Long-term fostering has traditionally been seen as the “poor relation” of adoption, when it comes to providing homes for children in care who cannot return home or to wider family.
And yet long-term fostering can be the ideal solution for many children who cannot return to their family. It can offer stability and security, together with a sense of family and belonging. It also allows an ongoing relationship and contact with the birth family, rather than the sense of loss or change of identity that adoption can bring.
But a lack of formal and distinct status means long-term fostering is not always fulfilling this potential, and policy and practice solutions are not developed to make it work better.
Now, a survey of foster carers by the Fostering Network has found foster carers are not routinely being given additional training and appropriate support to help with long-term placements. It also found the level of bureaucracy and process remains similar to short-term fostering, and that carers are not routinely being given the authority to make day-to-day decisions for the child.
As a result, the Fostering Network has outlined changes the charity believes are needed to make long-term fostering work more successfully for both foster carer and child in a new report, Long-term Foster Care in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The report calls for a national framework for long-term foster care in each country, and for long-term placements made as part of a permanency planning process to have a distinct status and be formally confirmed by the local authority.
Of course, this would only make a real difference to children and their long-term foster families if all councils implement a rigorous process for permanency planning. This is essential to avoid the far too common occurrence of ‘drift’, where a child placed on a short-term basis is left with a carer for many years without a decision being taken to view and support the placement as long-term.
Other policy and practice recommendations include ensuring a child’s foster carer has an entitlement to apply to provide long-term care for the child where it’s decided that a long-term placement is in their best interests, irrespective of which type of agency the foster carer is registered with.
Moreover, reviews should be scheduled to meet the needs of the child and the foster family, not be held at pre-determined intervals as if this were a short-term placement. Foster carers should also be generally freed from having to keep daily records on children living with them for the long term.
Training on supporting and sustaining long-term placements should be provided for foster carers jointly with children’s social workers and supervising social workers. And most importantly, foster carers looking after children on a long-term basis should be given more authority to make decisions about the child.
Last year’s Care Inquiry found a need for long-term relationships to be respected and nurtured, and helped to shine a spotlight on the potential role of long-term foster care. It is, thankfully, now attracting more respect and attention from policy makers, with the Department for Education (DfE) due to publish policy proposals to strengthen long-term fostering in England later this spring.
Long-term fostering has been overlooked and undervalued for too long. The DfE’s policy review gives a real opportunity for change, to ensure long-term fostering can fulfil its rightful place as the permanence option of choice for most of those children in care who cannot return to their family or live with wider family and friends. We want to see similar initiatives in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Jackie Sanders is head of media and campaigns at The Fostering Network