The Department for Education cannot show it is meeting its objectives for children in foster and residential care. That was the worrying conclusion from the National Audit Office report on children in care. The consequences of this are poorer care for children and a greater cost. There were also concerns about getting foster and adoption placements right first time.
It was this issue which caught my attention, as this is the problem from which many others stem. Multiple placements and placement instability are toxic to children’s wellbeing and their long term welfare.
In Scotland, the Adolescent and Children’s Trust’s (Tact’s) recent children’s survey showed that 100% of its children met their foster carers before moving in with them. In England, the figure is 57%. Whenever possible, children should have a choice of care placement and the opportunity to meet carers before a placement is agreed. This is consistently the message we receive from young people placed with Tact.
Much has been made of the need for parallel planning for adoption, where several care plans are made at once in case the potential adoption falls through. The same should be true of foster care. Very rarely are placements truly emergencies in that the need for the child to come into care was not foreseen or the placement breakdown not apparent.
However, our experience at Tact is that insufficient planning too often limits the choice of placement for the child in these circumstances. It is vital that social workers involve fostering teams early in cases where children are likely to come into care or if a placement is facing significant issues. By doing this, a choice of placements can be identified and the young person can be involved in the choice of placement. Of course, there are genuine emergencies where a child’s need to come into care could not have been foreseen. In these circumstances, a strong emergency foster carers list is crucial.
Identifying a placement that meets the child’s need, that the child has been involved in choosing and where he or she has met the carers is the way to achieve lasting placements. All too often these decisions are hurried, last-minute and not sufficiently thought through. Constraints on social workers such as high caseloads, poor supervision and underfunding are major contributory factors. But good placement decisions not only save time and money; in the long term, they improve outcomes and transform children’s lives.
More detailed analysis of the NAO report shows where the principal concerns lie. One issue that has a huge impact on children in care is quality and suitability of placement. The report says “local authorities often base decisions on children’s placements on short-term affordability rather than on plans to best meet the child’s needs”. Short-term financial thinking is a key weakness of the local government funding model and a direct result of how children’s social care is funded by the education department. Poor placement results in breakdown, and the report shows that 34% of children had more than one placement in the previous year; 11% had three or more moves. Short-term, cost-based decisions greatly affect placement success, stability and, ultimately, the life chances of the child. As the report points out, 34% of care leavers are not in education, employment or training (Neet) at age 19 (compared with 15.5% of all 19-year-olds). The estimated cost of a young person being Neet is £56,000 a year.
More needs to be done to ensure that children in care have the best possible chance of successful and stable placements, helping them towards success after leaving care.
There is often a wide gap between policy and practice. Tact social workers frequently express concerns that in areas such as delegated authority, the use of special guardianship orders and placement decisions, local authorities are frequently making decisions that are not in line with central policy, practice or guidance. The DfE could choose to measure some key indicators of good practice and tie Ofsted ratings firmly to placement stability and quality of care.
Good practice models are available and can be found in many local authorities. This is where duty, family support and looked after children teams work closely with fostering and access to resource teams, involving them early when there is a chance a child will be entering care or moving placements . They are involving the child in their placement choice and not prioritising a short-term financial imperative over a choice that will potentially affect a child’s future. These are the key good practice touchstones.
As the report points out, without action the cost not only to the public purse but, vitally, to the long-term welfare of children placed in care is far greater than any short-term saving.
Good foster care can alter the course of a child’s life but placements must be properly planned and supported.
The alternative is more young people, like this young person we surveyed, for whom this is the response to yet another placement move:
“No, I didn’t meet my new carer before moving. It was an emergency placement. I didn’t mind as I’m used to it.”