There is an urgent need to improve practice around allegation investigations in foster care, a fostering charity has warned.
The Fostering Network says the impact of poor support and lengthy procedures causes foster families high levels of stress, many consider leaving the workforce, and children and young people who need foster care suffer as a result.
“Improving the allegations process in foster care is an urgent issue that needs to be tackled across the sector in order to reduce the damaging impact they have on children and foster carers,” says Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network. “Over the next few months, we will be sharing our findings with colleagues across the fostering sector and UK governments, in order to push for these improvements.”
According to the charity, 14 per cent of foster carers surveyed said they had experienced at least one allegation in the last two years. The majority of allegations are deemed unfounded meaning that there is sufficient evidence to disprove the allegation.
Yet foster carers face a lack of information, too little support, as well as long, stressful waits for resolutions. Of those foster carers who experienced an allegation in the last two years:
As a result, foster carers are experiencing high levels of stress. One foster carer reported that ‘it was a nightmare from start to finish’ and another recalled that they were ‘left in no man’s land, no one takes into account how much stress this puts you under’.
Furthermore, children in foster care may experience further disruption as a result of any allegations. Of the foster carer respondents who had experienced an allegation in the past two years, 22 per cent reported that children in foster care were removed from their homes during the investigation. In the instances where the children in foster care were removed, 78 per cent of the investigations were deemed unfounded or unsubstantiated.
The pressure of the allegations process can also force some foster carers to remove themselves from caring for new children and others decide to give up fostering altogether. Two-thirds of foster carer respondents considered resigning during their most recent investigation. One foster carer shared that: ‘although we were cleared by the police and went back to panel to be reinstated, we did this only to get our eldest child back. As soon as she is 18 we will resign’.
The impact of badly handled investigations into allegations is increasing the pressure on the fostering system at a time when there is a shortage of foster homes available with the right skills and expertise to care for all the children and young people who need them.
Kevin Williams said: “Foster carers play a vital role in supporting children and young people, and this report highlights yet again the need to treat foster carers as key members of the social care workforce. This includes being paid 52-weeks of the year for their time, skills and expertise providing them with financial security and with respect and support given as standard.
“To go through an allegation investigation is incredibly hard on the whole foster family, and we are determined to work with the sector to ensure they get the support they need when they are facing this process,” he added.
The Fostering Network makes recommendations for improving the allegations investigation process, including introducing a national register of foster carers, ensuring foster carers receive regular fee payments in line with the national living wage for a 40-hour week, offering foster carers support when returning to fostering following an allegation investigation and enabling foster carers access to confidential mental health support when experiencing an allegation, alongside what would be afforded their social work colleagues if in a similar situation.
However, the charity makes a key call to governments across the UK to conduct a ‘deep dive’ into allegation investigations in foster care similar to that completed by the Department for Education in England into allegations against teachers. The review should include analysis of current policies and processes, how they are working in practice and barriers to implementation of national guidance. It should also include the police and other agencies involved in allegation investigations to help develop a deeper understanding. Relevant government departments could look at influencing inspection bodies to complete this work. It is key that this review also looks at children’s experience of the allegations process.
Edwina Grant OBE, Chair of the ADCS Health, Care and Additional Needs Policy Committee, said: “Foster carers provide loving, stable homes for thousands of children in care, and they should be valued, supported, and listened to as a key part of the team around the child. Children’s rights and their voices must also be at the heart of all we do. Our need for more foster carers who are willing to care for the children currently in our care continues to grow, it is therefore concerning that some of the foster carers surveyed had thought about stopping fostering, or would not recommend fostering to others, because of their experiences of the allegation process.”
“There are cases where an allegation is made against a foster carer, and it is important to remember that a local authority has a responsibility to follow this up for the sake of the child and the carer. 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. 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; there might be occasions that a foster placement is disrupted because of an allegation, or in more serious cases a child is permanently removed from the carer, but this is a last resort,” she concluded.
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