Foster carers feel ‘cut adrift’ by social workers when facing allegations

Over half of carers subject to allegations did not receive independent support, contrary to statutory guidance in England, finds Fostering Network research

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Foster carers feel “cut adrift” by social workers when facing allegations about their behaviour towards children in their care, Fostering Network research has found.

Carers felt they were assumed to be guilty, undervalued and ostracised from the team around the child, said the charity, in a report analysing findings from its 2021 State of the Nation Foster Care.

One in seven (14%) of the 3,352 respondents to the charity’s survey had faced an allegation in the past two years, and the network said the findings revealed investigation processes were not being followed properly.

For example, over half of carers subject to allegations did not receive independent support, contrary to statutory guidance and the national minimum standards in England, and recognised good practice UK-wide.

Disrupted placements 

Despite most allegations being unfounded, investigations led to disrupted placements for children – with one in five of those facing allegations having children removed, said the network. They also risked deepening foster carer shortages, found the network, as two-thirds of those who had experienced an allegation said they had considered resigning.

“We see a lack of information, protracted timescales and a lack of emotional support for foster carers, leaving them feeling abandoned and “guilty until proven innocent” with many leaving the workforce,” said the report.

“This is particularly challenging considering the national shortage of placement choice for children in care, and the majority of services across the UK failing to meet their recruitment targets.”

It added: “This gap between policy and practice must be closed and, in some cases, policy must go further to ensure we retain safe and loving homes for children in foster care.”

Allegations and how they should be handled

As defined by England’s national minimum standards (standard 22), an allegation is a claim that a carer has, or may have, harmed a child, possibly committed a criminal offence against or relating to the child or behaved towards a child in a way that indicates he or she is unsuitable to work with children.

The NMS and statutory guidance state that the fostering service should provide carers with support, independent of the service, including information and advice, emotional support and, if needed, mediation between the carer and service.

Carers must be given appropriate information about any allegation made against them, and must not be suspended automatically or without careful thought. Where allegations are clearly unfounded or malicious, they should be resolved within a week. It is expected that 80% of cases are resolved within a month, 90% within three months and all but exceptional cases within a year.

Allegations mostly unfounded

Ofsted figures show 2,600 allegations were made against foster carers in England in 2020-21, with 61% of these coming from foster children and the majority (53%) relating to physical abuse, both of these proportions being similar to previous years.

Just over half (54%) of all allegations resulted in an outcome of no further action, with 14% resulting in continued monitoring for the carer and 31% referred to the fostering panel for review, the latter being an increase on 26% in 2018-19.

Among respondents to the Fostering Network survey who had faced an allegation in the past two years, 61% said the most recent allegation was unfounded, with 22% saying it was unsubstantiated and just 3% substantiated.

In the instances where the children in foster care were removed, 78% of the allegations were deemed unfounded or unsubstantiated.

‘Cast adrift’

Foster carers reported that, once under investigation, they felt “cast adrift” by social workers and undervalued.

“It seemed that once an allegation was made, the foster carers, often despite lengthy and excellent track records, felt that they were assumed to be guilty and, in this sense, felt undervalued and ostracised from the team around the child,” said the report.

It wasn’t clear from foster carers’ responses whether they were referring to the child’s social worker or their supervising social worker. The wider survey found much more positive views about the latter than the former, with three-quarters rating the support they received from supervising social workers as excellent or good, compared with 45% who said the same about children’s social workers.

The Fostering Network said that, while there were some restrictions on information they could share with foster carers due to safeguarding procedures, supervising social workers should continue to support and visit carers under investigation, and potentially increase support if required.

“Supervising social workers should be sufficiently trained and skilled to provide appropriate support without withdrawing from the foster family,” said the charity.

Lack of communication and support

Only a quarter of foster carers who had experienced an allegation felt as though they were communicated with sufficiently during the investigation, whereas three in five said they were not.

Of those foster carers who had experienced an allegation in the past two years, 57% said they did not receive independent support, despite statutory guidance in England saying fostering services should provide this. Many more foster carers reported feeling inadequately supported, than reported feeling supported, the charity said.

Just over a third of foster carers said specified timescales for investigations were not adhered to, while 55% said timescales were not made clear to them. Ofsted found that half of all allegations were resolved within 21 days in 2020-21, but a quarter (26%) took over 50 working days. In England, the target is for 80% to be resolved within a month.

As well as two-thirds of those who had experienced an allegation saying they had considered resigning during an investigation, just 43% said they would recommend fostering to someone considering it, compared with 57% of carers who had not faced an allegation.

