Posts tagged ‘children in care’

April 9, 2013

Race To The Bottom Commissioning

Writers are obsessed not just with words but with wordcount. That innocuous, humble figure in the drop-down menu or nestling innocently in the bottom left hand corner of your screen should be a record of achievement. Instead, too often it’s a curse, an ever-tightening straitjacket on the creative flow. Blogging at least allows me to stretch out a bit as opposed to a commissioned piece for another site or magazine, but there’s lots of evidence to show people seldom read to the end of the article or  even past the opening paragraphs. If you’ve reached this point, you might well be in the minority.

Lately I’ve been a victim of the oppression of wordcount for a very different reason. Creativity has no place in the dark murky world of contract compliance and tenders.

These form an increasing proportion of the workload of any independent provider in fostering and residential work. I understand why they have appeared. After all, I’m old enough to recall the old days when social work had no systems for measuring its effectiveness, the days when we just knew and that got us nowhere. However, the last few months have taught me that while it appears we have swung to the other extreme with compliance coming out of every orifice, not only are we no nearer to truly demonstrating effectiveness, it is stifling innovation and good practice that children and young people need more desperately than ever before.

Two weeks ago I completed a tender for an authority in the southeast. I wrote 12,098 words. As each question was limited to 500 words, you can see how much ground they wanted to cover, except that this document, clearly designed by committee, was intensely repetitive. There are only so many ways you can say you are child centred, needs-based, work in partnership and strive to keep children safe.

Anyway, there were four lots to this tender for different groups of children but the responses were similar, so that’s 48,392 words in total, half a decent novel in another world. For this sought-after tender there would be at least 40 providers going for it, which means the authority will have to read and digest 1,935,680 words. The responses  must be processed to ensure the quality threshold is achieved, graded on a scale of 1 to 5 then compared to rank the providers in a tiered system.

My 48,392 words does not include any of the policies and procedures that were requested, nor any of the considerable business, insurance and financial information. Then this whole quality exercise counts for only 40% of the tender because 60% is price. This imbalance between quality and cost is common – one tender went 70-30 in favour of price.

This modern approach to commissioning is an exercise in futility. I simply do not believe that all my words will be read, let alone systematically compared with the other 1,887,288 that have been submitted. It cannot possibly be done.

I resent the fact that quality is less significant than price. More and more, authorities are looking to the bottom line of the balance rather than good practice when it comes to children’s futures. I accept that they don’t have as much money and that the cuts are not their fault. However, this is not the most effective way of using their scarce resources to provide a child centred service.

I’ve said before how prices can be kept down in the sector – you provide a placement without extra services like contact, therapy and other forms of support. Yet carers as well as children need those packages of care as the demands of fostering are ever more complex. A price-based approach does not encourage that.

With the contract comes compliance. Fine, I understand why this is important. However, what happens in practice is that each authority wants very similar information but in a slightly different form. The 5 outcomes are the same, the info they require ever so slightly different. In passing, you can work out the problems affecting every authority by the nature of their requirements. A heavy emphasis on, say, staff checks or allegations means they’ve had a real problem in the recent past.

The lack of consistency means providers have to collect different statistics for every authority. Providers are of course inspected by Ofsted but this seems to be irrelevant when it comes to the tenders and perish the thought that Ofsted might want stats that are in any way similar to those required by authorities. Ofsted for example uses ethnic monitoring categories that do not match with any other I have come across.

All of this costs money. Providers will have to pass on the costs of extra posts and databases in one way or another, and goodness what the local authority staff costs are in processing 1,935,680 words.

Three other southeast tenders are between 3 and 5 months late because authorities are unable to reach a conclusion. Two face legal challenges because they request information that breaches data protection legislation. Some simply do not realise that having a policy for everything does not guarantee better quality. One organisation was censured for not having a child protection policy on gangs, but what do they expect. “For children and young people we do all we can to keep them safe but if they join a gang, sod ‘em.” It’s reached the stage where I would be tempted to submit that.

Forgive the ranting. It’s helped me let off a bit of steam. I’ve just spent the day on a Section 11 audit for a council in East Anglia. It’s about safeguarding and that’s important, really, I get it, but question whether this is the right way to go about it. Self-assessment. Frankly unlikely that I’m going to give a score of anything less than perfect. ‘Do you have a policy on such and such?’ Answer: “Yes I do have a policy on such and such.” It will keep them happy because this is the fourth one I have filled in and everyone has been happy with that answer so far. Doesn’t say how good this provider is or the difference good safeguarding and risk-management makes.

