Foster care matching needs more resource to tackle the “crisis atmosphere” of many placement decisions, research has recommended.
What Works for Children’s Social Care said increased funding was needed to enable social workers to “enact” the National Minimum Standard (NMS) on matching (standard 15). This requires a placement match to meet a child’s needs and be consistent with their wishes and feelings, and for foster carers to be provided with all the appropriate information about a child.
The WWCSC’s systematic review of existing research found matches were often made in a hurry, based on placement availability rather than the child’s needs, and with child and carer receiving little information about each other before the child arrives at the foster home.
The report contrasted fostering with adoption matching, which was better resourced, based on “more established” processes and involved more child-centred practice.
Need for child-centred practice
Increased funding should be used to make foster care similarly child-centric and reduce the “devastating effects” of the “sudden shifts of household” that children could experience if this type of consultative work didn’t take place, the researchers concluded.
The report said more money in this part of the system should allow social workers to prioritise “reflective practice on the complexity of [children’s] identities and needs”. It would enable them to have more discussion with children and young people, arrange visits where possible and involve birth families more in decisions.
“Greater resources should also go into the creation of more efficient and better systems for matching…and into the recruitment of more foster carers so that there are greater choices for a match, even within a short space of time,” the review continued.
It suggested creating national databases would also allow foster carers to proactively search for children.
The reviewers found that while “rushed decision-making is inevitable in some cases”, because a child urgently needs somewhere to stay, children and foster carers viewed it as leading to negative outcomes, including placement breakdown.
“Even within this environment [where placements need to be made quickly], they felt that social work professionals should attempt to share as much information as possible in advance of the move to help foster carers and children prepare for the transition and make it easier for them to settle into new foster homes,” the researchers concluded.
The studies reviewed indicated that social workers did not often involve birth parents in matching decisions or the transition to the new home, “but where done appropriately, this may help children and young people to settle”.
‘What is important to the child’
Recommendations about greater consultation with children included discussing which aspects of their identity, wishes, for example round location or being with siblings – and care needs were most important to them in matching.
“If the social worker could talk more to the children about what is important to them, they might be surprised that it is something that we may consider quite low down on the wish list. What we think is important to the child probably is not the most important thing in their life.” (Fostering agency representative, quoted from a 2020 study)
The report cited examples where difficulties and placement disruptions could have been avoided if children had been involved and able to share, for example, that they didn’t want to stay in a household with a dog, or with a large family
A number of the studies found social workers often prioritised matching by ethnicity and culture and spoke about the ‘need’ for or ‘shortage of” carers from particular ethnic groups. The review noted cases that showed how foster carers from the same or similar cultural or ethnic background could “readily meet certain needs that a young person may have, particularly around positive identity development, feeling at home, access to familiar food or religious practices”.
Placing children from similar cultural or linguistic backgrounds with the same foster family could also could help them feel more at home and settled.
Need for intersectional focus
However, researchers said an understanding of intersectionality – that people have multiple identities, such as race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion or language, that “create overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage” – was key to child-centred work and moving away from matching as a “tick-box decision-making exercise”.
The report recommended that social workers “should reflect on the importance and complexity of identity and needs and how they shift over time”.
The review found that social class in particular was less likely to be discussed with children and called for its role in matching to be researched further.
‘Co-constructing’ a family
Researchers noted that during a move, “the importance of a child or young person understanding the culture of the new household and house rules was often emphasised, rather than the co-construction of a household together”.
They suggested that the concept of “co-constructing” a family –focused on shared experience, adapting existing structures and embracing a child’s culture, religion and likes – could be relevant for foster carer training and supervision.
Studies they reviewed had found this was particularly important for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
The report also recommended that social workers should involve other children in the foster carer’s household as well as the carers in the decision-making process where appropriate.