The eight Care Inquiry charities have highlighted their five priorities for action – what needs to change so that the most vulnerable children have the opportunity to experience permanence and a sense of belonging and identity.
1. Placement stability, including stability of relationships with social workers and others. Not just about length of placement, but length linked to a positive relationship between carer and young person.
2. Commissioning and the focus on commissioning [not just procurements] – with attention to long-term outcomes into adulthood, not just measures at 18 or 21, and to the notion of value for money, not a focus on weekly costs.
3. Evidence-informed practice and how we ensure that practitioners from all areas – social work, the judiciary etc – use evidence-informed practice.
4. Leaving care – or for me transition to adulthood – and appropriate on-going support through early adulthood and beyond, if needed. Not developing dependency but thinking about how we create what good parents do for their children. If the state intervenes in family life should it abdicate its corporate parenting responsibility at a particular age?
5. Contact – our Bob Broad research Aspirations showed that siblings were the second most important people to children in care, after their carer. Birth mother was third. So how do we maintain contact with wider family members?
WHO CARES? TRUST
1. A system that listens to children
Current legislation requires practitioners to balance the wishes and feelings of children with their best interests. Yet too often children and young people say that the system does too little to genuinely seek and respond to their views, wishes and feelings.
Children’s views should not be seen as less important than their best interest. Rather, best interests can only be identified if views, wishes and feelings are sought. Good outcomes for children rely on them having a meaningful involvement in the decisions that are made about their lives.
There are practical ways of improving practice across the whole system – from the courtroom to the review meeting. These include ensuring that children are spoken to in private, can communicate in places and ways in which they feel comfortable and that they have ready access to independent advocacy if they need it.
Independent Reviewing Officers have a critical part to play in developing a system that listens to children, but inconsistency of practice and concerns about independence mean that their role needs to be made significantly stronger. We would like to see them becoming increasingly independent of local authorities.
However, improving these things is not an end in itself. A child-centred culture is needed which frees up, supports and empowers children’s services professionals to have as their starting point the child’s perspective.
2. Real placement choice
The shortage and imbalance of placements in the system mean that social care teams are not able to present children with a choice of placements. In reality, placing a child is an exercise in achieving best fit rather than a genuine match.
We want to see children given the option of at least two different placements and being involved in the decision about which one is right for them. They should have time to settle into a placement and the option of going to the back-up placement if the first one does not work. One young person said to us recently “there’s no point in having a permanent placement if it’s permanently bad”.
Placement choice should be available for social workers too. Recommendations for placements should be predicated on the needs of the individual child rather than the availability or cost of a placement. We should not see attempts to place a child with foster carers when social workers believe they need residential care nor kinship carers urged to take on special guardianship orders because it’s a cheaper option.
3. Beyond safety and security
When the state takes draconian action to assume parental responsibility for a child it has a duty to provide parenting which is not just good enough, but excellent. This needs to be more than providing a safe and secure place for a child to live. The state’s work does not end with the first placement: this is where it begins.
The early lives of many children in care and those who are adopted will have been characterised by abuse and neglect. We want to see significantly more emphasis placed on how the care system can provide therapeutic parenting for these children.
This means increasing investment in training for foster carers and key workers in children’s homes, early availability of non-clinical support for emotional and mental health needs and greater access to clinical, therapeutic support when that is right for the child. More needs to be done to ensure that these services are tailored for the particular needs of children in care and adopted children.
4. A properly resourced system
In every area of the care system we hear that there are too few resources for the job at hand: whether that be a shortage of foster carers, too little post-adoption support, an unevenly distributed children’s home market, unequal allowances for kinship carers or too few social workers and IROs to manage an increasing number of cases.
The number of children in care is rising and the amount of money available to local authorities is falling. Even where local authorities have managed to protect budgets, very few have increased them. The amount of money available for each looked-after child is falling.
Research from Loughborough University has suggested that it is possible to cost services for looked-after children based on levels of current expenditure. We would want to see this extended to establish how much caring for a child really costs and sufficient, ring-fenced resources made available at a national and local level to meet the needs of this group.
5. Understanding the importance of birth parents, siblings and families
We should not forget the powerful and important role that parents, siblings and other members of birth families play in the lives of children, even when they can no longer live at home with them. The issues of permanence, stability, belonging and identity are inextricably linked with the relationship a child has with their birth family.
The work of social care teams in supporting families’ needs should continue, not stop, after the decision to take a child into care.
The issue of contact is where this continued work is most obviously important. The purpose of contact may vary, but it will often be easier to achieve if all parties to the contact arrangements understand the purpose and are helped to work towards that goal.
RESEARCH IN PRACTICE
1. A shared understanding of what permanence needs to be established – one that considers emotional stability, identity, etc not just placement longevity. This needs to be a definition that is recognised by policy-makers, the inspectorate, the sector and service users.
2. Those providing support to children in the system (whether foster carers, adoptive parents, residential workers, kinship carers) need to be considered as part of the wider children’s workforce who play a role just as vital as social workers, for example – and have attention paid to their support needs and professional development as such.
3. The system, and in particular elements of social work, needs support to accept that attachment to the natural family, and regular contact with them are often very important (especially to older children), however much such contact / relationships have been determined as harmful. Our whole child welfare system is about protection, and it is therefore hard for professionals to accommodate these very natural and powerful drivers for children within their practice / processes.