The Fostering Regulations require that organisations send their child protection policies to every authority they work with or could work with. I know another provider who sent out 42 responses and did not hear back from one of them, not even an acknowledgement. Utterly futile.

It has reached the point where I don’t know what piece of legislation it is Section 11 of and I’m past the point of caring. 1,974 words, if you’re interested. I’m hacked off – you can tell, can’t you – because it’s a waste, of precious resources and of my creativity and innovation as a practitioner. I have several ideas stillborn because there is simply no time. Putting them into action would improve the well-being of children in care far more than any of the compliance mechanisms do.

But if by some chance you’ve bucked the stats and reached this far, have a look at two recent pieces that are considered, definitely non-ranty but point out the consequences. “Commissioning services drives up costs” from Public Service Europe and “race to the bottom commissioning” from the Third Sector. Commissioning is important. It needs to focus on value and quality. There must be a better way. That’s 1213 words I wanted to write.

January 27, 2013

Adoption: Threats And Divisions As Gove Loses Patience

We’ve known for some time now that as far as working with children in care are concerned, adoption is the government’s absolute priority. A series of announcements over the past 15 months or so have focused on different aspects of the process. Last week came the latest and potentially most radical, where failing authorities could be stripped of their powers, which would be handed to the voluntary or private sector. There’s £150m purely for adoption, new resources but it’s not new money because it comes from cash previously earmarked for early intervention. Michael Gove just got serious.

The new money for adoption is £150m previously earmarked for early intervention, an area where Surestart and other preventative initiatives that aim to keep families together have already been decimated. A few days before this announcement, Eric Pickles stated he wanted to cut resources available for troubled families. The agenda could not be more stark – prevention and keeping families together is less important than adoption. With devastating irony, this most ideological of decisions uses money specifically set aside for evidence-based initiatives.

Politicians and practitioners agree that the shortage of adoptive carers has to be robustly addressed but surely not at the expense of other children in need. The government’s attempt to say that one sector in need is more important than another smacks of the way their divisive language around the welfare and employment debate tries to set working people against the unemployed, the rest against the “shirkers and skivers”. Child care is a continuum, with support for keeping families together at one end and adoption at the other. They may appear to be poles apart but in fact they are part of the same whole, far more closely related than is convenient for the governement to acknowledge.

Evidence shows that large numbers of children come in and out of care. In foster care, for example, providers have noticed that the rise in placements due to the higher numbers of children coming into care has been accompanied by an increase in the number of short-term placments, where children then return home. It is easy to forget that the original intention of section 20 of the Children Act where children and young people can be accommodated with the agreement of their parents was designed to maintain the ties between children and their families rather than close the door, and that families could use accommodation as a service, a week or two’s respite while they sort out problems with the help of their social worker so that the child can return to where they belong, in a safe, caring home. The Act became law in 1991 but sounds like ancient history. I may as well be writing in Sanskrit for all the sense those last few sentences make in 2013.

On a personal level, as someone who has worked across the whole spectrum but more recently in fostering and adoption, I feel dirty, as if I’m using money that’s been pinched from a child’s piggy bank. This is how awful this low, underhand and cold-blooded financial conjuring makes me feel.

The decision encapsulates all that is wrong in that dark, dank place where politics meets planning for children’s services. These are themes I’ve written about before. Prevention leads to better services and saves money in the long run whether it’s children in care, health and safety or gritting the roads before forecast snow falls. Yet for the government, any government not just this one, there’s little reason to invest in the long-term because another administration will reap the benefit, be it another government or perish the thought, another lot of politicians from another party. Yet we will know the success of our work with children in care only when they are well into adulthood, and anyway, even then people change as they grow older.

Adotpion czar Martin Narey, now Sir Martin, said this week that if even half the children on the waiting list are adopted, that would produce huge savings. He’s right of course, and he’s right to say that children should not have to languish in care with only the hope of a family to hang on to. Where I fundamentally disagree is that one element of the continuum should be prioritised at the expense of another. The twin goals of long-term savings and better choices for children and families for children in need of help from the state could be achieved by investment in early intervention as well as in adoption, not instead of. Also, even if the adoption backlog were cleared, there are others coming through the system in greater numbers than ever before. They too will need placements and the resources to find them. Further, adoption is not the only route to permanence. Evidence demonstrates the value of long-term fostering for many children and for their carers who receive support throughout the placement. These placements cost money but the children are worth it.

I am delighted that the government has made the welfare of children in care a priority, the first to do so in recent memory. However, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that for this long-term, complex issue they are seeking a quick win, the headline and the soundbite that goes with it.

