Duck or rabbit?

The Fostering Network has written to the children’s minister to express its disappointment at “a lack of vision and ambition for the future of fostering”  in the recently published fostering stocktake. As we await the government’s response, This Week in Fostering looks at whether the stocktake authors have really got it so wrong.

We are five weeks on from the publication of the fostering stocktake and the industry is still digesting its detail, tone and what it means for the overall direction of fostering in England as a whole. Not least among these is the Fostering Network, who, having now fully processed the contents of the stocktake report from Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers have concluded that they have no other option but to write to the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi to express how badly the report appears to be letting the fostering system down.

The Network is certainly not alone in this view but the ferocity of the response and its vocabulary is unusual. “There is nothing radical or brave within the report, nor anything that your department did not know about before the stocktake,” chief executive Kevin Williams tells the minister in his letter. “The voice of the foster carer is woefully absent throughout, while the number of children and young people consulted is frankly appalling,” he continues. “It [the stocktake] fails to address key issues that the sector is currently experiencing – not least how foster carers are viewed and treated, but also commissioning and placement disruption.” Damning sentences about a process that has taken over a year to complete.

Yet a few weeks prior to the stocktake publication, we heard a different take on the fostering system from the education select committee when it published its final report from its inquiry into fostering. Why have two “official reports” come up with such differing conclusions – one seeing fostering as a “success story” (Narey/Owers) and the other as a system that is failing vulnerable children? Foster carer and writer Martin Barrow recently pondered this issue in the Huffington Post. Barrow “for what it’s worth” places his support firmly on the side of the Narey/Owers stocktake.

Williams, meanwhile, is angry at “sweeping statements backed by little or no evidence”. “Unsubstantiated sentences include ‘Carers overwhelmingly see fostering as a vocation, and see themselves primarily as substitute parents’. Phrases such as ‘many’, ‘often’ or ‘too few’ are used with no reference to real data, when the findings of the State of the Nation – representing 2,500 foster carers’ views – are not referred to at all.” Certainly the method by which the stocktake references data and evidence is markedly different from the final report emanating from the Commons Education Select Committee’s fostering inquiry. The two processes were also different – while the education select committee held evidence sessions in public, and published all of its inquiry documents on-line the Narey/Owers report contains fewer references. Neither the evidence submitted to the stocktake, nor records of meetings with stakeholders have been published in a systematic way.

But what if we were to believe that both processes had been robust – both had consulted thoroughly and both used evidence to substantiate their conclusions and recommendations (albeit that the evidence was presented in slightly different ways)? How can we account for such different reports? Firstly, there are some commonalities to both reports – you can remind yourselves of these in our previous articles on the fostering stocktake (TWiF 12 February 2018) and the education select committee (TWiF 2 January 2018). As for the differences, Martin Barrow comes to no conclusion, but suggests that the reports “provide a framework for discussion about the future of fostering”. Personally, I find it a depressing thought. The fostering stocktake was ordered in the middle of 2016 and it will be nearly two years later by the time that the government publishes any plan based on the recommendations put forward in either of the reports. Its response to the education select committee report was due last month but it seems the government is hoping to roll its responses to both the stocktake and inquiry into one. If all that this does is pave the way for more debate then we have potentially wasted another two years in the lives of children in care. In the course of two separate inquiry processes we really ought to have come up with some tangible changes that improve the situation for these young people and those who look after them.

The clue to the differing outcomes of the reports is just as much in the tone as the content. Martin Barrow applauds the “parenting aspects of fostering”. “At home, we think of ourselves as a foster family, not as carers, and welcome their recommendations aimed at reinforcing this sense of family.”  This approach chimes with the foreword to the report, written by the children’s commissioner for England who talks about the lack of affection that many children in care receive from their foster carers. Add to this the stocktake’s downplaying of allegations against carers, their use of the term foster parent and you come up with a broad frame of reference for foster care as a substitute for a child’s family. And this may be entirely appropriate in some cases. But knowing carers who were temporarily banned from fostering following a complaint from a child in their care, including that they tried to hug the child too much – I would argue that this is simplistic way of looking at fostering. Sarah Anderson, chair of the Foster Care Workers Union, has underlined in various interviews that most of the children in care already have a family and that loving and caring for a foster child is not the same as being their parent.

The stocktake takes a view that the longer a child stays with a single foster family, the better. Family and “permanence” are overriding themes – the idea that a carer will foster a child or sibling group and provide a forever home. The themes of payments, allegations and “professionalisation” are played down because essentially they are not themes that are associated with family life. The Education Select Committee by contrast describes fostering as “under pressure”, a system that needs to better value its foster carers and the young people in care. It questions foster carers’ employment status (or lack of) and casts its net wider – including discussion on unaccompanied asylum seeking children, who are not considered at all in the stocktake. Are they both wrong? Or could they both be right? It depends on your point of view. The concept of foster care as defined by the Narey/Owers stocktake may be perfectly fine in many fostering scenarios: there will be foster carers (or foster parents as the stocktake would like to call them) who just want to get on with the role of parenting the young people in their care to adulthood and beyond. But by focussing on this particular group of carers, the stocktake fails to take into account other fostering situations that involve quite different approaches to care and where the complexities involved can be enormous. In these situations the long-term “happy ever after” fostering scenario is either unrealistic or not being sought at all. If the government wants to accept the Narey/Owers view of what “fostering” is, then it will need to come up with a new way of defining all of the other types of care provided by the fostering system.

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