By Andrea Warman
Over the past 15 months, in completely new and unexpected circumstances, we have all done the best we could to keep on assessing and approving the foster carers and special guardians who are so badly needed.
However, as restrictions begin to lift, some local authorities and independent fostering agencies are emphasising the positives of virtual ways of working, arguing that we have managed to complete assessments this way, saving time and money, and that our fostering panels have been able to adapt and introduce processes which some chairs, members, applicants and carers are apparently more comfortable with. Many now say they will not return to the way things were done before, and instead introduce ‘hybrid’ models, with much more virtual practice than in the past.
Yet, the experience of supervising and doing these assessments, as well as chairing fostering panels, leads me to ask whether we are really considering the things we have lost by working in this way?
My most recent direct involvement in the assessment of foster carers and special guardians, largely online, has raised some serious concerns. Not only do you miss getting a sense of a person and their home from being in it, but there are very personal and challenging areas to be covered in this work.
Can we fully discuss an individual’s life experiences, losses and challenges over a screen?”
Can we comfort them, or deal with any impact of what we have opened up? Can we honestly say we are able to build the relationship of trust required to do this well, and to help applicants truly understand what taking on these roles will involve?
I have my doubts about all of these things, so I’m not surprised that some agencies and services are now introducing a new set of processes to explore applicants’ capacity to meet the needs of children after they have been approved. These include further assessment work completed by the agency that considers how the applicants would manage children’s behaviours, and what they feel able to cope with, or not.
While this work is clearly a very important part of making decisions about any applicant’s capacity, it should be a key part of a good assessment. So identifying this gap suggests to me that the original report did not provide the necessary depth or analysis. And, my previous worries about how far assessors reflect on the stories they are told by applicants, as well as the way they edit and present them in their reports, are heightened when this largely takes place from their home, with much more limited opportunities to be challenged through discussion with peers, or good quality supervision.
What is lost in virtual panels
I know many colleagues agree with me about this, but I’m just as concerned about the limitations of virtual fostering panels. Not so long ago we were fighting to retain these meetings, arguing that an independent, multi-disciplinary view of potential applicants is vital for good practice, but above all to ensure best outcomes for children.
Moving panels online has been challenging for most chairs because you lose the ‘flow’, the flexibility to adapt to the unexpected, or the ability to manage any issues that arise in the much more nuanced and subtle way that is possible in person.
But most important for me is that the whole value and joy of a good panel is bringing together a diverse group of people whose own assumptions and bias can be challenged by other members. This allows for a more open and transparent approach to making our recommendations and can lead to innovative and creative practice. I have learned more about what makes a good carer by meeting and listening to those who do it well over the years at panel, and equally, I have been made to think again about my views through discussions with a panel colleague who has direct experience of being in care.
By contrast, virtual panels, where chairs receive all questions in advance, and even in some cases edit and ask them all, not only makes the meetings very different, but also makes me question how independent and fair are the decisions that are currently being made.
As we continue to hope that our lives will return to some kind of normal, of course there are things we have learned over this time which should shape how we assess and approve carers going forward. But I hope that we will make time to pause, reflect and discuss before following each other down the ‘hybrid’ path; not least to consider honestly whether as social workers we can really do what we do best without the personal interaction and use of self that our whole profession is built upon.
Andrea Warman is an independent consultant who chairs fostering panel, and was previously fostering development consultant for the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF)