It has been a busy year in the fostering world: This Week in Fostering looks back at some of the key events that shaped the sector in 2017
With all the news that went on in 2017 it is hard to know where to start. That said, the professional status and treatment of foster carers was an undercurrent throughout the year’s news stories – and a headline hitter on more than one occasion. August saw specialist foster carers Jimmy and Christine Johnstone recognised as employees of Glasgow City Council, the local authority they fostered for (TWiF 3 August 2017). And in the autumn Foster Care Workers Union chair Sarah Anderson filed a case at the employment tribunal seeking holiday pay in a bid to be recognised as a foster care worker rather than self employed (TWiF 12 October 2017). At the other end of the spectrum Suddenly Mummy provoked outrage on her behalf when she blogged on her feelings of being used and discarded following her extended and emotional preparation for the arrival of a newly born. It was only on the day she was due to bring the baby home that she was told her services were no longer required (TWiF 26 January 2017). “Not for the first time I am reminded that, for some, foster carers are basically resources, like toasters,” she wrote. “They come out of the cupboard when you need them, and once they’ve done what you wanted, you can forget about them.”
Suddenly Mummy might not have been surprised to hear that applications to become foster carers may have dropped by a third in the year 2015-16 compared with the previous year, according to the government’s annual statistics on fostering published in February (TWiF 2 March 2017). The figure chimed with the Fostering Network’s state of the nation report into fostering which revealed that 45% of foster carers would not recommend fostering to others. Appearing before the Commons Education Select Committee as part of its inquiry into fostering the network’s chief executive Kevin Williams urged the committee to consider a single central list of foster carers as a way of helping to address the shortage of foster carers. And he warned against launching a national recruitment campaign for foster carers without first looking at improving retention among the current fostering workforce (2 February 2017).
The Select Committee’s fostering inquiry was one of two separate examinations of the foster care system that dominated the year: alongside the Commons inquiry Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers shepherded the government’s own fostering stocktake, announced in 2016 by then children’s minister Edward Timpson. In both cases attempts were made to canvas views across the fostering system to include those in and previously in care as well as foster carers, social workers and fostering agencies. Ironically the general election saw the custodians of both processes thrown over and replaced. Edward Timpson lost his Crewe and Nantwich seat by just 48 votes and Robert Goodwill was named the new children’s minister (TWiF 15 June 2017). Meanwhile the education select committee chair Neil Carmichael lost his Stroud constituency to Labour’s David Drew and was replaced as committee chair by Harlow MP Robert Halfon. The incoming committee chair took the unusual step of inviting three care experienced young people not only to give evidence but to sit alongside other members of the committee and participate in the grilling of the newly appointed children’s minister Robert Goodwill in the committee’s final hearing for the fostering inquiry.
The General Election also prompted the Children and Social Work Bill to become an Act. It was among several pieces of legislation to receive Royal Assent ahead of the dissolution of parliament. There was almost universal relief following the scrapping of a controversial clause to allow councils to test out new ways of working and opt out of some of their statutory requirements under children’s social care legislation (TWiF 4 May 2017). Among the Act’s provisions are a strengthening of corporate parenting principles, including a requirement to provide a “local offer for care leavers”. In line with a suggested offer, some councils have already opted to exempt care leavers from paying council tax while some, among them Redbridge Council, extended a reduction in council tax to fostering households (TWiF 27 July 2017).
But the fostering stocktake and the fostering inquiry were not the only examinations of the care system in 2017: autumn saw the Family Rights Group facilitate the launch of a “care review” with involvement of stakeholders from the family courts, local authorities and academia. The review aimed to address the issue of why the number of care applications had risen so dramatically, and what could be done to reduce it. The president of the family court, Sir James Munby, outlined the problems of the present justice system and called for a fundamental re-balancing of the family court towards “what ought to be its true role as a problem-solving court” in a lecture hosted by the Howard League for Penal Reform in October (TWiF 2 November 2017).
It was Sir James who issued guidance to the family courts in 2014 asking judges to routinely publish anonymised judgements in a bid to tackle perceptions that decisions about children were being made in secret. However research published in March by the University of Cardiff found that the guidance was not being consistently followed, leaving the public with a patchy understanding of the family justice system in England and Wales (TWiF 11 April 2017).
