Special Report: Reaction to the fostering stocktake

The fostering stocktake was recently published by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers. Need refreshing on the findings and recommendations? See Children First’s recent special report.

Overall, the stocktake’s in-depth focus has been praised. The Fostering Network said: “We are pleased to see that the stocktake has made recommendations that pick up on some of the issues we raised in our submission, including the call on the Government to explore the costs and advantages of a national register of foster carers.”

Alison Michalska, President of ADCS, said: “We welcome the publication of this report. There is much to celebrate about the foster care system - overall children’s views about fostering are positive and many children feel their lives are better in care.”

A statement from BASW said: “It is pleasing that the report begins by acknowledging that fostering is indeed a success story and that this is backed up by sound evidence.”

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.

Here, we look at some of the concerns that have been raised by the publication.

Stocktake recommendation: Scrapping Independent Reviewing Officers

The stocktake suggests that local authorities should be allowed to dispense with the role of IRO’s, reinvesting savings from the role in frontline services.

Background: All local authorities have been required to employ Independent Reviewing Officers since 2004. IROs 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.

“During the last thirteen years there has been considerable debate as to whether IROs are having the intended impact on service quality and improvement. In their 2013 thematic report on IROs, Ofsted 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,” said the stocktake.

It acknowledged that some progress has been made since then and they heard from some witnesses who valued the role – for example, they thought IROs ensured that care plans were reviewed in a timely manner and there were occasional instances when they intervened to prevent a child being inappropriately moved from an IFA to an in house placement.

Rationale: However the stocktake estimated that the potential savings for reinvestment could be between £54 and £76 million and questioned whether that money would be better spent invested in frontline and line management staff to ensure that children are appropriately placed and cared for in the care system.

“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,” said the stocktake.

Reaction: Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield 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.

Nagalro has said the move would “put vulnerable children at risk”. Nagalro argues that while the stocktake refer to a 5-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’.

Meanwhile the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers said the recommendation “appears to come from nowhere”.

“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.

Stocktake recommendation: Sibling separation

Siblings going into foster care should not automatically be placed together.

Background: The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review Regulations (2010) and Fostering Regulations prescribe the information which must be considered before a fostering placement is made. One of the most important considerations is the ‘placement of siblings together whenever possible and in the best interests of the children concerned’.

The stocktake states that while for many children, being placed together will contribute to the success of the placement and it is probably the case that - as Ofsted have argued - some siblings are unnecessarily separated.

“Nevertheless it is dangerous to assume that it is always in the interests of family groups to be fostered together,” said the report.

Rationale: The stocktake highlights that Baginsky summarised in research that siblings are less likely to thrive together when the sibling group is large, the children are not close in age, did not enter care at the same time or when there are concerns over sibling on sibling abuse. But despite those exceptions - which apply to a not insignificant number of siblings in care - there has emerged a largely unchallenged consensus that siblings must not be separated.

Family Futures told the stocktake there is a double challenge of more complex and challenging children coming into care, with significant developmental issues, and alongside their brothers and sisters.

Even in circumstances where there may be advantage in keeping a sibling group together, local authorities need to be realistic about the capacity of foster carers to compensate for the harm each child has suffered, said Family Futures.

“What is necessary is an objective, evidence informed, and exploratory assessment, as soon as a child enters care, of what is best for that individual child,” said the stocktake.

Reaction: A coalition of more than 40 social work organisations and experts comprising organisations such as BASW, Association of Professors of Social Work, UNISON and The Care Leavers’ Association as well as experts including Dr Maggie Atkinson, former Children’s Commissioner for England, Dr Liz Davies, Emeritus Reader in Child Protection, London Metropolitan University, and Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London have criticised this recommendation.

“This is a radical proposal that 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,” said a letter to children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi from the coalition.

A statement from BASW added: “The section on Sibling Separation infers that placing siblings together is just a matter of social work convention, when it is in fact a legal requirement for local authorities to ensure that a placement enables siblings who are in the care system to be accommodated together as far as it is reasonably practicable.”