More irony: government proposals in the pipeline won’t grab the headlines but are far more interesting and relevent for me as a practitioner because they directly address many of the problems in the existing system. Most important is the review of the court process that maintains a steadfast focus on the needs of the child within a clear timetable and minimises drift. Support for adopters will increase, with a look at personal budgets so they can decide what their family needs and how to sort out any problems. The purpose of the new national Adoption Gateway is to make it easier for prospective adopters to find out more. Changes in the inter-agency fee place the voluntary sector on the same level as authorties, thus widening the pool of adopters. Finally, there will be more organised gatherings of prospective adopters and children, sometimes called adoption parties. This is a direct result of an evidence-based study by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering that was properly researched, funded by the voluntary sector and fully evaluated. Taken together, these initiatives will do nothing but good. I fully support them. Evidence not ideology.

Every now and again any system in any organisation needs a good kick up the backsidebut in my experience, threats are far less effective than committed, considered leadership that understands a problem and sets goals for change. The government has quickly tired of what it sees as intransigence in the sector. Last week we heard that councils who do not respond will find adoption services removed entirely from them and placed in the hands of the voluntary and private sector. The appearence of the private sector is noteworthy. This requires a legislative change as private companies are not able by law to become adoption agencies.

Once more we are seeing divisions rather than partnership. The voluntary sector wants to work alongside local authority partners. Legions of dedicated, able local authority social workers want to find more adopters, not to be excluded from the whole process. We have to work closely with communities to find more adopters, for example more black adopters, rather than becoming ever more distant. Change must be accomplished by working with the sector not against it.

September 5, 2012

Tell Tim He’s Sacked

One cold evening a couple of years ago I went to hear Tim Loughton, the former Children’s Minister shuffled out of the pack yesterday, speak at a meeting of the All Party parliamentary group for children in care. We queued to the sound of shrill chanting and ominous bullhorns. The Comprehensive Spending Review was being debated in the House, the first indication of the true extent of the government’s spending cuts and Whitehall was closed to traffic as a protest rally gathered.

Accompanied by two young women in foster care, we dawdled through Westminster Hall and the corridors of power. It’s a privilege to be so close to government, never to be rushed. As we hung around in the lobby, the division bell sounded. Members appeared from all sides and dashed into the Commons chamber. They left the door open for a while so we could peer around the corner to see democracy in action.

Given the significance of the evening’s events he could have easily been excused but to his great credit, Loughton appeared as scheduled to address the packed committee room full of young people from all over the country. His speech was a characteristically robust endorsement of the value of foster care and the rights of children and young people in care to the same opportunities as their peers.

With the eloquence of experience, a succession of young people politely but firmly pointed out the flaws in his argument. You say education is important for children in care but you’ve just voted to do away with educational maintenance, the money that supports us. You say jobs are important but unemployment for young people is rising. You say we all deserve good foster carers but there’s a chronic shortage of resources to recruit them. Thanks for coming, though.

And that’s Tim Loughton in a nutshell. Unfashionably sticking up for children and young people in care and defending the social work profession whilst simultaneously his Cabinet eviscerated the resources he claimed were in place  to support them.

That night Loughton bobbed and weaved with the skill of an experienced politician, riding out the storm without properly satisfying anyone in his responses. Most ministers would have ducked out: he was there because he wanted to stay. Loughton is no placeholder or careerist. Shadow Children’s Minister for several years before coming to power, this is the portfolio he sought and prepared for.

The former minister is extremely well-informed about fostering, adoption and children in care. Unusually his main source was the people involved rather than his civil servants. Over an extended period he’s taken the time to understand the sector by making himself available to children, young people and carers. He created a telephone hotline, “Tell Tim”, and met regularly with organisations representing young people and carers, offering an unprecedented degree of accessibility. Last night on twitter they lined up to thank him and praise his commitment. For a group who voice is seldom heard, his willingness to listen meant an awful lot.

One of the things children and young people in care told him was that they were fed up with needing to get permission from social workers for school trips, holidays, activities and sleepovers with friends. You couldn’t mark them out as more different from their peers if you felt-tipped a red cross on their foreheads. A group of young people confronted him on television about this. Loughton shifted uneasily under the pressure, yet he delivered on his promise to respond. His first act as a minister was to write to local authorities to remind them that they had the power to give foster carers discretion on these matters. I showed a copy to one of the young women who appeared in the programme – “You did this,” I said. Now it’s enshrined in the revised Fostering Standards. The fact authorities have still not got the message is not his fault.