Sir James was not the judge to be featured in This Week in Fostering. In a wide-ranging speech to the Family Justice Council in March appeal court judge Andrew McFarlane focussed on the impact of non-consensual adoption, stating that,“It is my belief that the degree to which we investigate child abuse within our family court system is on a wholly different basis and scale from that undertaken elsewhere.” (TWiF 16 March 2017). Meanwhile social work professor Andy Bilson found that local authorities that had the highest adoption rates also had the highest numbers of children in care. Bilson mused on the reasons for this correlation and suggested that we need to look at local authorities where both the adoption rates and the number of children in care are low to see whether there is good practice for preventing care being needed in the first place (TWiF 16 February 2017). Later in the year we learnt from the University of Lancaster about the dramatic increase in the number of women facing repeat removals of children into care from 7,000 to 11,000 in two years – mirroring a rise in children coming into care overall, confirmed in October by the government’s annual children in care statistics (5 October 2017).
In July the Family Rights Group (FRG) claimed that parents were often coerced into agreeing to Section 20 accommodation of their children without the necessary paperwork – and said that many often did not understand their rights under the statute. Section 20 of the Act outlines the route by which a child can come into the care system without court proceedings and enables parental responsibility to remain with parents and for them to have the right to end accommodation at any time. It sits in part of the 1989 Act which focuses on providing support to children and families and not in Part 5 which outlines the legal basis on which children come into care. However the FRG says that local authorities’ use of Section 20 is falling short of the goal of working in partnership with families intended by the Act. (TWiF 13 July 2017)
In March we learnt that girls in care are more likely to have lower well-being than boys, according to research published by the University of Bristol and Coram Voice under the Bright Spots Programme (TWiF 9 March 2017). Later in the year we heard from Become and Voices from Care that young people can feel out of control of who knows that they are in care – and that this can be exacerbated by the actions of professionals. “Young people told us that they thought that there was a perception that children in care and care leavers had family issues, were trouble, and were uneducated,” the authors found. “They made particular mention of the Tracy Beaker television programme, and its spin-off ‘The Dumping Ground’, with many young people saying that they think that it gives a negative portrayal of what being in care meant.” (TWiF 3 August 2017). In November Bristol University research explained that the number of care leavers entering high education was about 12% – substantially higher than the 6% frequently quoted, partly due to care leavers taking “non-linear” routes into higher education and entering later in life. However researcher Neil Harrison found that the figure was still substantially lower than for the general population and the research also found that care leavers were far more likely to quit higher education part way through their studies than non-care leavers (TWiF 30 November 2017).
Three news stories hit the tabloids with a vengeance in late summer. Firstly, the notorious “Muslim fostering row” which told us more about people’s attitudes towards Islam than it did about their feelings towards fostering (TWiF 7 September). This was followed by the case of two Surrey foster carers who found their house surrounded by police after their fostered teenager was arrested in terrorism charges. Thirdly, a more sobering story with far reaching consequences was the decision by the Supreme Court to allow an adult who had been placed in foster care by Nottinghamshire County Council when she was seven to sue the council for historical abuse committed by her foster carers. The decision overturned previous rulings that local authorities could not be considered “vicariously liable” for abuse committed by foster carers and opened the gates for further claims against local councils. (TWiF 26 October 2017)
In November Grandparents Plus put the spotlight on poverty experienced by many of the country’s 180,000 plus kinship carers, most of whom who were not recognised and recompensed within the formal foster care system. We featured a couple of extreme cases where two separate London Boroughs, Greenwich (TWiF 5 October 2017) and Tower Hamlets (TWiF 19 January 2017), were ordered to pay substantial backpay to carers who should have been recognised formally as kinship carers. In a separate case about fostering allowances the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found that Warwickshire County Council was wrong to insist its foster carers cover the cost of home to school transport out of their fostering allowance where the 1996 Education Act states that this cost must be met by the local authority (TWiF 19 October 2017).
While local authorities were falling short of some of their statutory payments to foster carers Laing Buisson released a controversial publication costing upwards of £1,000 a pop which suggested that a rise in court applications for care orders and numbers of children in care could provide opportunities for larger external contractors to win contracts to provide children’s social care services (TWiF 30 November 2017). June saw the final hurdle removed for the sale of Acorn Care to the National Fostering Agency after Acorn divested itself of foster carers in certain parts of the country to enable the sale to go ahead. NFA’s planned purchase of rival foster care provider Acorn had been called in by the Competition and Markets Authority after fears that the buyout would lessen competition to provide fostering services as part of framework contracts in Wales, Luton, Central Bedfordshire and Norfolk. (TWiF 23 February 2017).
Congratulations for making it this far. There is so much more we could write about, and so many more people we could mention. Do have a look at our separate editorial reflecting further on some of this year’s key issues. In the meantime This Week in Fostering wishes you a peaceful and safe Christmas wherever you are and whoever you are caring for or being cared by. As always please share any thoughts and feedback.
Best wishes for the New Year.