Special report: Fostering stocktake calls for register of foster carers
A national fostering stocktake has urged a national register of foster carers to be established.
The independent review, carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers, said there is ‘merit’ in developing a national register of foster carers to better match parents and children.
“We believe there is merit in developing a national register of foster carers so that matching can be informed by up to date information about carers’ experience, skills and availability,” said the report.
The stocktake refuted claims of a national shortage of foster carers saying that at any one time there are 16,000 fostering households without a child living there. However, the shortages are down to geography or the availability of carers who can look after more challenging children which 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”.
Undeservedly poor reputation
The report outlines that on 31 March 2017 there were 53,420 children in foster care and during that year there were about 78,000 placements (as some children changed foster home). Most of the children in care in England, and most of those fostered, are there because they have suffered abuse or neglect, about 65%. A further 15% are in care as a result of family dysfunction.
The vast majority of children in care – about 75% – are fostered, and local authorities spend £1.70 billion during 2016-17 in doing so.
The report highlights how the care system as a whole often receives an “undeservedly poor reputation” whereas fostering is, in fact, a success story as many children enter care with serious problems yet their welfare improves after entering care.
The reputation often stems from the fact that children in care do not perform as well educationally as children not in care, with only 6 per cent of care leavers attending university compared to half the general population. The comparison is, however, unfair considering the awful abuse and neglect some children have experienced prior to entering care and given the fact that children in care are four times more likely to have special educational needs than the general population.
While the educational achievement of children in care can be improved, “the care system’s reputation as failing children educationally is not deserved”.
Children in care felt safer than the general population
Children’s views on fostering and the fostering system are “remarkably positive,” the report finds. However, children and care leavers told researchers that they think their voice too often goes unheard and they are made to feel different to other children, both at home and in school.
The stocktake found more looked after children than in the general population disliked their appearance, feared bullying and had reduced access to the internet. However:
- More than three quarters of children trusted their carer and only 5% did not.
- 97% of children said they had a trusted adult in their lives.
- 89% said they liked school (most of the time).
- More than 80% felt involved in decisions made about them by their social worker.
- More than 80% felt settled in their placements.
- 83% of children thought their lives were getting better in care and,
- A larger proportion of children in care than in the general population always felt safe.
Commissioning needs to improve
The report rejects the notion that foster carers should be treated as professionals and does not advocate carers becoming employees of either their local authority or their fostering agency. Yet foster carers do need to be treated professionally at times. Foster carers are frustrated when they are excluded from discussions leading to important decisions about their foster child or when they are “thwarted from using sensible discretion when making day-to-day decisions about the child or children in their care,” for example, getting their child’s hair-cut.
There is sometimes reluctance to champion compensation and rewards in fostering in case it supports the view that carers are only fostering for the money. However, the report says that “there should be no shyness in acknowledging that some foster carers (a minority of course) are receiving income substantially above the current average wage. But they might be caring for a child or children of exceptional challenge and their remuneration should be compared to the alternative costs of residential care”.
The review states that commissioning needs to improve greatly and urges local authorities to come together into about ten consortia and negotiate with IFAs to provide placements at significantly reduced cost, almost certainly through guaranteeing them a certain level of business. The routine absence of such arrangements is “extraordinary,” it adds.
While it was sometimes suggested that the quality of care provided by local authority placements was higher than that provided by IFAs, the review saw no evidence of that. In fact, 90% of IFAs are rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted. Local authorities and children’s services directors found that the costs of placing children in IFA placements was “excessive and significantly more expensive than providing in house placements”. The review said that once local authority overheads and the fact that IFAs take more challenging children are taken into consideration, the gap was in fact very small.
The report argues that there is little evidence to recommend the IRO role and local authorities should be allowed to dispense with the role, re-investing savings in front line staffing.
Contact arrangements should be in the best interests of the child
Matching, the review finds, is supply led than in adoption where it is more needs led. In fact research suggests that in as many as half of all placements, the social worker has no choice at all when choosing carers. While it is not always possible to respond to a child’s wishes when making a match with carers, more can be done to involve them and prepare them for moving in with a new family.
The report talks about placement breakdown and explains that placement disruption is sometimes inevitable when compromises are made in placing a child as sometimes the foster carers can be overwhelmed. However, fostering placements where children have begun to thrive are also disrupted when unsuccessful attempts are made to reunite children with their birth parents. While successful reunification of a child with its birth family must be the first aim of the care system, such efforts must be made with an awareness of the extensive evidence about the risk to children.
