Councils should lose responsibility for children in care to national service, says fostering charity

TACT urges care review to recommend creation of 'National Care Family' to deliver children in care and care leaver services

Andy Elvin, chief executive, TACT
Andy Elvin, chief executive, TACT

Local authorities should cede responsibility for children in care to a new national service, a fostering charity has argued in its submission to the care review.

TACT urged the review to recommend the creation of a National Care Family (NCF) to take over fostering, adoption, and kinship, residential and secure care provision, and also provide lifetime support services for care leavers.

TACT’s chief executive, Andy Elvin, said such a service would do a better job of supporting looked-after children – and their carers – because they would be its sole focus and it would not be “distracted” by child protection responsibilities.

However, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) warned that TACT’s proposals would create “very significant disruption with few guarantees of improved outcomes for children”.

TACT’s call follows the creation of regional adoption agencies to deliver adoption services previously run by local authorities and government plans to deliver some on a national basis.

In its case for change, published in June, the care review said that there was “insufficient national coordination” of children’s social care services.

In a blog post last week, care review lead Josh MacAlister flagged the advantages of  running more services on a regional or national basis to “address wide and concerning variation in decision making”. However, he warned that stripping councils of responsibilities would be disruptive.

‘Shift responsibility from local authorities’

Under TACT’s proposals, local authorities would retain responsibility for family support services and child protection, but the NCF would take over once a child entered care.

The proposed service would also take over responsibility for children who returned to their birth parents from care and the secure youth justice estate. It would also have its own dedicated health service, providing emotional and wellbeing support to help children recover from trauma.

In the paper setting out the proposals, TACT said the NCF would “not be a corporate parent” but would instead support the adults who cared for the children in its care.  In an interview with Community Care after its launch, chief executive Andy Elvin clarified that the service would have legal responsibility for children in its care, but it would delegate authority “properly”.

“The people directly caring for the child need to have the power to make day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month decisions about the child’s life because then the child can be involved in those decisions,” he said.

TACT proposed that each child assigned to the NCF would have a designated social worker. This would not apply to care leavers using NCF services, but they would be able to access support “for the rest of their life”.

The charity suggested the creation of a “care bank”, an idea first proposed by Children England, to fund the services covered by the NCF including fostering, residential fees and special guardianship orders, using money raised through income tax. It said this would safeguard funds to support children in care in their best interests and stressed the NCF would not make use of for-profit fostering agencies or children’s homes or engage locum social workers because of the “egregious” margins charged by agencies.

Councils’ focus on child protection 

Elvin said local authorities’ management attention currently focused on child protection at the expense of other services because “that’s where the risk is”.

“The fostering teams, the adoption teams and so on – they are not the best supported, best managed, best motivated parts of children’s services at pretty much every local authority you go into,” he said.

“Whereas if you have a service where this is what you did – your people are adopters, they are foster carers, they are kinship carers, they are the social workers and other professionals who support them – if that is your sole focus, you are going to do it better because you are not distracted by the child protection side.”

While TACT’s proposals would not split family support and child protection services apart – an idea being considered by the care review – Elvin said they could help to relieve some of the tension described by the care review when children returned from care to their birth parents.

“I think it would solve that tension for children going back home after a period of care, because they’d stay within the supported service,” he said. “If you are a social worker going on a support visit, it is very different from going out on a child protection investigation.”

But Elvin stressed that a lot of local authorities do family support alongside child protection “quite well”.

 ‘Unacceptable levels of risk’

ADCS president Charlotte Ramsden said TACT’s proposals would create “very significant disruption with few guarantees of improved outcomes for children” and warned than such structural reforms could even worsen children’s services.

“Nationalising 152 local care services and dividing other key services, such as health provision into two sections, would require the creation of new laws as well as the wholesale transfer of records, systems and staff, the tearing up established guidance and ways of working as well as the severing of democratic links with local communities,” she said.

“The separation of care from family support and child protection work in local authorities plus the creation of other agencies to oversee independent reviewing officer functions, the purchasing of care placements and a network of new local advisory boards risks more siloed working and confusion, not less.

“We are ambitious for children and open to reform, but we should learn from the failed reforms of probation services and the NHS.

“This does not seem like the best use of either energy and resources at this time and carries unacceptable levels of risk.”

Carolyne Willow, director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said foster carers being granted parental responsibility would have “huge implications for birth parents” and could be a “significant departure from the Children Act 1989’s partnership principle”.

“The test for me of any proposal is always what might this give to children and young people, and the extent to which it could fulfil their rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and that of course includes their fundamental right to family life,” she said.

Care review’s three dilemmas

MacAlister expressed the review’s mixed feelings towards taking some children’s services out of the hands of local authorities in his blog.

“Doing parts of children’s social care nationally or regionally could address wide and concerning variation in decision making, how children and families are supported and the services they have access to,” he said.

But he said: “Reorganising services from local authorities could have unintended consequences for other important services, such as the housing that care leavers might need or access to special educational needs support.”

MacAlister also said that his review had heard warnings in response to his initial ‘case for change’ proposals against separating local authorities’ work to help families and offer protection.

He had asked in the case for change document whether a system which undertakes both support for families and child protection was “impeded in its ability to do both well”.

Organisations including ADCS expressed “significant concern” at the document’s question, warning that the two services were part of the same “continuum”.

MacAlister appeared to have softened his stance in his blog, noting “concerning examples from other public services – such as probation reforms – where high risk work was unsuccessfully separated out”.

