Expert’s Corner with Philip King

Clare Jerrom speaks to Philip King about his views on the fostering stocktake

The recently published Fostering Stocktake appears to have divided opinion among the children’s services sector. While its thoroughness and spotlight on the foster care sector has been applauded by many, others have slammed some of the recommendations and even gone so far as to question whether some proposals breach the human rights of children and young people.

Expert in fostering and executive consultant at WillisPalmer Philip King, muses: “Overall my reaction to the stocktake is that it reflects a poor understanding of the complex elements of fostering and how they relate to each other. Additionally, some parts appear to have gone beyond the brief.”

“However, many of the suggestions around safe care, affection, delegation, peer support, allegations against foster carers – these are not new things but the fact that they have been highlighted reinforces the need to overcome some of the weaknesses in the system,” he added.

Phil has been in social work for nearly 40 years, focussing on working with children and families, although he has also undertaken specialist training in mental health and learning disability. He began his social work career in residential work, qualified in 1980 and practised as a social worker, before then moving into various management roles. In 1998, he co-founded an independent social work agency, ISWA, which merged with WillisPalmer in 2017 and Phil has remained as an Executive Consultant.

WillisPalmer, which has developed specific expertise in fostering, supported by a robust and dedicated quality assurance process, has a diverse team of around 300 qualified social workers who are able to provide a range of services including Fostering Assessments, Connected Person Assessments, Special Guardianship Assessments, Short-break Carer Assessments and Foster Carer Reviews.

Furthermore, the organisation also provides an end-to-end Foster Carer recruitment service which integrates with a local authority’s existing fostering service and manages the initial enquiry from foster carers, all the way through to presentation to Panel, including undertaking all relevant checks.

“The unique feature of WillisPalmer is that we are not an IFP or associated with one and therefore there is no conflict of interest,” explains Phil.

Being a foster carer is more than a job

Over the years, Phil has worked with many foster families and states that good foster carers need “the skills of a good, nurturing parent plus extra creativity, flexibility, resilience and advocacy - all wrapped up in a person who can give attuned care that responds to the needs of the child”.

He agrees with the stocktake’s statement that foster carers should not be seen as professionals alongside social workers, health workers and police. Indeed, the stocktake states: “Frankly, often the last thing we need is for foster carers to be dispassionate. We need them to get emotionally involved, we want them to be subjective, we want them to fiercely advocate for the child or children in their care. Because that is what parents do. Foster carers are not professionals. But - and this is crucial - they must be treated professionally.”

Phil agrees, adding that, to quote one foster carer who gave evidence to the review “being a foster carer is more than a job, it’s a way of life”. He says it is absolutely right that foster carers are treated professionally and involved in reviews, care plans and are only excluded from any meeting about their foster child in exceptional circumstances.

He also thinks it is important that foster carers should increasingly be participating in training courses where other child protection professionals are present “as it would increase understanding of each other’s roles and professionals would learn from what foster carers have to say,” he explained.

Some IRO’s have not made a lot of difference

The stocktake suggests local authorities should be able to do away with the role of Independent Reviewing Officers – a recommendation that has been highly criticised not least by the children’s commissioner for England - Anne Longfield who said that while she welcomed many of the report’s recommendations, she did not support the proposal to remove Independent Reviewing Officers. “We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child’s situation that needs help to resolve,” she said.

Phil has “mixed feelings” on this proposal as in many ways the existence of IRO’s is about plugging a gap that shouldn’t be there. He warns that IRO’s “are not independent and never have been” and he says he has had experience of IROs “sorting out drift and poor care planning” yet in other scenarios IROs have “not made a lot of difference”. He says the way to overcome this situation is by social workers having “manageable caseloads with good team managers providing reflective supervision and support in difficult cases, enabling better case management”.

In terms of the stocktake’s recommendation that “local authorities should not presume that keeping groups together is in the interests of all children in that group,” Phil’s view is that placing siblings together should be the “default position”. He stresses that the sibling relationship is “so important and probably the longest relationship we have in our lives” and even when highly skilled assessors suggest that siblings should not be placed together and “staying together would have an adverse effect on one or all siblings,” then the separation should initially be temporary and reviewed. Phil’s concerns reiterate warnings from a coalition of experts who said the “radical” proposal “flies in the face of established childcare practice and law. It implicitly dismisses decades of testimony from children in care and care leavers”.

“It would require a change to the Children Act 1989, which we do not believe would be compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” the coalition, which comprises organisations such as BASW, Association of Professors of Social Work, UNISON and The Care Leavers’ Association warned.

In a letter to the children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi, the coalition added that five of the stocktake’s 36 recommendations could “greatly weaken the legal protections enjoyed by our country’s most vulnerable children and young people”.

Under-estimating long-term fostering

Phil says the coalition are right and said the areas that caused him concern were recommendation six which states that a single social worker should be given the task of supervising foster carers and discharging the local authority’s duties to children in long-term foster placements. He said the decision around this should be taken on a case by case basis. Furthermore, the stocktake’s definition of achieving permanence in terms of adoption or Special Guardianship Orders “underestimates the benefits of long-term fostering as adoption and SGO’s are not right for all children,” added Phil.

