By Clare Seth, kinship care consultant, CoramBAAF
The tragic death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 marked a turning point for child protection in the UK. Eight-year-old Victoria was murdered by her great aunt and her partner, with whom she was living in a private fostering arrangement. Despite being known to several agencies, there was no monitoring of this arrangement.
The subsequent Laming Report prompted a strengthening of the legal framework around private fostering.
However, we and others in the sector are concerned that private fostering arrangements are significantly underreported to the authorities and that there are still many potentially vulnerable children under the radar of children’s services.
Private fostering arrangements are those made between parents and carers for the care of a child (until age 16, or 18 if disabled) for 28 days or more, without the involvement of the local authority. Parents retain parental responsibility for the child.
There are many reasons for a child to live with private foster carers including their parents being abroad, difficulties at home or living with a host family while attending a language school.
The private fostering legal framework
The Children (Private Fostering) Arrangements Regulations 2005 require private foster carers and those with parental responsibility to inform the local authority of a proposed or actual arrangement.
Carers must also provide information on matters such as offences they have committed and any disqualification or prohibition on them fostering privately (under sections 68 and 69 of the Children Act 1989).
These notifications trigger duties on councils to assess the suitability of the existing or proposed arrangements, in line with their responsibility to ensure children’s welfare is being, or will be, satisfactorily safeguarded (section 67, Children Act 1989).
At the same time, councils must promote public awareness of private fostering notification requirements (schedule 8 of the Children Act 1989).
National Minimum Standards for private fostering further stress that all professionals (including those in health and education) have a responsibility to notify the local authority of a private fostering arrangement.
Government data collection of notified private fostering arrangements stopped in 2015 although local authorities do keep figures of them. Ofsted’s oversight through local authority inspection ensures monitoring of private fostering.
However, this data and oversight relates only to notified arrangements. We believe that there is not enough awareness of the legal requirement to notify and that there may be considerable underreporting.
Often, local authorities find out about private fostering from other practitioners, sometimes after the arrangement was established.
This means that there is a ‘hidden’ group of potentially vulnerable children living in private fostering arrangements, who must remain a concern for all those working with children.
Also, while the regulations are straightforward, there can be misunderstanding about what constitutes a private fostering arrangement.
Misunderstandings about private fostering
Schedule 8 of the Children Act 1989 states that a child is not privately fostered if living with a relative who has assumed responsibility for their care. So, if a child is living with their grandparent and their partner, with no local authority involvement, this is an informal kinship arrangement.
However, if the grandparent dies, this becomes a private fostering arrangement, as the grandparent and their partner were not married. The family may not be aware of the need to notify the local authority of this change in circumstances, and would miss out on the council’s advice and support, including around legal orders to secure permanence for the child.
All professionals should be alert to vulnerable children and young people. A change in carer and circumstances, being collected from school by someone new or a child being unsure about who they’re living with could all be signs of a private fostering arrangement.
Teenagers who are sofa surfing may be at more risk of exploitation. Due to lack of awareness, some workers may not appreciate that a child is privately fostered, and this may lead to a lack of oversight and services for a vulnerable child.
Whilst it is a private arrangement, the local authority has a duty to ensure that the child’s needs are met, and that the plans for the child are reviewed regularly.
Issues with parental consent
Parental consent can also be a problematic. Parents and carers with parental responsibility must be included in the assessment process, wherever possible. There are occasions however, when a parent cannot be contacted or does not give their consent to the private fostering arrangement, such as when teenagers go to live with a family friend.
The local authority has a duty to ascertain whether the private fostering arrangement is suitable and may need to take legal steps to secure parental responsibility if their parent is not involved.
Private foster carers need to understand the responsibility they are committing to. Without support, some private foster carers may not have an adequate understanding of the emotional impact of the disruption, loss and trauma a child may have experienced as a result of separation from their family.
On occasion, the child may have cultural and identity needs that may not be met. Indeed, without notification, local authorities are not able to check whether they are suitable carers. Children also need to be aware that they can speak freely to a social worker about their arrangement.
Local authorities need to be able to fulfil their statutory duties to children, but they can only do this if they are notified about private fostering arrangements. There is also the wider issue of ensuring consistent practices across local authorities.
CoramBAAF is holding a Private Fostering Awareness Day on 8 November to raise awareness about private fostering, and also inform and encourage local authorities to bring greater attention to this important area of practice and these often unidentified children.
There will be a series of events providing the opportunity to hear promising practice from several local authorities and a chance to pose questions to a panel, including our legal consultant and a senior inspector from Ofsted.