He also said the review was struggling to solve its belief that children’s social work had become too bureaucratic and not focused enough on direct work with families.

“Removing duties, guidance or prescription in a system with wide inconsistency and underlying performance issues could be unsafe for children,” he said.

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11 Responses to Councils should lose responsibility for children in care to national service, says fostering charity

  1. Debra Gibbs September 21, 2021 at 3:47 pm #

    We are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater (to coin a phrase)
    Lead Members, (Councillors with responsibility for Social Care and Education) struggle to keep up with the excellent, lengthy, numerous reports available to them its true. Lead Members also need regular opportunities to hear directly from the Parents and Carers of Social Care Experienced Children and Young People and the young people themselves (LGA research report F/SR268) Slough: NFER). The conversation would change dramatically if we assisted in these two key areas and Social Care Experienced Children and Young People were afforded the consideration and valued as part of the constituency within which they live.

  2. Ray Jones September 22, 2021 at 10:35 am #

    I agree with you Debra. What is proposed by Mr Elvin is more fragmentation and more centralisation within children’s social care. Children move in and out of care, care can be a shared resource for families, and to separate care services from local family support and child protection will leave children, young people and families having the distress and difficulty of having more disruption and more churn, change and complexity in their lives. The proposal from Mr Elvin may seem to offer growth opportunities for independent foster and residential care companies to expand as local authorities would no longer be allowed to provide local care services. But it has every danger of even more children being moved considerable distances away from their families and communities within a national network of independent care providers. The carefully created safeguards for children in care would be abandoned with decision making about children outsourced to the foster and residential carers within the independent agencies. And what when children and young people are in disagreement or conflict with their immediate carers or, even worse, are intimidated by them? Oversight, accountability and responsibility would be more opaque with distant leadership and management of the care services. How about instead reversing the cuts and damage done to children’s social services over the past decade, rebuilding and reinvigorating local help and care within their communities for children and families, and reflecting that this would be even more of a radical and positive proposal than adding fuel to the government’s script that locally provided and led public services should be scrapped.

  3. Ms Yoni B Ejo September 22, 2021 at 2:51 pm #

    I think that would be an absolute disaster. Nonlocal knowledge, no flexibility and which national service is excellent or outstanding. I can’t think of one?

    Also would inevitably not address difference or diversity sufficiently. The reason childs services are failing is too much political meddling and lack of funding.

  4. adarynefoedd September 22, 2021 at 6:51 pm #

    Wont repeat the excellent comments of Ray Jones. One of the lessons of the pandemic is the importance of local networks to deliver services – arguably many LAs are far too detached from local communities (where foster carers, adopters, kinship carers, birth families, child minders all live) and the need to promote community based social work again. I am old enough to remember regional provider led planning – children shipped all over the place – whereas for most families the source as well as the solution to their difficulties lies in local relationships and networks. Democratic accountability is also sadly lacking in these proposals.

  5. Julie Wilkes September 23, 2021 at 8:06 pm #

    OK but a huge factor is the ‘postcode lottery’. How is the current system intending to address that? Plus the fact that many local authorities are practising in ways the Ombudsman often calls out as barely legal? Local democracy is not always all its cracked up to be, and the Chlldren Act leaves far too much to local discretion. Fix the current system to deliver fair services across the country or face up to regional/national alternatives.

  6. Chris September 24, 2021 at 9:12 am #

    I totally agree that he best way to improve care experiences is to create a new centralised bureaucracy headed by TACT, perhaps led by a modestly paid CEO on £190,000, until a new idea comes along or this proves to be the replacement ossiffied mess. Childrens lives are for career building and MBE chasing after all aren’t they?

  7. Martin Birch September 24, 2021 at 12:41 pm #

    I would suggest by the comments made by Mr Elvin, that he neither understands how a Children’s Service works or indeed the focus of leaders and workers employed in such.

  8. Alwyn September 25, 2021 at 1:20 pm #

    If understanding before commenting and making a roposal is the desired benchmark, social work leaders really are frighteningly out of their depths.

  9. Elizabeth Blake September 25, 2021 at 1:39 pm #

    The local authorities are not perfect but how will a centralised system overcome the problem of lack of foster carers, which is the real issue? Rather than searching desperately for solutions to this by centralising the service money and effort should be put into supporting families so there are not so many children taken into care. Unfortunately local authorities seem to view the number of children taken into care as a measure of success. But the success would be if they were able to stay with their family. The idea of ‘lifetime support’ is worrying. It could lead to labelling of people who may want a fresh start. Care leavers should not have to carry the past with them or be defined by what others have done. Those support services should be available to anyone regardless of past experiences anyway. I wonder how much care leavers themselves have been asked about this proposal.

  10. John Simpson September 26, 2021 at 9:15 pm #

    Andy did such a great job with Peterborough City Council permanency service that’s it’s not surprise that his lofty ambitions are now focused on world domination…… Sadly, Andy has yet to tell us all how much money was splurged on that car crash so perhaps he isn’t best place to take over anything larger than a welk stall.

    It’s disappointing that Community Care will seemingly publish any old nonsense as long as Andy has penned it. TACT appears to be a failing charity (income and placement are down! It’s in your annual report), so it might not be the best choice a government could make to improve children’s’ outcomes??

    Can wait for the next instalment of Andy’s (not so) bright ideas………

  11. Keith September 27, 2021 at 3:58 pm #

    It seems failure is never an impediment for self promotion.