4. We need to start conceptualising corporate parenting as like any other kind of parenting; ie no one ‘leaves’ their parents’ care – they just develop their independence in a managed and supported way; we wouldn’t move our own children at short notice using bin liners as suitcases, etc
5. Professionals (including carers) need to be trained in those interventions and approaches that are proven to be effective in enabling attachment; addressing trauma and loss; etc.
THE FOSTERING NETWORK
1. Raising the leaving care age – it is more and more unacceptable that a group of children, many of whom will still be very vulnerable at 17, are forced, encouraged or simply expected to live on their own when most children now go on living with their families until their mid-20s. Improving their experience of care before they are 18 will have little effect if they continue to have to leave at too young an age. Relationships and the continuity of relationships must be at the heart of the system. This is what children value, remember and take with them. We need a system and a culture that places the quality and continuity of relationships at the heart.
2. The skills of the workforce. Looking after many of the children and young people in care today is very difficult and demanding. It requires carers with significant skills, an ability to be reflective about their own practice and behaviour, and the ability to adapt and develop new skills to respond to new challenges.
3. A structure for permanent foster care that gives foster carers an equivalent level of authority as PR, offers a lighter touch monitoring, can provide over time varied and required levels of support and advice, and guarantees funding at an equivalent level for young people up to 21 or possibly older.
4. Ensuring that new placements are properly planned and that accepted good practice is routinely followed. This should include evidence that the child has a choice, the carers can meet the child’s needs, full sharing of information with the carers, introductions, agreement about the purpose of the placement, and arrangements in place to ensure continuity of important relationships.
5. Timely decision making and effective family support services and reunification programmes as I think that these are the basis for good permanence planning. Knowing that everything has been done that could be done to make it possible for a child or young person to live with their family makes it much easier for children, their families and social workers to pursue, and in some cases accept, a new permanent family placement.
FAMILY RIGHTS GROUP
1. Striking the right balance, when a child is at risk, between ensuring that:
• the child’s short- and long-term welfare needs are met (including their safety, need for permanence, the opportunity to build strong attachments and develop a positive sense of identity)
• planning and decision-making processes enable and support the family to address identified concerns
• the child’s right to respect to family life is observed, including exploring all potential placements within their wider family, and
• plans for the child are made without unnecessary or harmful delay and within a timescale that meets the child’s short- and long-term needs, including formation of secure attachments.
2. Developing a child welfare system where support reflects the needs of the child and their family rather than the child’s legal status.
3. Linked to 2, family and friends care (which encompasses a range of legal statuses eg RO, SGO, no order, care order etc) doesn’t fit neatly into our child welfare structures or benefits system. The response too often from practitioners, managers and decision makers is not to change the system, but instead to sideline such children and carers. The latter (especially those outside the care system or who don’t have an SGO) are often treated as invisible, neither recognised nor supported. If you want to test this out try asking a council to work with you to set up a local family and friends care support group for all such carers, including those outside the care system, and witness the obstacles you face – it’s easier to fly to the moon! What we’re left with currently is in the main a nonsensical position that the care system is the only route for children in family and friends care to be entitled to help and assistance e.g. life-story work and financial assistance.
4. Addressing significant imbalance across authorities re preventative support available to parents to prevent problems escalating to the point that local authorities apply for a care order, and in pre-proceedings action such as family group conferences, which enable wider family members to understand the scale of difficulties faced and to put themselves forward as potential carers if the child can’t remain with their parents.
5. When a child in care might return to their parents, getting the support systems, planning and assessment right prior to return and afterwards, in the short- and long-term interest of the child.
1. The views of young people should influence the views that others take.
2. Recognition that the right sort of placements for young people right from the start will greatly improve the quality of their life way beyond their time in care.
3. Vulnerable young people should be placed in the most suitable setting, not one where the sole determinant is cost.
4. After being looked after in high-quality settings vulnerable young people should not be ‘abandoned’ when they reach adulthood.
5. The need for there to be long-term support for those young people leaving care who cannot or will not return to their family.
1. Ensure that we recruit sufficient adopters to enable all children with plans for adoption to be adopted. To include targeted, nationally resourced recruitment of adopters for sibling groups etc.
2. Strengthened adoption support to reduce postcode lottery in provision. Will probably require some national investment.
3. A stronger national focus on foster care, to include recruitment of foster carers and work to improve retention.
4. Analysis of the impact of Munro, Social Work Taskforce, Social Work Reform Board etc. Are things getting better on the front line of social work? How is this impacting on children in care?
5. A stronger focus on the importance of relationships and the maintenance, promotion and development of relationships for children in care. We know that this matters hugely to children. Coupled with a stronger focus on placement quality viewed from the perspective of the child going to or living in that placement.
1. All decisions to be based on the best interests of the individual child – their needs should be at the heart of the decision-making process.
2. Understanding what is best done at a very local level and what is best delivered nationally or regionally to ensure the most effective use of limited resources.
3. The guaranteed entitlement to the right level of support to maintain all permanence options. Placements, whatever form they take, should be fully, properly and adequately supported. This needs to be evidenced to evidence the social return on this investment.
4. An evidence base that covers all aspects of permanence and informs policy and practice development for all those working in intervention and placement work (including those in the legal system).
5. All practitioners and carers to have easy access to the best evidence-based practice. They should be equal partners in meeting the needs of children in, and on the edge of, care. Social work, education and health professionals should receive clear evidence-based training around trauma and early childhood development.