“One recent study found that over 40% of young people who re-entered care aged between ten and fifteen years had already had three or more previous periods in the care system. Those children have been failed,” said the report.
The law changed in 2011 and now specifies that any contact arrangements between fostered children and birth parents should only be in place where they are in the interests of the child’s welfare. But practice within local authorities and the courts may not have changed as substantially as Parliament might have intended, the review found. The review also noted the continuing belief that keeping siblings together in fostering placements was invariably to their benefit and while they acknowledged that often, it is. However some brothers and sisters will flourish better in separate placements from which they can see each other regularly.
Permanence should go beyond a child’s 21st birthday
The stocktake concludes that fostering can be hugely successful and when fostering lasts in the long term, outcomes for children fostered are similar to those adopted. However, the success and the potential of fostering is frequently undermined when the child leaves care. ‘Staying Put’ which enables children to stay in foster care until their 21st birthday has been warmly welcomed and has made a tangible difference.
“But we need to see permanence in the same way that most of us, as parents, view permanence. Our ambition must be for many more fostering arrangements to last beyond the 18th or the 21st birthday. We believe there is scope for a substantial proportion of children in fostering placements to leave the care system but continue to live with their carers either under Special Guardianship Arrangements, or through being adopted,” said the report.
“That would be to achieve genuine permanence, which should be the overwhelming priority of the care system and a priority for the Department for Education,” the report concluded.
The report makes a number of recommendations including:
- All Fostering Services should consider introducing structured peer support for carers.
- The Department for Education to commission an assessment about the effectiveness, cost, and value for money of fostering panels.
- Local authorities should be allowed to dispense with the role; re-investing savings in front line staffing.
- The establishment of a national register of foster carers.
- Consortia of local authorities should come together for joint commissioning.
- Carers should, wherever possible, be able to play a proactive role in matching.
- Children should routinely be better prepared for placements.
- The Department for Education should remind local authorities of the change in the law and the need for professionals to ensure that birth family contact takes place only when in the interests of the child.
- When siblings enter care, individually or simultaneously, local authorities should not presume that keeping groups together is in the interests of all children in that group.
“Our recommendations are affordable and we believe they could save local authorities – realistically – as much as £65 million a year through better commissioning of the IFA sector. A further sum of between £50 and £70 million could be re-invested in front line fostering support by abolishing the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer,” the report concluded.
Ministers should build a world-class foster system
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “I support many of the report’s recommendations, including giving clearer guidance to help foster carers so they know they are allowed to give their foster children physical affection like hugs and kisses, if the child wants them. I also support plans to give foster carers more freedom to make day to day parenting decisions.
“We know from the foster children we speak to that what they dislike most is the instability in the system and the stigma associated with being looked after. So we need to see the government and local authorities prioritise stability of placement for children in care and for foster children to be treated like any other child and receive the same opportunities as others.
“However, I do not support the recommendations 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.
“There are 70,000 children in the care of the state and they have faced more challenges in their short lives than most of us will ever know. The majority will live with foster families who have the immense responsibility to provide the secure and loving environment they need to help them recover and flourish. The government’s ambitions for those children should be high and this report provides an opportunity for ministers to do all they can to build a world-class foster system – loving, secure, stable and aspirational, with children’s voices at its heart. They must take it.”
The children’s commissioner was not alone in raising concerns about the recommendation relation to IRO’s. Grave concerns were raised by Nagalro which said that the task of the IRO is to be the voice of the children, who cannot speak out for themselves. The IRO must ensure that they are not lost and forgotten under pressure of more urgent cases and budget cuts.
“The IRO also has a duty to monitor the performance of the local authority’s function as the child’s corporate parent and to identify any areas of poor practice,” a statement from Nagalro added.
Sense of indifference
The stocktake outlines that since 2004, all local authorities have been required to employ Independent Reviewing Officers, who are expected to ensure that care plans for children and young people fully reflect their needs and that each child’s wishes and feelings are given full and due consideration. They also have a duty to monitor the local authority’s performance as a corporate parent and raise areas of poor practice with senior managers.
However the fostering report states: “During the last thirteen years there has been considerable debate as to whether IROs are having the intended impact on service quality and improvement.”
It refers to a thematic report on IROs published by Ofsted in 2013 where the inspectorate identified a number of weaknesses including poor oversight of care plans; excessive caseloads; lack of rigour in review recommendations and follow-up; a failure to consult properly with children; poor quality annual reports; and inadequate oversight of IROs’ work by their line managers.
While the report notes that there have been improvements since the report was published, it said “we got a sense of indifference towards the role”.
