by Anthony Douglas
At Cafcass recently we have been trying to better understand the lessons that data can tell us to improve systems in a period of limited resources.
While there are all sorts of lessons in the regional variation data around court processes, timeframes and local authority results, we also need to be mindful of the national lessons this data highlights. Chief among these is the inexorable rise in the numbers of children in care in England.
The number of care applications received by Cafcass is currently tipping 14,000, compared with around 6,500 10 years ago.
The main drivers of this huge rise include:
- more risk aversion in decision-making since Baby P;
- a determination to stop drift;
- some key case law that is driving more cases into the courts – particularly ‘voluntary’ care cases;
- better reviewing and understanding the lessons of research – particularly around the harm to children from emotional abuse and neglect;
- and the austerity agenda meaning more families are hitting crisis points than before.
By and large this means better outcomes for children but this will only be the case if their care plans meet their long-term needs.
This is where the real issue lies for the care system at the moment. The resourcing of care plans, including placements and therapeutic care, is not keeping pace with the number of children coming into the care system. Other systemic shortages include the number of foster carers, adopter and secure accommodation beds.
I think we need to approach some of these resource shortages by revisiting some of our current assumptions.
For example, we could recruit more foster carers and adoptive parents in their 50s and 60s.
By and large these are an excluded group, with older carers only being approved as an exception.
But there are many older experienced parents with a proven track record in caring for children and who understand children.
‘Isolated nuclear family model’
Training and mentoring can help potential older carers understand the needs of children who have been neglected, abused or traumatised, just as new younger carers are helped.
Active and fit older parents can often bring a network of support with them – relatives and friends – who can become a family, team or community raising a vulnerable child or young person.
With the busy lives parents lead today, all children benefit from having a small pool of caring adults who can help to look after them. An isolated nuclear family model is a far more difficult caring proposition.
Inclusive parenting is a safeguard for children, which is why disputes in private law cases are so unfortunate for children – the children involved would benefit dramatically from an absence of conflict and building up relationships with a wide adult network of families and friends.
To recruit the foster carers and adoptive parents we need in the future, agencies including local authorities should reach out to groups they have ignored before or not communicated effectively with.
Older parents as a group in society have a seriously untapped capability. We should actively seek their engagement and put them through the same rigorous process as everyone else, but without a bias against age.
With 50% of babies born today likely to live to 100, we need to think of 50 and 60-somethings as at the tail end of middle age, not as being on the edge of old age.
Many 50 or 60-somethings take up volunteering as a way of helping them to navigate the potential cliff-edge of retirement. Instead, we should try and communicate that becoming foster carers or adoptive parents could be a positive retirement option, for those who would like to spend two decades or more helping some of the most vulnerable children in the country.
Anthony Douglas is the chief executive of Cafcass