The report from the government’s stocktake of fostering in England has been published, leaving many disappointed.
Foster carers were left reeling last week after a government-ordered report into the English fostering system found that carers’ pay was adequate and allegations procedures fit for purpose – while also recommending that moves to grant foster carers worker status should be “resisted”. “The reality is that fostering is a success story,” the report said.
The fostering stocktake led by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers covered wide ground in the sector and made 36 recommendations – but found little favour with many. “A missed opportunity,” was the instant response from the Fostering Network, although the Foster Care Workers Union chair Sarah Anderson went further, describing the report, as “a banal piece of nonsense”. “Bizarre”, “odd”, “out of touch” and “patronising” were some of the words used by carers to describe it, she said. Both were particularly scathing of the report’s attempt to downplay the impact of allegations on carers.
The authors suggested that unproven allegations added up to “just one allegation each month for every 350 children in foster care” rather than focussing on the likelihood of a foster carer experiencing an allegation during their fostering career. “This does not support suggestions that the number of unproven allegations is at crisis levels, as was sometimes suggested to us,” the report claims. “Nor are foster carers uniquely vulnerable to allegations, as suggested to us by the newly formed Foster Care Workers Union,” it says before concluding that, “Similar risks are an unfortunate fact of life for many individuals employed in caring or similar roles,” which prompted this response from foster carer Jon Collier: “Well I don’t know any of those who care for the most vulnerable young people, 24/7 in their own homes but I do appreciate being recognised as ‘Employed’.”
Fostering agency TACT, whose stewardship of the fostering and adoption service in Peterborough (TWiF 27 September 2016) was lauded in the report, was one of the few voices to be largely upbeat in its support for the report’s recommendations. And fostering commentator Martin Barrow, also quoted by name in the report, said in his Guardian article, “I believe the review’s positive impact will be felt for many years to come.”
Yet the stocktake appears to contrast markedly with the fostering inquiry report issued by the education select committee in December (TWiF 2 January 2018). This called on the government to consider some wholesale changes to the fostering system – including whether carers should be designated as workers with attendant pay and conditions. The Narey / Owers review by contrast appears to overlook worker status championed by the Foster Care Workers Union, concluding instead that foster carers should not become employees of either their local authority or their fostering agency and encouraging government and local authorities to “resist such a fundamental change”. And it adds that while carers should be treated professionally, they are certainly not professionals. “We are clear that it is unrealistic to believe that foster carers…can play an equal part alongside necessarily dispassionate social work professionals, in determining what is best for a child in care.”
And where the education select committee MPs were moved by a young person’s account of being separated from her sibling in foster care, the Narey / Owers report was dispassionate noting that “there has emerged a largely unchallenged consensus that siblings must not be separated”. “That view is frequently reinforced by press coverage, which criticises sibling separation in care and generally without qualification.”
Instead a foreword by England’s children’s commissioner Anne Longfield paves the way for a focus on the parenting aspects of fostering as an area ripe for improvement. “In the end, more than anything, foster children want to feel they are part of a family.” But this is being hampered by a lack of physical affection on the part of foster carer, she claims. “Many older foster children are also scathing about their carers’ inability to show them affection or to give them a hug,” Longfield wrote. “Younger foster children often feel worried and confused about the lack of physical affection they are shown.” Nevertheless, no mention of a lack of physical affection is made in the 20 page report from her survey of children in care annexed to the Narey / Owers stocktake report.
However the stocktake authors pick up Longfield’s theme in the heart of their report, noting that “numerous local authorities and IFAs” provide “depressing” advice to carers “that purports to be supportive of physical affection, but implicitly discourages it” because of concerns over allegations, particularly relating to sexual abuse.
“When carers want to love a child, they should not be discouraged by formal guidance or feel intimidated by the remote threat of allegations,” the reviewers write, specifically adding that younger children should be welcomed into foster carers’ beds when they need reassurance after a nightmare or when ill.
Carers “should be in no doubt that, unless it is unwelcome to the child, they should not curb the natural instinct to demonstrate personal and physical warmth”, they say. “We urge the DfE to make that clear in future guidance.”
The pervading mode of the report is perhaps best summed up with these words from the authors.
“Various advice to carers needs to change, but, more than that, a shifting philosophy – which has seen ‘foster parents’ being called ‘foster carers’; children being discouraged from calling their long term carer Mum or Dad; and sometimes carers being framed as just another professional in a child’s life – needs to be arrested.”
And in their final chapter the report authors go further in seeing foster care as more frequently morphing into a long-term replacement family. “Fostering is better for children the more stable it is and the longer it lasts,” the report concludes. That means for life – not just for an extra couple of years as part of a staying put arrangement, they stress. “The priority therefore must be to convert more fostering placements to arrangements which are more likely to last forever, either by encouraging foster carers to adopt or to become special guardians,” the report says. “The pursuit of permanence should be moved to the centre ground of policy at the Department for Education.”
In line with its approach of supporting foster carers as parents the stocktake alluded to confusion around delegated authority – the right of foster carers to make day to day decisions about the child in their care. This should have been strengthened through a change in regulations in 2013, the authors point out. “It is clear that, four years after the regulations were changed, all too frequently, professional practice has not changed.” Even where children are voluntarily accommodated, carers should have delegated authority and “birth parents should be helped to understand that is in their child’s best interests”.
A few other surprises come out of the review. The authors say there is “little to recommend the role” of the Independent Reviewing Officer and local authorities should be permitted to abolish them – potentially saving £50 – £70 million. The assertion was based on evidence that was “superficial and slight”, said the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers.
A chapter on commissioning (read my separate article on the NAFP website) found that independent fostering agencies (IFAs) were not charging much more for placements, all things considered. That said, local authorities should continue to pursue their policy of placing a child “in-house first” as the “marginal cost” of placing with their own council carer would save them about £500 a week. “Support in the report for continued blanket ‘in-house first’ policies on the basis of cost alone is regrettable and risks children missing out on the placement that is best for them as individuals,” responded the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers.
Interestingly the stocktake report recommended that larger local authorities (or consortia of smaller ones) should consider partnering with one or more IFAs to provide their complete fostering service if they were unable to become “self-sufficient” in providing in-house foster carers . “Either of these options is likely to be cheaper and provide greater assurance of quality than the prevailing and generally unplanned practice of part recruiting and part purchasing foster care.”
And a national register of foster carers would have “merit” – despite what the Association of Directors of Children’s Services believes and “could also provide a vacancy management system and radically improve matching”. And the authors were “not persuaded” of the need for a large-scale national recruitment campaign funded by central government. Instead they recommend using First4Adoption as a first point of enquiry for both adoption and fostering. And while there were some excellent examples of recruitment campaigns locally, their success can be stymied by fostering services themselves – who may not be as good at recruitment as they like to think they are – as our Twitter thread shows.
“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,” said Nadhim Zahawi MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families.”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 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.”
The Government says it will respond to the report and the recommendations in the spring “setting out the future programme of work for the fostering system”. It is also due to respond to the Education Select Committee’s fostering inquiry report this month.
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