Fostering Aspirations As The Downturn Bites Hard In Tyneside

Another day, another report on the parlous state of foster care. Media coverage, such as it is, homed in on the shortage of carers, variously estimated at between 8000 and 10,000, and on the poor outcomes for children in care in fundamental areas such as educational achievement, incidence of mental health problems and offending behaviour.

None of this is new – the Fostering Network has rendered impotent the word ‘crisis’, so often have they used it over the years – although there is no harm in it being said once again. However the report itself, Fostering Aspirations by the Policy Exchange  has a wider scope, incorporating the views of foster carers and children in care into their analysis of the quality of care and emerging with radical suggestions for tackling the problem, most notably a salary structure for a professional foster care service and an overhaul of commissioning arrangements that would see local authority fostering departments competing alongside the independent sector in a tendering process for placements or a total outsourcing of fostering.

It’s a thought-provoking read that I would recommend to anyone interested in the future of children in care. Whilst I don’t agree with all of it and wish a greater emphasis had been given to successes and what works, it has a genuine tilt at problem-solving rather than resorting to hand-wringing platitudes or at the other extreme, a bullish ‘something must be done’ mentality. Despite its rigour, I was left with a sense of disconnection and distance. This comes not so much from the body of a well-researched document but from the fact that it proposes change in a single element, fostering, of a complex system. If the rest of the system remains resistant, nothing effective is likely to happen, and fostering will toddle along in a permanent state of crisis.
Leaving aside the dubious merits of competitive tendering for foster placements (that was tough but see, I managed it…), let’s place the key recommendations in context. More children are coming into care than ever before. Baby Peter was a while ago now but still reverberates – November’s care applications were the third highest in history. Some go further and say more children should be removed from failing families. This irresistible force meets the immovable object of the cuts. There are fewer resources. The report concentrates on foster carers but has little to say about the team around the child. It’s there, in health, CAMHS, support workers, therapists, where funding is being cut to the bone.
I have deep sympathy for many local authorities struggling to provide the best possible service whilst their budgets are being butchered. Most authorities, that is – this report notes that some authorities do not have a set fee structure for their carers, others do not record data on the progress of care planning for children. If this is the case, how they will face up to the proposed fundamental changes is beyond me. Having just come from a meeting where no drinks were available because there’s no budget for them, the majority of managers will read the recommendation that carers should have a regular fee paid every week, not go any further and chuck the report in the recycle bin.
This report notes the long term costs of failures in the care system to individuals and to the resources that are used up in caring for them. A stable, high quality placement will benefit the individual and society. Research and experience confirm the value of long term planning but there is no incentive to take the long view. In this target-driven world, local authorities cannot measure let alone evaluate the returns on their input, or if they can, they can get no credit for the success. Others may reap the benefit – young people move, families may be grateful but that cuts no ice on the spreadsheet.
Payment by results is suggested. The question of what this actually means is fudged – careful examination by experts and practitioners will create the benchmarks. Leaving those thorny questions aside, I struggle to see how allowance can be made for the improved long term outcomes we crave. One of the first lessons I learned as a residential social worker barely older than the adolescents in my care came from my world weary but dedicated manager. ‘You’ll never know how well we’ve done until you bump into them in the street in 10 years time.” Even on a shorter timescale, will providers wait for their reward as the baby newly placed takes her A levels? Effectively that’s an 18 year wait for a full return on investment.
Rather than take the long view, the government is keen on a quick fix. Fostering has received a lower priority than adoption – there’s no ‘fostering czar’ at the moment although I am available – but indications are that the focus is on one element of the lengthy and complex continuum that is child care, the assessment. The arguments that it is unnecessarily time-consuming, detailed and bureaucratic have been chanted like a mantra by senior politicians. Recently Tim Loughton described it as ‘too intrusive’, and this to an audience of fostering professionals so he must feel on solid ground. It’s clear this is where they are going but ‘more’ does not mean ‘better’. Higher numbers will not necessarily provide the quality desperately required by children entering public care and facing increasingly complex issues.
The report rightly addresses the quality of support and supervision that is a necessity if foster care is to be improved and the complaints of many children about what amounts to neglect from carers motivated primarily by money are to be dealt with. It’s a small point but the new child centred National Minimum Standards introduced in April last year quietly dropped the requirement for a minimum number of visits by the supervising social worker. In itself this is no guarantee of good supervision, the Department has nevertheless condoned the disappearance of even this basic standard.
The most telling indicator of context comes from a newspaper report also published yesterday that on Tyneside the poor economic conditions have been linked to a rise in the numbers of children being taken into care, leading to a financial crisis:
“Across the region, councils have reported multi-million pound overspends, with many North East councils among those facing the greatest increases in England.

One chief executive said the rise was partly due to the pressure placed on families as a result of the economic downturn, with domestic violence reports leading to more council interventions. He added that rising unemployment was expected to see the situation facing council bosses worsen.

This week Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell will back a charity report warning that rising unemployment and increasing food and fuel bills are contributing to the growing number of child neglect cases.”
It’s the shape of things to come and if fostering is to be effective in improving outcomes, this sad truth has to be directly addressed by the government rather than fiddle around with isolated elements of the system.
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