Foster care has been in the limelight this year – perhaps as never before. This was a year which saw Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers publish their foster care stocktake conclusions – along with a key report from the Education Select Committee – ‘Fostering Better Outcomes’ – The Government’s response to the Education Select Committee into Fostering and Foster Care in England’. This report was described as a “dedicated and thorough investigation” by Nadhim Zahawi – the Minister for Children and Families. Quite possibly so – but, as far as the foster care stocktake was concerned, the country’s leading foster care charity – The Fostering Network – acknowledged some of the findings, but were generally disparaging. It was described as “a missed opportunity” by the charity’s chief executive, Kevin Williams:
“Today’s report appears to be a thorough stocktake of the current situation in fostering. However, despite some suggestions about how to refocus funding away from bureaucracy towards frontline support, we are disappointed in the report’s lack of vision and ambition for the future of fostering. While we are pleased with a number of the recommendations we are concerned that overall we will be left with a continuation of the status quo. ‘Today’s report appears to be a thorough stocktake of the current situation in fostering. However, despite some suggestions about how to refocus funding away from bureaucracy towards frontline support, we are disappointed in the report’s lack of vision and ambition for the future of fostering. While we are pleased with a number of the recommendations we are concerned that overall we will be left with a continuation of the status quo.”
It was also right that the charity drew attention to ‘Staying Put’ – the arrangements for youngsters to remain with their foster carers once they have reached the age of eighteen. Many children leaving care, at what is still a relatively young age, struggle to achieve independence. ‘Staying Put’ should be recognising this, but the reaction of The Fostering Network hardly promotes confidence:
“Staying Put is another area that the report takes only a cursory view on. We are pleased that the report says that the Government will “refine the policy to address some of the most significant practical barriers” but we have been very clear that the primary practical barrier is the lack of funding for Staying Put. The report does not address funding at all, and without this, the wellbeing of future generations of young care leavers is being jeopardised.”
Such observations do not fit comfortably with the minister’s rather bland and complimentary response to the Select Committee’s report. It is as if two entirely different worlds are being described – especially as Nadhim Zahawi also characterises the foster care stock take as “excellent.” Care is taken to acknowledge the 52 recommendations for the government that have resulted from both these exercises, but we can, apparently, rest assured as his conclusion is that
“Foster care is working”. That may be so. But is it is entirely legitimate to pose the question “How well is it working.” The minister determined that both reviews “did not shy away from delivering difficult messages”. It could be argued that this is precisely what they did – especially with regards to the foster care stocktake.
There are other extremely difficult facts that government need to be aware of: at least ten per cent of children and young people are now thought to be suffering from anxiety, depression, self-harm, eating disorders or other mental health conditions. Rapidly rising numbers of under- eighteens have sought National Health Service care for such problems over the past ten years but, according to findings from Public Health England, only twenty-five per cent actually gets the help that they need. Consider also: the NSPCC’s ‘Childline’ service reported a twenty-six per cent rise in the number of counselling sessions with children about mental health issues over the past four years – with some reporting they only received specialist support when they reached a crisis point. The point here is, that as many foster children are already disadvantaged and vulnerable, they are likely to be disproportionately represented in these figures.
Such disturbing information sits at odds with the wishy-washy concluding remarks from the minister in his response to the work of the Education Select Committee:
“As Minister for Children and Families, I have high ambitions for children and young people in foster care. Every child in this country should have access to the best opportunities, regardless of their start in life or the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is incumbent upon us all to contribute to making this a reality.”
Who would disagree with this? We could all take more comfort if the sentence had read “Every child will have access to the best opportunities, etc.” Had that been so, then the steps needed to achieve this outcome would have been required to be defined – along with some kind of time scale.
A very different proposition. A phrase such as “it is incumbent upon us all to contribute making this a reality” is impossibly – and conveniently – vague. And of course, no individuals or groups are identified as being responsible in terms of delivering this reality.
In referring somewhat generally to fostering, the minister concludes:
“Foster parents are essential in making the system work. They must be valued and treated with respect. More than that, we must ensure that they can be the parents that these children need. Any parent whose child is struggling will take every action possible to help their child, which includes becoming experts and being their child’s fiercest advocate. We know that this is a lot to ask of foster parents. We have huge expectations of them and we cannot expect them to do this without support – from social workers, schools, health professionals, businesses, local and central government and from their own families and friends. It will take everyone in the system to work together to bring about real improvements for foster parents and the children for whom they care.”
This rather trite laudation sidesteps many of the frustrations foster carers have been expressing for a considerable period of time now. In an article written by the chief executive of The Fostering network in 2017, which referred to the Charity’s ‘State of the Nation’s Foster Care Report’ – the findings of which were submitted to the education committee’s inquiry into fostering – certain key findings were identified: the proportion of foster carers who would definitely recommend fostering children to other people has reduced from sixty-six per cent in 2014 to fifty-five percent in 2016;
around a third of foster carers thought that children’s social workers failed to treat them as an equal member of the team and just forty-two per cent of foster carers thought their allowance covered the total cost of care for their foster children – as compared with eighty per cent in 2014. This last statistic is especially significant because it represents a near halving of the numbers of those thinking that their costs were being properly covered.