It’s not all so positive. He defends social work yet I’ve heard him dismiss the content and nature of assessments with the sarcastic panache of a Daily Mail leader writer. His promised fostering action plan is still to materialise. Hearing him several times subsequently, I continued to admire his grasp of the fostering task whilst growing weary of disingenuous references to the deficiencies of authorities he knew full well were tottering under the burden of  his government’s cuts.

Ultimately his departure may say less about the man and more about the government’s perception of the sector. The adoption agenda has been dominated by Gove and Cameron. Martin Narey joined the chorus of praise and regret but in terms of policy creation made him largely redundant.

They have seized the big issues, relating it to other props of Tory policy around the family and budgets cuts. In this world, an understanding of the details, of the everyday problems facing children, carers and social workers, gets in the way. The struggles with resources, with finding the right placement, with whether a child can stay with her friend this weekend, have little significance. More than this, they may actually obstruct the agenda for change because they don’t fit together with policy as neatly as the Department may wish.

Yet these are the issues that make life better for children and young people in care. For children and carers alike, nothing is more important. Gove’s distance from this awkward day-to-day reality leads to dogmatic policy. It leaves you to wonder if there is ever a place for any minister who thoroughly masters not his brief but an understanding of the people affected by it. It’s hard to understand social work. Loughton did, but in the end all it got him was the sack.

July 3, 2012

Children In Care Are Big Business

The encroachment of international venture capital into the private provision of residential and foster care for looked after children is hardly news. It’s been covered regularly over the last couple of years but yesterday’s Times revealed the full extent of what many businesspeople have known for a while now, that the sector offers rich pickings without having to wait an undue length of time for a return.

One of Britain’s biggest independent fostering providers, the National Fostering Agency (NFA) was bought by one such company in 2006 and sold to another for £130m, tripling the original investment. Another fund made a 500% return in six years. Profits are maximised, says the piece, by concentrating residential units in parts of the country where property is cheaper. Rochdale, the scene of the recent child exploitation scandal, is cited as one example. Children in care are not only big business, they are an international commodity. Acorn Care is an investment for the pension fund of Canadian teachers.

In January the Telegraph reported that NFA made £3.5m profit in the last financial year. The previous year, a Deloitte’s survey revealed an annual profit growth of 35% as they came in at number 56 in the 100 most profitable private equity backed companies. Ironically, the Thunderer itself named them as ‘One To Watch’.

As ever with these things, the blanket statements unjustly tarnish the many private concerns who work hard on behalf of children and young people. The Times article (sheltering behind a paywall so no links, I’m afraid) unfairly juxtaposes the private equity information with the Rochdale scandal by puting them on the same page but there’s no demonstrable casual link between the two even if the children lived in a private residential home. Also, the piece leaves the reader blinking at some of the fees (one placement comes in at a cool £378,000 pa) but some of the most damaged young people need the most intensive, expert care.

It’s captured more attention this time round partly because it is in the Times, hardly a refuge of pinko mungbean scoffing sandal- wearing social work types but mainly because it neatly fits the zeitgeist. We accept, or are resigned to,  firms making profits and the people owning those companies making a lot of money but the fallout from the banking crisis has revealed just how wide the disparities can be. Whether it be Jimmy Carr’s tax avoidance or Bob Diamond’s payoff, we know it goes on but there are limits. I’m not entirely sure where they are but with the provision of private equity backed care for children, it feels as if we’ve reached them. Dig deeper and there’s something profound going on – big firms selling to even bigger companies, pension funds in Canada getting fat on cash from hard pressed local authorities reeling from the very cuts that venture capital in part helped to create.

It is questionable whether local authorities are receiving the best value from the majority of providers. How do they know what the unit offers, how that compares with what other places offer, how it best meets the needs of the child or young person and how do they monitor the effectiveness of the placement? In my experience, the commissioning process is often trial and error based on factors related less to a thorough evaluation of the myriad of services on offer and more to what has worked for other children in the past or the small ads in Community Care.

Once in placement, some (not all) residential establishments are virtually impenetrable to the outside observer. Notwithstanding the complexity of some of the work undertaken, there are many places where it’s hard to grasp how the methodology or philosophy is translated into practice in terms of meeting the child’s needs in their day-to-day life, let alone challenge it. That’s of course assuming that the social worker makes more than a cursory visit. From personal experience of many fostering and residential providers, it’s unusual for children to have any sort of meaningful relationship with their social worker.

We live in a mixed economy of care. Private companies can produce excellent care, there’s no question. But venture capitalists are active in the sector because it makes them money. That’s what they do. Often they buy undervalued companies, strip out the profitable assets, let the rest go to ruin, maximise profit and get out.

