to address, nor is there much discussion about the required behaviours and characteristics of foster families.

Some of the nine parents interviewed reported satisfaction with the birth family support offered by the service. No detail is given of the type of therapy or of the qualifications, skills and experience of family therapists. Some parents describe a home liaison service rather than a therapeutic service, and it seems to be the contact with the worker, the information about their child’s progress, and the relationship which is described as valuable rather than any therapeutic programme or tool.

Most of the 15 foster families were satisfied with the level and accessibility of support, although some were dissatisfied with issues such as a failure to find educational placements. This meant that the carers had to provide care and supervision round the clock.

A failure to provide promised respite breaks was also a cause of dissatisfaction for some carers. The relationship with carers was highlighted as a very important factor in the failure or success of placement, therefore it would have been useful to know what capacity the scheme offered for matching children and young people with particular carers.

It is, then, not possible to determine what particular characteristics or circumstances of individual young people, or their family circumstances, or of foster carers, and programme staff, provide the best opportunities for successful outcomes.

However, the study does provide a number of insights into the lives of the young people sentenced to intensive fostering. One key insight is the degree of “wash out” of progress made once the young people returned home. It would be misleading to attribute this failure to poorer parenting capacity by the birth families as educational and employment opportunities on return proved hard to find, as were other opportunities that had been available to the young people in placement.

From relatively high support and supervision, with education, sport and other activities on offer, and from households provided with fostering allowances, the young people were returned to families on low incomes in poorer areas.

The preference of government seems to be to fund such small evaluations rather than broader and less instrumental social research programmes that might provide substantial evidence on which to base full scale reform.

An example of the latter is The Edinburgh Youth Crime and Transitions Study based on all young people who entered secondary school in Edinburgh in 1998. This found that young people who are not subject to compulsory intervention are more likely to grow out of offending than those who are charged and subject to compulsory measures.

My own view is that resources should be directed away from courts, and from custody and institutional care and into building the necessary supports as close as possible to the children and families in their own communities. Where children are removed from their parents’ care it should be for necessary care and protection and not as a punishment to either them or their parents.

Further Reading

● Jacobson J, Hough M, Punishing Disadvantage, ICPR, Prison Reform Trust, 2010

● Smith D, McAra L, McVie S, Edinburgh Study of Youth Crime and Transitions, University of Edinburgh, 1998

 Maggie Mellon is a former children and families director. She is now a social work consultant

What is intensive fostering?

Intensive fostering is where young offenders are placed with a foster family for up to 12 months as part of a programme of intensive support, with social workers, family therapists and liaison officers on call.

It is used as an alternative to custody, such as secure training centres or young offenders’ institutions, or instead of intensive supervision and surveillance programmes, where young offenders are monitored at home.

Based on a US model, young people are awarded points for good behaviour in return for certain privileges, such as watching television. The foster placement is accompanied by intensive supervision and support for the young person, and family therapy for the birth family.

It was created as a sentence available to youth courts in England and Wales by the Antisocial Behaviour Act 2003 as part of a supervision order for serious young offenders.

Practice implications

● For policy-makers: Fund long-term and large-scale social research to provide adequate, comparable and verifiable baseline information on which to base policy and practice decisions rather than myriad small-scale evaluations of specific projects, particularly rushed and inadequately funded initiatives.

● For directors of children’s services: Ensure that the needs of children and young people and their families are met within the context of good preventive family support services, rather than in response to offending.

● For programme providers: Ensure that programmes are supported by robust project planning and initial investment and are known to and supported by relevant agencies.

● For criminal justice system: Avoid custody for young people and demand a range of alternative disposals which may include intensively supported foster placements.

● For practitioners: Know the facts about the failures of custody and institutional care, and the research on best practice in response to youth offending. Press the case for alternatives to custody, particularly those that can support the child within their family and community wherever possible, in options to reports to youth courts in England and Wales.

This article is published in the 21 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Is intensive fostering more effective than custody?

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