“Carers were invariably dubious about the efficacy of the IRO and, very frequently, we heard that the money spent on them could be better invested elsewhere in the care system,” the stocktake added.
Little evidence to recommend the role
The “fundamental problem,” said the report is whether rather than spending large amounts of money checking that children are being appropriately placed and cared for in the care system, that money should be invested in more frontline and line management staff to make that happen.
The potential savings “could be anything from £54 to £76 million or more,” said the report. “Our conclusion is that, despite the commendable commitment of some individuals, we saw little to recommend the IRO role and believe local authorities should be allowed to dispense with it, re-investing savings in front line staffing,” it concluded.
Protecting the most vulnerable
Nagalro has said the move would “put vulnerable children at risk”. Nagalro argues that while the stocktake refer to a five-year-old Ofsted report, it ignores a later study by the National Children’s Bureau, funded by the Nuffield Foundation which concluded that the scrutiny of council plans for children in care was ‘crucial to ensure that the quality of care plans is not compromised’. The authors of that report went on to conclude that ‘where the role works well, it can make a real difference to children’s lives and good practice needs to be shared – and celebrated’.
While acknowledging that the system of IROs is not perfect, Acting Chair of Nagalro, Sukhchandan Kaur believes that it is crucial that children in care have a named professional, responsible for making their voice heard and ensuring that their care plans remain in their interest and are implemented. She said that “it needs to be better resourced and strengthened to protect the most vulnerable children in our society”.
Meanwhile the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers said the recommendation “appears to come from nowhere”. While the fostering stocktake’s argument appears to be based on the opinions of three Children’s Services Directors and a fostering manager, and the undocumented assertion that carers were “invariably dubious” about the efficacy of the IRO, this “evidence” is at odds with the several substantial research reports about the work of IROs including a major study by the University of East Anglia, Nairo added.
“It seems to us that to recommend the disbanding of a service which seeks to protect and promote the rights of vulnerable children on the basis of such scant evidence is irresponsible,” said a statement from Nairo.
“We are pleased to see that many key players in the sector have already rejected this recommendation, including the Children’s Commissioner for England. It would appear that one of the weaknesses of the report is a lack of serious attention to the question of promoting and protecting children’s rights,” the statement added.
“NAIRO of course recognises that there are many ways in which the IRO service could be strengthened and improved. We will be pleased to enter discussions with the DfE and others in the sector about how this may be achieved,” the statement concluded.
Lack of focus and investment from government
Alison Michalska, President of ADCS, welcomed the report: “Foster carers have a unique relationship with the children in their care – they know them better than anyone else. They absolutely should be treated ‘professionally’ in that they should be valued, supported and listened to as a key part of the team around the child. Local authorities are ambitious about improving outcomes for children in care but know we cannot achieve this without supporting those who care for them. The provision of high quality training and support for foster carers is something local authorities are committed to but the impact of austerity and budget cuts on the range and reach of services we are able to provide cannot be underestimated. Whilst the majority of children in care return home the report raises important questions for government around the role of the care system and local authorities’ capacity to support families at the earliest opportunity to make positive changes in their lives and to stay together. There has been a lack of focus and investment from government in this area to date. We need the right support services in place to support families, both early help and edge of care services, to stop problems from escalating and to prevent children from coming into and returning to care.
“We would support the establishment of a permanence board. A shared language and holistic focus on permanence as a whole is long overdue and would be a helpful step away from the current siloed approach. However, ADCS would not support the creation of a national register for foster carers. Maintaining a national register would be a huge logistical task and require significant ongoing funding. It is also unclear how a register would improve the recruitment of foster carers who are willing to care for the cohort of children in care. This money would be better invested in services to support children and young people directly such as improving the support available to foster carers and developing a national foster care recruitment campaign to recruit more carers willing to care for older children, sibling groups and children with complex needs, for example.
“Foster care plays a crucial role in the child protection system and we hope this report will result in meaningful change and positively impact on the lives of children and young people in care.”
Nadhim Zahawi MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families, said: “We welcome this thorough and insightful report into the fostering system, which first and foremost is about identifying and addressing the needs of children in foster care.
“The report gives us an opportunity to celebrate foster care and to recognise the invaluable role foster parents play in the lives of vulnerable children. We are committed to supporting them in this role, and that’s why we recently announced that we will extend our 30-hour childcare offer to foster children to provide extra help for foster parents.
“We will carefully consider the review’s recommendations, alongside those from the Education Select Committee, over the coming months to determine how they can help us to make sustainable improvements to the fostering system and to the outcomes for looked after children,” he added.