Venture capitalists exist for profit. This comes at two points in the process, at the point of sale and the costs of providing a service. The sole income source is cash-strapped local authority budgets that are being squeezed beyond breaking point. For the moment, it’s a seller’s market. Outweighing the pressure on authorities to cut costs is the increased demand for places as admissions to care soar at a time when there is already a shortage of foster carers and the local authority residential sector is virtually non-existent.

There are also opportunities to cut costs by limiting the services that are available. Low pay for residential workers has been the norm since I started in the sector 30 years ago. Foster carers are paid an allowance, not a fee, and no placement means no allowance and no outgoings for the company. It’s the extra services that can rack up the costs and eat into margins. Foster carers all value the support they receive from their provider but here’s a way to cut costs. Foster care is a more complex task than ever before. The providers I work with who are most focussed on children have a ratio of supervising social workers to carers of between 1 in 10 to 1 in 14. This of course is not enough in itself to guarantee a good service but it forms a foundation because the staff have the time to focus on the children and their carers, bearing in mind that actually they have a responsibility to both. Some providers, including NFA, have a ratio of around 1 in 22 to 1 in 24 and their staff work from home, thus greatly reducing the fixed costs of office space.

The next thing to do is to push as many services that the child needs onto local health and local authority services. If the provision of, say, psychological services is rationed or not provided at all, children wait for already over-burdened CAMHS provision. The same also applies to more prosaic but vital services like transport to and from school or contact, which these days can be several days a week or every day in the case of a baby involved in court proceedings. Exclude that from the cost of a placement and the local authority picks up the bill. Include it at premium to meet a shortfall in local authority provision and the company can’t lose.

This is not a hypothetical situation. It happens every day. No wonder the sector looks so attractive. These companies aren’t interested in the long-term, or children growing up as I prefer to think of it.

And if things get rough in the placement, the firms can always play their joker. When the going gets tough, the best carers stay rock solid and consistent, knowing that trust is established precisely at these moments of greatest challenge. As one young man once said to me, quite cheerfully, ‘I kicked off for three years, then I knew they [his carers] would stick with me so I calmed down.’ For the venture capitalists, why bother? Why bother supporting a placement that will need extra resources like time, skill and extra input when you can end the placement and move on to something cheaper, because those resources cost and more cost means less profit. Blame the child. Too challenging, unacceptable behaviour, on reflection it wasn’t the right match, we were just responding to the carers, – you name it, I’ve heard it. And so it’s another disruption because the placement was taken without proper consultation. Get them in and get them out again if it’s all too much. Ofsted don’t pick this up. The companies have legions of back office staff making sure the boxes are being ticked, and if there’s one thing that Ofsted likes more than a box, it’s a ticked box. Many inspectors can’t see beyond them and the system no longer encourages it. Blame the child – it’s the perfect businessplan.

The article quotes Kevin Williams from children’s charity TACT. I’ll leave you with his words because they are the perfect summing up:

“There is a moral question about making large sums of money from children who’ve suffered abuse and neglect. If they do profit from such children, can they demonstrate that they’re delivering the best possible outcomes for those children and not simply making money through efficiency savings, by increasing workloads and reducing training and support? I would question whether they can.”

June 7, 2012

It’s Not News That Fostering Is Under Pressure

Al Murray’s news-based Sunday radio show on 5Live has a running gag where the panellists read out prominent items from the past week that are not surprising in the least. After each, he adopts an urgent cod-announcer style and bellows, ‘Not News!’ Katy Price might have a new relationship, Big Brother contestant seeks publicity, Camilla’s wearing a hideous hat: you get the picture. Shout out the catchphrase after every paragraph in this piece. Fostering Fortnight, the biggest event in fostering calendar, finished recently and frankly, nothing’s happened. It works for me.

Fostering Fortnight is a series of events to celebrate fostering and foster carers. It presents a positive view of being a carer with the dual aims of valuing those who have already discovered their vocation and attracting new recruits to fill the growing shortage of foster homes. It’s run by the Fostering Network, a charity representing the interests of carers all over the United Kingdom. This year they’ve done an excellent job, with relevant and well-timed research attracting the media’s attention alongside the heart-warming human interest stories beloved by daytime TV, climaxing with a glittering reception proudly showcasing the achievements of children and young people in care.

