We need answers on the government’s weakening of safeguards for children in care

Troubling recent changes to legislation around looked-after children, ostensibly due to coronavirus, appear to have little grounding in necessity. The sector deserves an explanation, writes Harvey Gallagher

Image of girl embracing foster mother (credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)
(credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)

by Harvey Gallagher

Last week the government published a statutory instrument that makes significant changes to 10 sets of regulations (secondary legislation) relating to care planning, fostering and adoption.

In theory, these changes expire on 25 September. But in a (virtual) appearance before the education select committee, the children’s minister, Vicky Ford MP, implied that they could stay more permanently.

The supporting documents for the regulations – and the minister confirmed this – state that local government representative bodies were, as you’d want them to be, consulted about the changes.

But I’m struggling to see who else was consulted, among many parties who have an interest in children in care. And I’m also at a loss to understand why local government would ask for these changes to regulations.

Children’s services were under significant pressure before the current health crisis and some future-proofing of regulations would be understandable given the extreme situation. But I still don’t quite get it.

Let’s consider fostering panels, which under the legislative changes have been made optional. The Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP), of which I am chief executive, has a network of fostering panel chairs and vice-chairs.

Where panels are effective and well run, they provide an important level of independent scrutiny for approving new foster carers and making changes for existing foster carers. If they’re not well run, someone in the agency needs to sort that out – it doesn’t make panels a bad idea.

It was already possible to hold panels virtually, and many of our members are doing exactly this. I’ve had lots of positive feedback about this, including the advantage of seeing someone in their home, perhaps interacting with their own children, rather than an office meeting room. I think some of this way of working will continue even after restrictions ease.

I speak with independent fostering agencies (IFAs) every few days, and local authorities just as often, and I hear reports of little sickness across the fostering workforce. And someone can be a member of more than one panel.

So, why is there a need to allow changes and approvals without panels? Where’s the pinch point? Social worker time? Most social workers have more time at their (working from home) desk now, because they’re not driving to as many meetings.

Making foster placements less safe

Under the statutory instrument, emergency foster care placements can also now last for nearly six months, there’s no requirement for temporary foster carers to have an existing family or other connection to the child, and short breaks can last for 75 days.

Some foster carers are understandably reluctant to accept new children into their home if there is a risk they might have been exposed to Covid-19. But family contact is virtual, risk assessments completed and placements being made. Are these changes about future-proofing? Anticipating a future squeeze on an already struggling sufficiency?

There is merit in being able to continue to assess the suitability of prospective foster carers while waiting for GP health checks. Most of our members now ask applicants to complete health self-declarations and the medical adviser checks this and follows up with the applicant. Our members report that education checks are coming back more quickly than usual.

But I don’t think it’s safe in the vast majority of circumstances to approve a foster carer you’ve never met in their own home (this could be done by social distancing or with PPE, but that’s far from ideal). Or perhaps to place a child with them when their supervising social worker has not been able to visit them post-approval. How can you be sure about which children to match them with? How safe is this for some of society’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged children?

Worrying removal of independent review requirements

The removal of the requirement to have reviews for children in care every six months makes me nervous too. The effectiveness of independent reviewing officers (IROs) can vary, but our members often call on IROs when plans for children seem wrong.

Reviews can take place by video, and children are often more comfortable with this than adults. If necessary, they can be done with social distancing and, though far from ideal, in person with PPE – difficult but not impossible.

There is a case for fewer visits in between reviews if the child is settled and happy, but only if their social worker knows them well enough to be happy with this. And there’s an important role for the foster carer’s supervising social worker – they sometimes know the child better than their own social workers.

Finally, fostering services are no longer required to report infectious disease to Ofsted. The issue here is not Ofsted information requests, but local authorities consistently asking IFAs for variations of the same information. IFAs have many requests from multiple authorities. The information flow and sharing in fostering was already bureaucratic and inefficient. In the light of so many requests, removing this one makes little difference.

It’s time for some explanations

I’m confused by the children’s minister’s reference before the select committee to lower-risk areas on the one hand, but safeguarding coming first on the other. How can we know what is lower-risk for a child unless we keep in regular contact with them and have formal systems for capturing and checking this? How will we know if we don’t visit, hold reviews and panels, and make checks?

So, what was so persuasive about the case put to the government by Association of Directors of Children’s Services and Local Government Association? I can’t believe they would be asking to cut corners and place children in care at risk. And I’m not a great believer in conspiracy theories or master plans. Is this partly about using fewer IFA placements? IFAs that are 94% good or outstanding in their Ofsted judgments, proven to be cost-effective and like for like, delivered at a similar cost to local authorities’ own in-house services?

Like many others working in the sector, with their own different perspectives on this matter, I’d really welcome some explanation here.

Harvey Gallagher is the chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP)

One Response to We need answers on the government’s weakening of safeguards for children in care

  1. Emma Grover May 5, 2020 at 9:31 pm #

    Thank you for raising awareness about this situation. Disturbing. Can these measures be prevented before any damage is done? Will “The Association of Directors of children’s services and local government associations” accept responsibility when/if things go wrong?
    You are right to question this at a time when we see many safeguarding policies for our children being eliminated all for the current trend in “identity politics” and the recognition of “gender” a social construct over single sex safe spaces.