by Andy Elvin
In November the National Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP), which largely represents commercial agencies, took three local authorities to court in a judicial review claiming their commissioning approach was unlawful. The NAFP claimed that, rather than looking for an “in house” local authority foster carer first (as happens in some cases), local authorities should send all referrals to all providers of foster care. The judge ruled against this position.
NAFP took Leeds, Bristol and Suffolk to court and the Local Government Association joined the three councils as an interested party
I do not know how much this action cost NAFP to bring, or how much it cost the three local authorities to defend, but it is all money that could have been better spent on vulnerable children.
There are, nonetheless, legitimate issues about foster care provision that should be discussed between the Department for Education (DfE), Local Government Association, Association of Directors of Children’s Services, local authorities and independent fostering agencies.
The Adoption Leadership Board has done excellent work in closing the gap between the number of children available for adoption and the number of adopters available. It has also very effectively promoted adoption and post-adoption support.
That is why TACT is calling for a Fostering Leadership Board to be instituted on the same basis as the Adoption Leadership Board. This can bring stakeholders together and improve provision and practice; not through lawyers, but through dialogue, partnership and our shared aspirations for the children we all care for.
Adopted children comprise 5% of the children who go through the care system each year.
Fostered children comprise 75% of the care population, and a leadership board with ministerial and local government buy in is urgently required.
The immediate issues are:
- A significant recruitment campaign is needed much like the DfE-funded campaigns for teachers. We urgently need more foster carers for teenagers and children with complex needs.
- Making the system more child-centred and putting children’s needs ahead of those of local authorities and agencies, including short-term apparent cost savings and the multitude of processes, monitoring and administrative requirements.
- Ensuring the legislative and regulatory framework puts achieving permanence at the heart of foster care and that these placements are protected by a permanence order, as in Scotland. There is no excuse for multiple placements – there should exist a principle of ‘right placement, first time’.
- Establishing integrated permanence services in all local authority areas. The same team would then be responsible for all permanency assessments (be they special guardianship order, fostering, adoption, kinship care or return home) and all post-permanency support. It is vital that all permanency families can access high quality, timely and non-judgmental support to safeguard the placement. Placement breakdown is toxic to children and costly for agencies.
- A nationally agreed permanence practice framework and professional skills framework. The social work skills required to assess and support permanency are different from those required to assess and manage risk in a child protection context.
- A single national data set is needed, which incorporates information about children subject to different permanence options, local authorities and other permanence service providers, both statutory and independent. This should be based on outcomes, not process, and concentrate on key indicators such as number of placement moves and educational achievement, bearing in mind each child’s starting point. Long-term outcome tracking for children who have been in foster care is inadequate. We should stay in touch with our children and remain involved with them through adult life, including being there to support them when they hit a rough patch. Many foster carers do this now, both unasked and unpaid.
- We are looking after an increasing number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children but are we fully meeting the needs of these often traumatised young people? The role of the Home Office in undermining these young people’s stability, as they are given limited leave to remain until 18 so leaving care planning is more difficult, must be addressed.
- Mental health support for children in the care system is still patchy and generally not available either quickly enough or delivered in a manner that is convenient and accessible for children in care.
- Children, especially those who are at risk of child sexual exploitation or have been trafficked, are still going missing; we need to find effective models of care that address this.
Andy Elvin is the chief executive of TACT Fostering and Adoption.