Stocktake recommendation: A review of fostering panels

The Department for Education should commission a review of fostering panels with consultation from the sector.

Background: A fostering panel considers applications from prospective foster parents and makes a recommendation following a meeting.

Rationale: The stocktake highlights that a number of contributors were sceptical about the contribution made by fostering panels and, when probed about their value for money and effectiveness in various discussions, opinions were mixed but mostly critical.

One distinguished commentator told the stocktake: “Ensuring that the process has been followed, that the focus of the preparation and assessment has been on the detail of the strengths, opportunities, motivation and commitment of foster carers and these driving the process and decision making seems to be hugely important. These issues could be lost... But if panels themselves are bureaucratically driven and take up resources that should be used to facilitate and enable foster carers, then that is not good either. And that does happen.”

The stocktake recommended that there needs to be a thorough assessment and consultation with the sector and with carers about the effectiveness, cost, and value for money of fostering panels and urged the DfE to commission such an assessment.

Reaction: The coalition of social work organisations and experts highlighted that the importance of fostering panels has already been debated by parliamentarians and the children’s sector during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017.

The government’s proposal that local authorities should be able to opt-out of having fostering and adoption panels was widely rejected – including, eventually, by Ministers, it said.

Stocktake recommendation: Single social worker supervising foster carers

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.

Background: During the supervision of fostering placements, numerous professionals can be involved: the children's social worker, the fostering social worker (sometimes referred to as the supervising social worker) and the independent reviewing officer.

The stocktake suggested that there can be too many professionals involved and while supervising visits from two separate social workers - often from the same local authority - might be justified in the early weeks of a placement, but when it happens routinely it represents an unnecessary intrusion into the life of a foster family and the child in care.

A number of witnesses suggested that for stable placements, local authorities should have the discretion to allow just one social worker simultaneously to take on the role of the fostering social worker and the children’s social worker.

Rationale: Match Foster Care, an independent fostering provider, has piloted this as part of the Department for Education’s Innovation Programme. They have seen high levels of satisfaction from both foster carers and fostered children, who appreciated the greater consistency of workers (having one social worker instead of two) and the quicker, more effective decision making about issues such as contact.

“It will be argued by some that reducing regulatory supervision in this way might not be appropriate when the foster carers have been recruited and are being supported by an IFA. We don’t believe that to be the case. What is vital is that such supervision is given by a professionally qualified social worker focussed on the child and the carer together. Whether such professionals are employed by a local authority or an independent fostering provider is irrelevant. We heard consistently good things about fostering social workers, whether or not they were employed by local authorities or by independent agencies,” said the stocktake.

“By contrast, we did not hear similar levels of approval for the work of the child's social worker and in the written evidence we received there were numerous criticisms of the children’s social worker,” it added.

“We therefore suggest that local authorities should decide which individual social worker is best placed to offer the support to the foster family in long-term placements. As well as resulting in a welcome reduction in family intrusion, and sometimes confusion, this change would deliver cost savings to hard-pressed local authorities. But it is important to stress that we recommend this, not simply to save money, but because we think it will be in the interests of fostered children. In most cases, we suggest the single individual should be the fostering social worker but that can be determined on an individual basis,” it added.

Reaction: The coalition said that since April 2015, care planning regulations have permitted a child in long-term foster care to be visited by his or her social worker only twice a year. However they state that there is no mention of this relatively recent regulatory change in the stocktake report, “so it is impossible to know whether recommendation 6 was made in ignorance of the current legal position”.

They add that besides quotes from two carers, the fostering stocktake report relies on the pilot conducted by Match Foster Care to advocate a change to care planning regulations. Yet the evaluation report from the Match Foster Care pilot describes a complex picture, including that two of the eight children in the very small sample were still visited by their own local authority social worker and there was ambivalence within local authorities about how they discharged their legal responsibilities. The researchers point to the 2015 regulatory change and associated guidance as “a valuable new framework”. Of most significance is the fact that the evaluation was not conclusive in respect of the benefits to children of a single, all-purpose social worker.

