Understanding permanence and what this means for children in care in England was the subject this morning at the first session of the Care Inquiry.
Ann Phoenix from Coram opened the session by discussing the importance of children developing a sense of identity and belonging. Bruce Clarke, policy director at Cafcass, and Janet Boddy, from the University of Sussex, presented a ‘state of the nation’ overview on trends in the care population and the role of the different care options for these children and young people.
Bruce highlighted the current policy concentration on adoption, but reminded the delegates that most children who enter the looked-after system cannot and should not be placed or adoption. “So the question of whether adoption is the best option is not really the right one,” he explained.
The concepts of permanence outlined in the new Adoption Action Plan – security, stability and love, through childhood and beyond – are right, explained Janet, but should apply to all care options. Permanence is as relevant for older children as babies and toddlers entering a long-term placement.
“Pathways to legal permanence still account for a small proportion of children, again raising the critical question of how the qualities of care that lead us to prioritise permanence – stability, security and loving relationships – can be ensured for all children who encounter the looked-after system, and not just those who follow one of these routes,” she said.
One of the gaps in knowledge, she continued, was around legal permanence and placements that give a sense of permanence for the child, as there are no statistics on long-term foster care. Both mainstream and family and friends foster care offered opportunities for permanence, although a lack of foster care placements, insufficient support and training for foster carers were challenges within unrelated foster care, while family and friends foster care “needs attention and resourcing”.
In contrast, residential care – looking after one in 10 children in care – was often treated as a last resort in England, whereas in other European countries it was a specialist service. “While residential care in England remains a last resort, it doesn’t fit within a discussion of permanency or even stability. To meet the permanence needs of older children, we have to address residential care.”
A focus on permanence does not mean that any placement move is bad. The quality of the placement and whether it is the right one for the child is crucial. “The point is that both long and short-term placements should be made with a view to the permanence needs of the child,” said Janet.
A lively debate followed Janet’s presentation, with invited delegates discussing the issues raised. Foster carer Jim Bond stressed the importance of the Inquiry making a real difference: “It’s not only about policy, it’s about what goes on at ground level,” he said. “After 20 years we are still talking about the same issues. What do we do to get it right?”
The debate continues this afternoon. Follow the session’s progress on Twitter #careinquiry