In the (rather long) round-up this week: Final fostering inquiry session ahead of election; Children’s Commissioner publishes first Children in Care stability index; Association of Directors of Children’s Services president lambasted over fostering comments; independent reviewing officers role clarified; Resilience film screening; Adoption orders down
Election pushes fostering inquiry report back to autumn
The sudden announcement of a June 8 general election means that any report from the Education Select Committee’s inquiry into fostering will be postponed until at least the autumn, committee chair Neil Carmichael told witnesses at the committee’s final session in the current parliament. Originally the committee intended to publish the recommendations from its fostering inquiry in a report in June, the chair had said at an earlier hearing of the inquiry. Yesterday’s witnesses included academics, local authority commissioners and the Fostering Network’s Melissa Green, who heads the Mockingbird Family Model, a project that is supported through the government’s children’s social care innovation programme. The Mockingbird Family Model is well established in the US and involves the creation of an extended family style peer support network among foster carers with clusters of geographically close foster carers supported by a central “hub” carer. Both Green and Dr Heather Ottaway of Bristol’s Hadley Centre for adoption and fostering, spoke of the need to “reconceptualise” foster care support with Green pointing to the extended family style model created through the Mockingbird Family model as instrumental in achieving this. Green spoke of how without peer support the start of a fostering placement can be “an incredibly isolating time – both for the foster carer and the child”. She continued, “It shouldn’t be a privilege to get respite support – it should be part of what you have so that you have that safety net for both you and the young person.” Her view was backed by Steve Walker, acting director of children’s services at Leeds City Council, which has six Mockingbird clusters – three providing support purely for kinship carers. “Investment in support for foster carers is not something that is optional – it is something that absolutely needs to be in place, and not to invest in it is actually a disinvestment,” he told the committee. “By having a good range of support available… that is how you will recruit carers, retain carers and then are able to place children locally that can’t live with their families,” he told the committee.
“Pinball children” headline from first stability index
A first ever stability index for children in care published by the office of the children’s commissioner for England hit the national press last week with its reference to children “pinballing” around the care system. A widely reported headline was that more than seven in ten experienced some sort of change in either their home, school or social worker. “Children in care tell me that being stable and being able to build consistent relationships with carers, friends and teachers is what makes the biggest difference to their lives,” said Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England in her introduction to the summary report. But the commissioner concluded in the full technical report that more needed to be done to understand whether a change in social worker, placement or education was necessarily detrimental.
Change of school mid-way through the school year came under particular scrutiny with children in care more than three times as likely to experience a mid-year school move than the general population, the report found. A change of school can be linked to a change in placement – for example if a child moves to a long-term foster home in a different area. However the report found that more than half of children in care who moved school mid-year had not moved home “suggesting that other factors (such as exclusions) play a role as well” . The number of mid-year school moves varied significantly between region, the report found, being highest in the East of England and Outer London, and lowest in the North East and North West.
And while there appeared to be variations in placement stability between regions, and also between local authorities the report warned against drawing any conclusions. Indeed 73% of children did not move at all during 2015-16 while 18% experienced one move, the report found. And the report conceded that the reasons for moves as well as changes of social workers and school were beyond the scope of the report as it stood and were still to be explored in future versions of the Index. “We therefore need to distinguish ‘positive change’ from ‘negative change’ as the Index develops over time,” it agreed. “With this in mind, we are not currently able to indicate whether lower rates of placement, school and social worker change are necessarily desirable outcomes for areas to aspire to.”
ADCS president lambasted over fostering comments
Foster carers and union representatives have hit out at comments in a speech by Alison Michalska, the incoming president of the Association of Directors Children’s Services that unionisation and over-professionalisation of foster care was a “slightly mad notion” with no thought given to how it would benefit children in care. Blogger, adopter and foster carer Suddenly Mummy wrote an open letter to Michalska on her blog. “As foster carers, we rely utterly on social workers for support and guidance both for ourselves and on behalf of the children we care for,” she said. “It has saddened me to see the concerns of foster carers so publicly belittled and dismissed by somebody with such influence over social workers as you have in your role.” Meanwhile the Foster Care Workers Union described her attitude as “unprofessional” adding that it had become the norm “to be dismissive and rude to the very workforce you so heavily rely on”. Meanwhile Rachel Harrison, the GMB’s foster care lead offered to introduce Michalska to carers and explain why professionalisation and a single central register of foster carers would benefit children in care.
Independent reviewing officer role defended
University of East Anglia social work professor Jonathan Dickens responded to recent debate over the role of independent reviewing officers in Family Law Week: “There has been scepticism about the independence and effectiveness of ‘independent reviewing officers’ (IROs) ever since the role was introduced in England and Wales in 2004,” Dickens wrote. An IRO’s core tasks are to monitor the local authority’s performance as the corporate parent for each child, to participate in the child’s review, and to ensure that the child’s wishes and feelings are fully considered, and their role is underpinned by the IRO handbook. “IROs are qualified social workers who are independent of the line management of the case, but still employees of the local authority – hence the doubts about the reality of their independence,” Dickens points out.
Dickens led a two-year research project into the role of the independent reviewing officer and has been monitoring recent developments around the role. Until recently the Children and Social Work Bill included highly controversial and widely unpopular proposals to exempt some local authorities from statutory duties in order to test new ways of working. “Some of the statutory requirements that were most debated as suitable for exemption, concerned the role of the IRO and the requirements for regular reviews of all children in care,” Dickens wrote. But he pointed out that since 2015 it has not been necessary for an IRO to attend all reviews for every child. “The care planning regulations and guidance were amended that year, so that review meetings of children who are settled in long-term foster care only have to take place once per year (if that is right for the child). There should still be a review every six months, but the intermediate one need only involve consultation and information gathering, and a review of the information received – not a meeting.”
Dickens also referred to remarks about IROs made by Lord Justice McFarlane in a recent speech to the Family Justice Council, in particular that no IRO had brought a case back to court. However Dickens goes on to clarify the role of the IRO in this case. “If agreement cannot be reached within the local authority, the IRO has the power to refer the case to Cafcass, and a Cafcass officer will then be appointed to deal with the case. He/she will make enquiries to try to resolve the matter.” There have been twenty formal referrals to Cafcass between 2004 and March 2017 and none taken to court by Cafcass with most being resolved through correspondence and discussion with the local authority involved, Dickens said.
Understanding childhood trauma through film
Resilience, a one-hour documentary that delves into the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences, its impacts and how these can be tackled, is being shown throughout the UK in the coming months. A screening due in Oxford next month will be introduced by trauma trainer Lisa Cherry who is working with the film’s distributors to bring it to as wide an audience as possible. “I spend my time travelling the country training Social Workers, Teachers, Teaching Assistants, The Police, Foster Carers, Residential Staff, Adopters, in fact, anyone who will listen, on Trauma, Recovery and Resilience,” she says. “The content of this documentary underpins it all.”
Adoption orders down…but children still waiting
And finally, adoption placement orders have fallen by a quarter between 2013-14 and 2015-16, according to a report from the adoption leadership board. However at the end of last June 560 out of the 2,000 children waiting to be adopted had been waiting for 18 months or more, it said.