Such facts do not relate to the idea the minister has expressed that the fostering system we have, values and treats with respect our foster carers. As the Fostering Network stated in response to the ‘Government’s Fostering Better Outcomes’ report –
“There is no sense of the Government taking ownership of improving fostering, nor of the urgent need for change. The voices of foster carers have largely been ignored and the tens of thousands of children and young people in their care have been let down”.
It is impossible to imagine that the minister could not have been cognizant of such facts and opinions. This makes the remarks contained in the ministerial forward of the ‘Fostering Better Outcomes’ all the more frustrating. And if this is in doubt – one only has to refer back to the views of The Fostering Network –
“Moreover, the Government appears to be taking virtually no responsibility for the delivery of this vision – phrases such as ‘we will urge’ and ‘we will encourage’ run throughout the report with no explanation of how those being urged and encouraged will be supported financially and practically to achieve this change or held to account. The apparent complete lack of scrutiny means that the current status quo will be too easy to maintain.”
One thing is certain: The Fostering Network has been at the ‘coalface’ of fostering for many years. It has done – and continues to do – a huge amount of work dedicated to representing the interests of foster carers and the children that they look after every day. Recently, the charity produced its ‘State of the Nation Survey’ which involved the participation of 2,500 foster carers. And this year the 2018 survey saw over 4,000 foster carers taking part. And the charity points out – this is over seven per cent of all foster carers in the UK and, as such, constitutes a very meaningful sample size. The Fostering network says that the findings from this most recent survey will be published at the end of the year. It is likely they will provide an interesting counterpoint to the views of the minister.
More information on the work of the charity – visit https://www.thefosteringnetwork.org.uk/
The problem for the government is that information comes in virtually every day from a whole variety of directions that are already demonstrating that a great many children – especially foster children – are certainly most unlikely to have access to the “best opportunities” in life. in fact, this is already happening. In this weekend’s issue of the Times, it has been reported that the support in schools for children with Special Educational Needs SEN has been described as a national scandal. And this is the opinion of Amanda Spielman – Ofsted’s Chief Inspector – in its latest annual report. It is revealed in the report that SEN pupils are five times more likely to be “off-rolled”. This means that children are removed from schools without it being made official. It also appears this is happening before these children sit GCSE’s, which means a school’s position in the league tables will not be detrimentally affected. In what is an irony, the authors of the foster care stocktake countered the uncomfortable statistic that only six percent of care leavers go on to higher education, by mentioning many of them had special educational needs. It now seems probable that a high proportion of foster children – as identified in the stocktake – will be being “off-rolled”: hard to square with the minister’s “ambition” and concomitant vision of such children having the best opportunities.
Foster a sense of caution: conclusion.
The government should be extremely wary of the risks involved in sponsoring reports whose conclusions are likely to be compromised by other ‘inconveniently’ timed information. And especially if they are going to stand comparison with the opinions and findings of a highly motivated and respected charity. The long tried methodology of the government of “appearing to be seen doing something”, is particularly hazardous if there are other reports and enquiries that will be producing information that could well be contradictory. This is what seems to be unfolding as the year draws to a close. We have an unparalleled number of children coming into care – around 93 every day. 65% per cent of children are arriving in a state of trauma. This is the direct consequence of their having experienced some form of abuse and/or neglect. These youngsters will need the help and support of the most experienced foster carers that we can draw upon. Indeed, their needs can be so severe that a new breed of foster carer – therapeutically trained is required to care for them. The only problem here is that they are in relatively short supply. Independent Fostering agencies are working hard to recruit people who will have the necessary resilience and commitment to care for children with these problems. it is vital that they are recruited quickly in sufficient numbers. The problem is that this will take time and the numbers coming into care are still rising.
This is not a counsel of despair. But it does mean that the government has run out of time to fall back on face-saving exercises that result only in narrative, obfuscation and inaction. The futures of a great many children, including those in foster care, has to be made an absolute priority. An overarching strategic plan is what is needed: one which will allocate proper funding – and effective management – across all government departments which have an involvement in children’s services.
Rainbow need foster carers in London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Over ninety children are coming into care every day. There is an urgent shortage of foster cares. If this is something you have been considering, there isn’t a better time as there are some very vulnerable children needing stable, loving homes.
We provide high-quality training that will enable you to build a career in fostering. There is the kind of support and expertise you would expect from an agency that has been established for over twenty years. We are looking to recruit therapeutic foster carers – so would be interested to outline the benefits of transferring to Rainbow if you are already a therapeutic foster carer find out more at http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/transfer-to-rainbow/
Interested in more mainstream fostering? Visit our page http://rainbowfostering.co.uk/becoming-a-foster-carer/ for more information.
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