Children’s Minister Tim Loughton made the keynote speech. Whilst he covered a considerable amount of ground, a couple of weeks on there’s no evidence that anything much has happened. Those of us waiting for a significant initiative from the government or at the very least some leadership to take us forward were sorely disappointed. He made some eminently sensible suggestions about improving day to practice, the level at which much can be accomplished as any regular reader of my blogs will know. Reminding authorities that they should delegate more decision-taking responsibility to foster carers (something Loughton has enthusiastically supported) will improve the lives of children and young people in care, giving them the same social opportunities as their peers. Criticising the risk averse climate in decision-making is music to my ears. A drive for employers to provide fostering leave is an excellent idea and the Department are working to ensure the benefits system, including housing benefit, does not discriminate against carers. We also have familiar favourites, the ‘streamlining’ of the assessment process and introducing greater ‘flexibility’ into the placement process cuddling up to old friends like ‘unnecessary and harmful bureaucracy.’

As I say, much of this is valuable. However, the expected and trailed ‘big announcement’ did not materialise. Normally that wouldn’t unduly bother me -it’s what carers and practitioners do that counts – but fostering is facing perhaps its biggest ever challenge over the next few years and it needed a helping hand from government. In its absence, I’m left only with confirmation that fostering remains the poor relation of the care system.

Adoption has dominated the government’s agenda over the past year or so, which I’ve covered in previous posts. Loughton acknowledged as much in his speech but failed to redress the balance. The examples he gave like the Foster Carers Charter have been around for a long time and the earth hasn’t moved.

Fostering is about the skilled preparation of children and young people for the future. This can be a return to their birth family and fostering itself as well as adoption. Many young people may not wish to be adopted and also evidence shows fostering provides a successful alternative in offering stable permanence and improved life-chances, yet the perception remains that the government (not necessarily Loughton himself) sees fostering as a sort of holding area, the lounge where you rest after passing through security and checking your baggage before rushing onto the plane, the means of reaching your destination.

There are powerful reasons why the government must give a strong lead. This debate takes place within a context of the growing numbers of children and young people being taken into care outstripping the supply of new foster places, especially ones where the complexity of children’s issues can be fully addressed. I advocate an ongoing government advertising campaign for foster carers along the lines of the long-running and successful initiative to recruit teachers. Current means and methods are not enough.

Then we have inertia within hard-pressed cash-strapped local authorities. I have every sympathy but the means of change has been there for some time without there being sufficient action. Take delegated authority. It’s the jargon for enabling carers to take day to day decisions for children and young people like whether they can have a sleepover, go on a school trip, see certain friends or take part in activities where a consent form is required. Normal parenting in other words. Ask any young person in care and they would say the need to call the social worker each and every time is the single biggest impediment to being like their peers. Backed by legislation that came into force in April 2011, the decision-taking authority should now be delegated by agreement to carers and the FN have produced a spot-on format to enable this.

Nothing is happening. Not quite true, of course, but the risk averse culture is so embedded in senior management that many authorities seem hell-bent on retaining responsibility for these decisions, regardless of the fact that children are unhappy, carers exasperated and under-valued and already busy social workers embroiled in tasks others could and should take from them. In fact, the welcome legislation is nevertheless not a radical departure from the guidance that existed before April 2011. It wasn’t implemented then because of the risk averse culture and nothing significant has altered.

Finally, I’ve come across an increasing number of examples from several authorities where the much vaunted ‘streamlining’ means assessments are being rushed and the ‘flexibility’ over placements means foster homes are more crowded than ever as age and placement criteria are being stretched to fulfil demand. This is a natural consequence of fewer resources caused by spending cuts and growing demand as the threshold for coming into care shifts.

It’s not news, however, that this does not contribute to better childcare. Children are given what is available, not what they need. Carers are pressurised to go beyond their areas of preference and expertise. Carers are great, they don’t want to say ‘no’, they want to help, but to do so they require support from us professionals, which is not the case if we take shoddy resource-driven placement decisions. Above all, children’s needs are not being met. Far from addressing the problems, I fear we are merely storing up worse for the future.

April 27, 2012

Shine A Light

What would Not So Big Society do without the Daily Mail? It’s the unfailing inspiration behind many articles as we take to our keyboards in umbrage at the latest affront perpetrated on our profession and especially on the vulnerable people we in our different fields all work with.

Last week they published a piece by a columnist with a long history of antagonism towards social services. It trumpeted the scandal that children are being needlessly removed from their families. It’s familiar fare but not without its dark humour.  Googleads’ faithful algorithm  pops up at the bottom with two ads for companies offering child protection training. This time, though, there’s one difference: the author may have a point.

It’s made with a numbing, naive disregard for the reality not only of professionals but also for the children and young people who desperately need help before their lives are scarred permanently and who need the best possible services. Social workers first round up children who are then corralled into care by a legion of staunch experts (sorry, that should read “experts”).  The middle-classes are now being targeted by a new weapon of unsubstantiated non-scientific jargon. You would call it neglect. Minister Tim Loughton was moved to publicly discredit the piece.

