Fact checking

20 March 2018: This Week: a local authority is found to have acted unlawfully in its use of section 20 accommodation; politicians get to grips with the various examinations of the fostering sector.

Council caused “lasting damage” over its abuse of Section 20 provisions

Herefordshire County Council has come under fire from Justice Keehan for “two of the most egregious abuses of section 20 accommodation it has yet been my misfortune to encounter as a judge”. Justice Keehan issued a judgement that found the local authority had been unlawfully keeping two children in the care system when they should have either sought a care order or returned the children to their parents. The mother of one of the children was 14 when her child was taken into care and was so young that she needed “the greatest possible advice, support and consideration”, the judge said. “She was not given any of the foregoing. The local authority…did not even consider whether she was capable of consenting to [the child’s] accommodation.” The case was reported by Louise Tickle in the Guardian and the legal implications unpicked by the legal blogger suesspiciousminds.

The judge also commended the foster carers in both cases. “By happenchance alone, as it appears to me, both children have remained in the care of quite extraordinary and superlative carers who have met their respective needs extremely well… For periods of at least eight years they have each cared for the two boys without any parental responsibility for either of them. Both sets of foster carers have in many ways been failed by this local authority, but their commitment to [the children] has been undaunted and unfailing.”

Justice Keehan ordered an examination into the children currently being accommodated by Herefordshire County Council and found a further 14 children  to “have wrongly and abusively been the subject of section 20 accommodation for a wholly inappropriate lengthy period of time”.

Politicians try to make sense of fostering reviews

A group of over 40 organisations and individuals in the children’s social care sector have signed a joint letter urging the children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi to reject five recommendations in the recent review (formerly stocktake) of foster care in England. “If acted on, recommendations 4, 6, 7, 8 and 33 would greatly weaken the legal protections enjoyed by our country’s most vulnerable children and young people,” they said. The recommendations include foster carers getting delegated authority automatically even where children are voluntarily accommodated, abolition of independent reviewing officers and a removal of the presumption that siblings should be placed together where possible.

The letter was issued in the week that Zahawi faced interrogation by the education select committee with the recent review of fostering providing a major focus of scruitiny. Although he refused to be drawn on specific elements of the review’s recommendations Zahawi appeared to indicate some area of agreement with the overall tone of the Narey/Owers review when he referred to foster carers as foster parents. “I like to call them foster parents – what they are doing is parenting –  it does not mean we are denigrating the biological parents in any way,” he said. The minister also questioned the Fostering Network’s assertion that a several local authorities were paying their carers below the recommended minimum allowances for fostering that had been increased by just 1.5% last month, half the rate of the consumer price index. “When we dug below that it was only a pound or 50 pence below,” he said.

The committee MPs grilled the minister on the government’s failure to provide early intervention that could have prevented more children going into the care system. “What we would like is a commitment from government to fund early intervention properly not piecemeal and patchy around the country… so that not all children end up in care,” one of the MPs said. Meanwhile a separate Commons debate led by Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson also questioned some of the conclusions of the review. “The stocktake concluded that pay was not an issue. The feedback I have had is that that is totally untrue,” the MP said. MP Lisa Nandy found that, “The sense of professionalism that many foster-carers feel about the work they do is not adequately reflected in the report.,” while the absence of the child’s voice “is really quite serious”.

Meanwhile the Public Accounts Committee in Wales is continuing with its inquiry into care services, last month hearing from a number of witnesses including Colin Turner, director of the Fostering Network in Wales who described to the committee the pathway by which many children come into care. “Many of them are placed in an emergency, with the absence of clear planning in terms of placement matching, and that’s often because, simply, there are not enough foster placements to meet the individual needs of those children when, and if, we’re aware of those needs….With the current children that I have, it was a phone call at midnight, saying, ‘We’re desperate, can you look after them just until Monday?’ Two years on, they’re still with me.”

And in Scotland, the independent care review is unlikely to be completed until 2020, review chair Fiona Duncan told the Education and Skills Committee. There was a huge volume of people to talk to in order to “achieve a consensus about the vision for care”, she said. Part of the process would involve “sense checking” assumptions with different groups of young people as they went along to avoid the care review process working as an echo chamber.

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