Are placement profiles doing enough to ensure foster carers and residential care homes understand the children and young people placed with them?
That’s the question Norfolk County Council’s been asking itself over the past year.
“Placement profiles can include all manner of different behaviours a young person has displayed over a number of years, including behaviours that present a risk to themselves and others,” says Carey Cake, head of independent statutory services at Norfolk County Council. “But the profiles may not drill down into what’s behind those behaviours and what that means for the needs of individual children and young people.
“This might mean potential future foster carers or residential homes know about behaviours and placement breakdown in the past but not the detailed and specific reasons behind those behaviours or the breakdown.”
Edward Wong, head of localities at Norfolk County Council, agrees: “Placement profiles can be too focused on presenting risks.”
But both Carey and Edward hope this issue will soon be a thing of the past in Norfolk. And it’s all thanks to a new programme called Valuing Care.
Norfolk is one of several councils that are working with the social care consultancy iMPOWER to develop Valuing Care. What the programme seeks to do is put individual needs at the heart of care places so looked-after children get better support.
“It’s a way to capture and track the needs and outcomes of children in care so they get the support they need and the right placements,” says Edward. “We anticipate it will result in far better matching of children with placements and so promote more stable placements.”
The framework iMPOWER and Norfolk have been developing for Valuing Care centres on helping social workers present children’s needs to foster carers and residential homes in a form that describes their needs more simply and consistently without compromising on detail.
To do this Valuing Care breaks needs down into a series of high-level categories, beneath which there are sub-categories that dig deeper into each need.
“The high-level categories are simpler for carers and residential homes to grasp as a starting point with further layers of complexity sitting beneath that,” says Charlotte Levey, a senior consultant at iMPOWER. “For example, one of the high-level categories is ‘needing support and encouragement to form positive and healthy attachments and friendships free from exploitation’. Beneath that you’ve got four bands that social workers score on a scale of 0 to 100.”
While asking social workers to score children’s needs might initially suggest Valuing Care reduces professional judgment, the reality is the opposite says iMPOWER’s assistant director Al Thompson.
“It might be one social worker scores a young person quite highly for a particular need domain while another may give the same young person a lower score,” he explains. “What the different scores do is pave the way for practitioners to have a really reflective discussion about what explains the difference in their judgments about that need. That professional judgment element of the scoring makes Valuing Care a handy tool for supervision and practice reflection.”
And since each child’s needs are re-scored at every looked-after review, the approach also provides a way to quantify progress and changes in need over time. The programme might be in its first few months but already this ability to track changes over time is throwing up some interesting findings.
“One finding that made nearly everyone fall off their chair is that the overall level of needs tends to peak – as a general rule – at the ages of seven and eleven,” says Al. “The level of needs actually reduces and stabilises thereafter. So Valuing Care gives us some really big clues on where to focus the help children’s services or individual social workers provide to guard against those peaks of need.”
Helping social workers
Carey says social workers in Norfolk are very much buying into the approach, even though it only started being rolled out in July.
“I’ve attended some of the training on Valuing Care here and our social workers really feel the approach makes a lot of sense,” she says. “The way it encourages more consensus about the needs of individual children and a common language around needs is really interesting.
“Social workers are finding the needs scoring so helpful that they are rushing out after the training sessions to use it with their looked-after children.
“That, to me, shows the real merit of the programme because social workers – the people on the ground who do the difficult day job – feel it helps so much that they are keen to complete the forms for their children. It’s already helping social workers think of really innovative ways to improve dialogue with children and young people and to give young people a say in the information we give to foster carers about them.”
Involving children in care
Valuing Care is also dovetailing well with the tools being developed by children and young people on Norfolk’s In Care Council.
“Over the last six months the young people on the In Care Council have been telling us how they want to be described during placement matching and what they want and it’s almost exactly the same as what we’re delivering with iMPOWER,” says Carey. “When I first met the iMPOWER team to discuss Valuing Care it was almost as if they had been in the same sessions with our young people.”
Another benefit of the Valuing Care is that the data from scoring the needs of each child will also feed into commissioning, says Edward.
“Our commissioners will be able to use that information to inform better commissioning strategies because we will have a better understanding of the needs of our looked-after children and what they need from fostering, residential or support services,” he says. “Performance indicators tend to capture activities rather than outcomes so we’re hoping Valuing Care will make it easier to identify outcomes.
“Ultimately what it gives us is a new way to capture and track the needs and outcomes of children in care so that we can get them the right service at the right time.”