Remove the bile, invective and unsubstantiated assertions (there won’t be much left) and a key question remains: are too many children being taken into care? There is no denying the large increase in care admissions, well-documented since the tremors of the baby Peter effect caused an upsurge in care proceedings. The aftershocks are still being felt and I’m not sure this is necessarily a good thing.

At least the growing debate is breaking out of the confines of the sector into the mainstream, including the political arena. In 2010 Barnardos commissioned a report from the thinktank Demos that concluded more children should be taken into care and at an earlier age. Their CEO at the time, Martin Narey, is now the adoption czar. The influential head of Kids Company Camila Batmanghelidjh feels the state should step in. In another piece from last week, Anthony Douglas, head of CAFCASS the over-worked court social work and mediation service, argues that taking more children into care can be beneficial.

Whichever viewpoint you take, it’s imperative that this is talked about as widely as possible. As Douglas says, “These children need as strong a light as possible shone on their lives.” Yet the context of this debate has still to be established and without it, we can’t progress. The balance between the intervention of the state and the freedom of the individual in regard to child care is fundamental to every household with children. Until this is clarified, social work will flounder at the mercy of shifting tides of opinion and will not be able to protect the children who need to be safe. Never mind the controversy in the Mail or elsewhere about where the threshold lies, we need to know that a threshold exists.

The boundaries are being established not by evidence, policy or government initiative but by the reactions of local authorities to two developments: baby Peter and the cuts. As a professional this makes me profoundly uneasy. I want to know what to do, how to apply the law together with my training and expertise. This has diminished value if  the threshold for care is dictated primarily by factors that have nothing to do with these fundamentals, let alone the actual level of need.

Good social work with children and families depends upon the practitioner having a variety of solutions available in any given situation. These resources range from preventive provision in the community through to the intervention skills of the worker and different types of placement. Hold on to your hats for the revelation that every child, every family, each situation is different so the professional needs to be able to choose what method works for this child, this family at this time. Steady yourselves, there’s more. Things change over time, so different resources might be needed further own the road.

The basic premise, as with so much of good care, is obvious. The problem is, those resources at one end of the spectrum have crumbled under a quake of a different kind, the spending review. Preventative services for children and families are fast disappearing as local authorities consolidate their precious scant resources around statutory duties. Surestart, parenting groups, family centres, section 17 money, therapy – slipping through the cracks into bottomless chasms of oblivion.

Fewer resources mean that children come into care later therefore their problems are more entrenched. Also, there’s more weight given to the option of care because there are fewer alternatives. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Then, once in care, we come across another element of the debate, the crisis in foster care as we struggle to  find enough high quality placements to address complex need.  To borrow Ermintrude’s recent remarks in regard to adult care, there isn’t a crisis in foster care. Rather, “there is a well foreseen and ignored gap in the funding and provisioning of needs in the sector.” And so care doesn’t work,. the system is failing children and we are trapped in a cycle of failure of our own making.

The Mail is the amongst the first to criticise social workers for not acting when children have been abused but this is more than the classic ‘damned if you do damned if you don’t’ bind that blights our profession. Social workers act on behalf of our society. We are public servants. If society isn’t sure what we should be doing, then neither are we and that is no good to anyone.

March 20, 2012

Adoption Reform Isn’t Just Common Sense

Around 18 months ago, I offered some consultation to a small project that planned to set up activity days where children in care met prospective adopters. Last week I saw a DVD of the first event. There was no sense of the controversy that surrounds these so-called adoption parties. Children, their social workers and adopters mingled happily during the course of a day’s outdoor activity and lunchtime entertainment. The adults acknowledged some awkwardness from their respective standpoints but all agreed this was outweighed by the positive experience, not only of meeting children but also of feeling part of something larger and important.  All valued the careful preparation that had preceded the event.

Seven children were subsequently matched and two more were in the pipeline. One, a severely disabled young girl, had been waiting almost as long as the project had taken to reach fruition. On the day, some carers met her, a real person now rather than a case or a prognosis, and an emotional bond began to form. In the carer’s words, “We just clicked.”

It’s an innovative approach not without its risks and detractors and it’s not right for everyone, but it worked. Other opportunities could and should exist for finding more carers for siblings, disabled children or black children, where shortages of adopters exist. Or just for children full stop. Yet the government is not supporting such practice-based local measures in favour of grander solutions to address long-standing problems in the adoption system.