The coalition warns that children having their own social worker “is a fundamental safeguard and a lynch-pin of the care system”.

“When it works well, it gives children the opportunity to develop a positive and trusting relationship through which they can safely explore their history and identity, share their experiences and raise any concerns. Regulations set down an expectation that the social worker will meet the child in private (though this is not rigid) which further underlines the importance of the child’s social worker being seen as there for them. The stocktake report itself states that children want to see more of their social workers.

Alongside this, foster carers require – and have the right to expect – their own specialist support.

Foster carers are not professionals

The fostering stocktake says that foster carers should not be classed as professionals.

“We need them [foster carers] 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.”

Background: With the increasing demands being placed on foster carers, there have been calls for fostering to be professionalised or, as is frequently demanded by some fostering organisations, for Carers to be treated as professionals on an equal status with professionally qualified social workers.

Rationale: The stocktake said that is unrealistic to believe that foster carers, however competent they are, indeed, even if they happen to hold professional qualifications, can play an equal part alongside necessarily dispassionate social work professionals, in determining what is best for a child in care. Frankly, often the last thing we need is for foster carers to be dispassionate.

Reaction: Alison Michalska, President of ADCS said: “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.”

Foster carers are not underpaid

The stocktake said: “We do not believe that most foster care workers are underpaid”.

Background: Foster carers don’t have to pay tax on the first £10,000 of income and they get further tax relief for every week that a child lives with them, meaning they may have no tax liability for incomes much greater than £10,000 pa. Similarly foster carers are treated more favourably by the benefits system.

Rationale: Fostering allowances and fees received for fostering are fully disregarded for the purposes of calculating entitlements to means tested benefits and as long as carers are still searching for work, not necessarily full time work, they can continue to receive jobseeker’s allowance, and they can still claim income support and employment and support allowance.

Carers are entitled to disregard fostering income when applying for a rebate against council tax and some local authorities no longer require foster carers to pay any council tax at all.

“We are not remotely suggesting that such payments, and their treatment for tax and benefits purposes, are extravagant. Indeed, it would be easy for us to argue that carers deserve more, although it would be much less easy for local authorities to afford additional payments. But we do not believe current payments - when considered in the context of HMRC's tax and benefit arrangements – are inadequate, nor to be an obstacle to recruiting high quality carers (although, the tax and benefits arrangements could be better publicised),” said the stocktake.

Reaction: The Fostering Network said it was shocked that the report states that foster carers are not routinely underpaid and are therefore disappointed that there is no move to ensure that foster carers are properly paid for the work that they do.

“We fail to see how it is “understandable” that new carers and those caring for younger children should not receive a fee for their fostering. We are also concerned there is no recommendation to review the minimum fostering allowance and that it not recommended that it is extended to staying put,” it added.

National register of foster carers

The stocktake calls for a national register of foster carers

Background: Matching a child to the right sort of carer is inhibited by the almost total absence of any sort of vacancy management system. Save for their own carers, local authorities have very little idea of where vacancies might be.

Despite the frequently heard assertions that there is a radical shortage of carers, there are, at any one time, a large number of foster carers who do not have a child living with them. Ofsted data suggests that in 2015, at any one time, just 64% of fostering households had a child placed with them, falling to 61% in 2016. Some of these carers were not in a position to take a child, perhaps because they were caring for a young person under Staying Put arrangements, but even allowing for that, there are a significant number of carers - typically in the region of more than 15,000 households - waiting to be offered a child. But local authorities have little idea of where these vacancies are.

Rationale: A number of organisations called for a national register of carers. They suggest that such a database could 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. Such a register could also provide a vacancy management system and radically improve matching.

“We see great merit in the proposal and urge the Department for Education to evaluate the costs and advantages. We believe the idea has great merit. We have suggested that such a database could 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; personal characteristics (age, gender, ethnicity, religion and language); their level of training and expertise; and whether or not they have a vacancy for a child,” said the fostering stocktake.

Reaction: Alison Michalska, President of ADCS, said: “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."

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