The stocktake recommends a national register of foster carers which would hold details of their fostering agency; the date of their approval as carers; where they live; the number of beds and bedrooms in their home; the number of vacancies for children; personal characteristics (age, gender, ethnicity, religion and language) and their level of training and expertise. “Such a register would provide vital information which could improve recruitment,” it explained adding that such a register could also “provide a vacancy management system and radically improve matching”.

Phil welcomes the idea of a national register in order to identify the stock of foster carers. “As for something that would act as a vacancy management system, this is a good idea in theory, but I struggle to see how this would work in practice”.

“Databases are only good if they are kept live and up-to-date. Local authorities struggle to keep their own databases up-to-date. And given the history of nationally run databases, I can’t see it working. The register is a good idea though,” adds Phil.

All children in care have complex needs

While the Fostering Network has cited a national shortage of almost 6,000 foster carers in England, the stocktake concluded that “there is not an absolute shortage. The overwhelming majority of children needing a fostering placement on any one day are placed. Indeed, at any one time, there are about 16,000 fostering households without a child living with them”.

However, the stocktake acknowledges that the shortages are down to geography or the availability of carers who can look after more challenging children. “This means that, too often, matches are made between carers and children that are not ideal and, after a short period, the child has to be moved again.”

Phil believes that often social workers lack choice when it comes to placing children with complex needs, explaining that “all children in care tend to have complex needs” and social workers need choice to make the right placement.

No magic bullet

The stocktake describes the recruitment practice in many local authorities as “a little old fashioned with many local authorities continuing to use traditional recruitment techniques sometimes confined to print, billboard and bus advertising”. Phil says that this is not something he has experienced with the many local authorities with which WillisPalmer works and many use more modern recruitment techniques including social media. “Most local authorities know what motivates foster carers to foster and many use this in their recruitment material and use foster carers as recruiters too.”

“Anyone in fostering will tell you there is no magic bullet when it comes to recruiting and a mix of methods are needed – the traditional ones as well as more innovative ways. It is important to note that many foster carers get frustrated that the fostering pages often are lost within the huge corporate local authority websites whereas, for IFA’s, foster carers can go straight to the page,” said Phil.

He highlighted the point the stocktake makes that more can be done to encourage those who make an often tentative first enquiry to apply to become foster carers. “On average it can take foster carers two years from initially thinking about fostering to making their first enquiry. They are often nervous and don’t want to be put through to a voice mail or get no response,” he says.

Phil agrees that it is “absolutely essential” that local authorities combine their recruitment efforts through greater regional cooperation which could concentrate marketing expertise, and make better use of marketing budgets. The London Boroughs with tight geographical areas and foster carers working across boundaries are ideally placed to work together to recruit, he adds.

Tipped the balance

The fostering stocktake report highlights that while it heard ‘grave concerns’ about the retention of foster carers, there was little evidence to back this claim, with many foster carers ending their fostering career at retirement age.

“The suggestion for exit interviews for foster carers is a good one as it will provide clearer data to think about,” says Phil. “I think the reasons for foster carers leaving are multi-faceted, it may be age related or it could be something that has just tipped the balance and carrying out exit interviews will help us to understand these reasons better.”

“There are also other ways that we can use the considerable skills of foster carers who have decided that they don’t want to foster 24/7. We could utilise their skills as a support foster carer so they don’t have the daily responsibility of fostering, but they are not finishing completely and their skills continue to be utilised.”

Recent figures published by Ofsted show that the number of care leavers utilising the 'Staying Put' initiative reduced significantly last year. In 2015-16, 2,190 young people stayed with foster parents after turning 18. However this fell to 1,570 young people in 2016-17, Ofsted said. In 2015-16, 54% of foster children were supported to stay with their carers whereas this was 46% of foster carers in 2016-17.

The Education Select Committee report on fostering states that many young people are missing out on the staying put opportunity due to a lack of clarity and consistency around its implementation.

Phil says it is unclear why the take up has fallen, although recognises that if foster carers have young people in a ‘Staying Put’ placement, it reduces the number of foster placements, and when the number of foster placements are short anyway, that could be a contributory factor. “There should be a variety of options between Staying Put and placing a care leaver in a flat or B&B, we need some creative initiatives,” said Phil.

Gross failure in social work practice

Recent research Our Lives, Our Care by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol found that while most children and young people had an understanding of why they had been taken into care, a third of four to seven-year-olds were unclear and confused. Phil said the impact of this on young people is “enormous and could cause all sorts of potentially disruptive behaviour both in a foster home and when the child is in contact with birth parents as the child will not understand what’s going on.

“No child should be in care and not know why; they should have the reasons explained age-appropriately and where this does not take place, it is a gross failure in social work practice,” said Phil. “With that age group, it takes more time, understanding and skill to help that child to understand why they are in care in an age-appropriate way.”

“Rather than designing new forms and tick boxes, we need to go back to basics with social workers having manageable case-loads and supervised by good team managers which then provides the climate to allow best practice,” Phil concluded.

Foster Care in England
A Review for the Department for Education by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers

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