On the back of the report, the network said fostering services should ensure that their allegation policies and processes complied with national guidance, leading to best practice, including by providing carers with access to an independent support or mediation worker who would ensure that their rights were upheld throughout an investigation.

It also called for governments across the UK to conduct a thorough examination of the current approach to fostering allegations, to analyse existing policies and procedures and identify barriers to implementing national guidance.

‘We must do better’

In response to the report, the organisation representing independent fostering agencies said services “have to do better” in their response to allegations.

“Whilst the vast majority of allegations are found to be unproven, the process of investigation can be devastating for foster carers,” said Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers (NAFP). “Handled badly, children may feel they are at fault for breaking up their foster home and the sense of loss for carers can be palpable.”

“The best fostering agencies help their carers to access good support that is independent of their agency – that should be the norm,” he added. “What we don’t want is to drive away otherwise good foster carers because of how we manage allegations. And we don’t want carers to decline to accept some children with the greatest levels of trauma to live with them for fear of an allegation being made.”

On behalf of local authorities, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said it was “concerning”, in the light of the need for more foster carers, that some had considered resigning or would not recommend it to others because of their experience of receiving an allegation.

Removing child is ‘last resort’

Edwina Grant, chair of the ADCS’s health, care and additional needs policy committee, said councils had a responsibility to follow up allegations but that removing a child from a placement would be a “last resort”.

“Ignoring an allegation could lead to children being unsafe or to carers having false and unresolved allegations on their record. This does not mean an automatic disruption of a placement and needs to be sensitive and proportionate to the circumstances,” she added.

“We recognise that this can be a particularly difficult and distressing time for all involved, and we want children and foster carers to feel well supported while allegations are investigated, and an outcome is reached. Local authorities are not in the business of destabilising the lives of children in care, or foster carers.”

Currently, councils and IFAs commission independent support services for foster carers facing allegations, principally from the Fostering Network and FosterTalk.

‘Conflict of interest’ claim

Jane Collins, director of Foster Support, which also provides support for carers facing allegations but is not commissioned by fostering services, said the current system created a conflict of interest.

“That genuine independence has been missing,” she said. “If your contract is with the local authority or the independent fostering agency you’re not going to challenge them for a single foster carer.”

Foster Support charges carers what Collins said was a “small fee” to support them. Though carers can also be supported by purchasing individual membership of the Fostering Network or FosterTalk, Collins said the fact that these organisations tendered for contracts from fostering services undermined their ability to support carers independently.

In response, Ruth Willetts head of social work and development, FosterTalk, said: “We are committed to ensuring that the self-employed independent advisors we commission are highly trained, experienced, impartial, and sensitive to the emotional and practical needs of foster carers during what is a traumatic time. We seek to minimise the impact of this trauma on foster carers and their families to ensure unnecessary loss of foster carers to the sector, which is already severely under-resourced and facing a severe shortfall of foster carers in the near future.”

For the network, director of practice and Scotland Jacqueline Cassidy said: “Our services are commissioned by fostering services but they have no involvement in the process or the outcome. We have overwhelmingly positive feedback from those who have accessed the independent support service, which gives us confidence that they trust our approach and it is independent and effective.

She said the majority of its support team were social work qualified,  and all had extensive fostering experience and received supervision from a lead manager who was was independent of any local authority. 

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4 Responses to Foster carers feel ‘cut adrift’ by social workers when facing allegations

  1. Bethan May 5, 2022 at 6:56 pm #

    The process in Wales is very indiscrete and insensitive. My neighbours knew and posted on social media. Everyone up the school knew and staff openly talked about me. I received a death threat and suffered from anxiety and depression.

    • Debra Gibbs May 6, 2022 at 11:25 am #

      Foster Carers understand that if an allegation or complaint is made about the quality of their care, as a representative of the Fostering Service, there must be an investigation and that to gain best evidence, their SSW must be involved. They are therefore ‘cut adrift’. I have however always found Local Authorities very willing to support the process and share Review records for Carers response to Panel. It’s a fact of fostering which we can only prepare for.

  2. Debra Gibbs May 6, 2022 at 7:42 am #

    Please disassociate my company ‘Fostering Support’ established in 1999, from the comments of Ms Collins in the above article.
    Thank you Debra Gibbs (Director)

  3. Helen May 12, 2022 at 12:42 am #

    Standards of care and LADO are vital processes to ensure safety and vulnerable young people are protected.
    That’s the paramount concern.