There’s no doubt that something has to be done and the government’s drive for action comes from the very top. Michael Gove has taken the lead and adoption reform is one of Cameron’s top ten priorities in the life of his term of office. Those in the profession who are involved can barely keep up with the breakneck pace of consultation meetings and unpredictably changing policy drafts.

The result – everything is going to be quicker, including the point at which children are taken into care. The headline news was one measure in particular, that culture and ethnicity is to be of secondary importance to finding a good home. The announcements were accompanied by powerful and moving testimonies from parents who had successfully adopted children from a culture different from their own. Those who have not had such a positive experience were conspicuous by their absence, although articles did emerge as the days went on.

Whatever your views, it’s disconcertingly easy for the evidence of the lasting effects of culture and background to be shunted into the sidings in favour of the ‘common sense’ conclusion that children are better off in a home than they would be in care, regardless of the consequences later in life.  The seductive comfort of common sense in adoption provides a measure of security and sanctity for almost everyone involved in the adoption process, except for the child who has to deal with this, now and for the rest of their life, and has nowhere to hide.

Many decisions about what constitutes a cultural match are absurdly arcane and are based not on a proper understanding of the child’s history and perceptions of their own identity but on a skewed, mechanistic process that equates ‘culture’ to a sum of their parents’ ancestry and distorts complex reality as much as the common sense approach. I’ve come across siblings who waited and waited because their maternal grandparents were Polish and no white family was considered unless that box was ticked, or black prospective adopters rejected because they lived in an area of London that was predominantly white.

Of course there is some truth behind the government’s apparent wish to relegate culture and background to a minor role. The remedy, however, isn’t an arbitrary shift based on ideology and expediency. Rather, it is about better practice, better assessments and a more preceptive insight into the subtleties of identity. This in turn leads to improved matching, including both an acceptance that perfection is not possible every time but also what does and does not constitute an acceptable deviation from the vital principle of a cultural match, what the evidence is for such a conclusion and how this will be handled, now and in future. None of this is encouraged by the proposals.

Which brings me on to two other problems that I have with the government’s suggested reforms. One is that it views carers as static and unchanging, rather than individuals who can learn, develop and grow into the task of being an adoptive parent. How might they develop, what is their potential and how can this be nurtured? And here’s point two, the thorny question of more post-adoption support, which adopters’ organisations will passionately say is the biggest problem we have at the moment, as opposed to dog assessments or paperwork that the government would prefer to focus on. Both these suggestions, extra training and support post-adoption, taken together require considerable extra funding, so they are not a priority.

Of more interest is the idea that children can be placed with their prospective adopters and effectively fostered until the order goes through. This could make transitions easier and create less change for children. However, it is not without its problems. As Adoption UK point out, adopters want to do just that, adopt. The fact that children may have contact with the birth family while they wait or may be removed if the order does not go through could act as a deterrent to carers coming forward.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the proposals appear to take little account of the court process. Changes are in the pipeline but parents and members of the extended family will still have the opportunity to prove they are a worthy alternative to adoption. These issues and the time-consuming and resource draining assessments that accompany them can delay an adoptive placement extremely effectively.

I desperately want the system to make good placements for children and young people, and to make more of them. It’s needed now more than ever before. My fear is that the complexity of meeting the needs of vulnerable children hopeful for a stable future will become lost amidst the targets, league tables and rhetoric.

 

 

November 18, 2011

Adoption Is Not Meant To Be Simple

Following National Adoption Week, the movement for change is gathering momentum. Yet following last week’s debate in parliament, I retain my doubts about the direction of travel.

Members from all sides praised the efforts of adopters and for that matter foster carers too. There was cross-party agreement that there were no straightforward answers because the system unavoidably meshes different organisations and professions, such as the court and social services, and to be fair there was little direct criticism of social workers themselves and acknowledgement that they themselves are frustrated with delays in the system.

Speakers from all parties took their cue from the Prime Minister’s comments during questions at the beginning of NAW:

“the Government pledge that we will make the process of adoption and fostering simpler. It has become too bureaucratic and difficult, and the result is that it is putting people off.”

November 1, 2011

Not A Good Week For Adoption

Social care is usually the poor relation of politics. Compared with other topics it seldom gets an airing, nationally at least. The reason is simple; it’s not a vote-winner, even though the way we look after our children, our sick and our vulnerable says more about the health of society than any alternative benchmark.

So it came as a genuine surprise to hear David Cameron discussing adoption a few weeks ago in the House. Although the critical perspective of adoption Czar Martin Narey has been making waves for several months, this has been largely confined to the profession itself. Cameron on his feet in the Commons brought the debate about rates of adoption into the full glare of the media spotlight. Adoption has become a political issue.

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