There has been considerable reaction to the publication of the foster care stocktake. Foster care provision is complex; many of its features have evolved over time and so a review should at least prompt some fresh thinking. To that end, the review’s authors have recommended thirty six changes to the foster care system as it currently exists. These also bear upon the supervision of long-term placements.
One of the more controversial recommendations is that local authorities be freed too “dispense with” independent reviewing officers (IROs). The idea is that the resultant savings could then be re-invested into the frontline. A “fundamental problem” around the role’s value has been identified: the point is made that money saved could be directed to frontline and line management staff to ensure that children are appropriately placed.
Ending the role of the IRO could; it has been calculated, generate £54 to £76 million. This is based on the estimated number of IROs who earn on average £40k per annum. As far back as 2013, Ofsted reported that the role had a number of inherent weaknesses. Problems with the role include – poor care plan oversight, a failure to consult with children as well as excessive caseloads. It should, in fairness, be argued that excessive workloads could be the cause of poor care planning. Significantly, the foster care stocktake raised concerns about how independent the role is when the IROs are employed by local authorities. Is this the fault of the IROs? Not necessarily so – has it been properly established, for example, that they have been allowed to be properly independent? There have been past reports of some IROs coming under pressure to reach certain decisions. And questions have long been raised as to whether IRO’s can be truly independent if appointed by the local authority – and whether they are supported to fulfil their role effectively. It seems that even where care plans had been agreed by a court, the IRO could not necessarily force an authority to put them into practice.
This causes alarm bells to ring. Many local authorities are hard pressed financially. Potential savings of the order of £76 million are going to be tempting. It might have been fairer and more logical to scrutinise the operation of the role, rather than the role itself. Taking the issue of excessive caseloads: an argument could be made for greater investment to reduce these. And perhaps the role could be beefed up. The suspicion exists that once the possibility of making savings was contemplated, any thinking militating against this seems not to have been to the fore. Tellingly, Anne Longfield, children’s commissioner for England has rejected the recommendation to remove Independent Reviewing Officers. She stated – “We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child’s situation that needs help to resolve.” Her views have been endorsed by by Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of Become – “Given the report’s acknowledgement of the need for independent advocacy, the call for the removal of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) seems misplaced. IROs provide a valuable function of oversight and support for children in care, and this report does not provide a robust justification for their removal.”
The report also discusses the potential of creating a dual role for social workers. This would mean one social worker becoming the foster carer’s social worker as well as the children’s social worker. The report is of the view that changing from two social workers to one would reduce family intrusion. Stress is placed on any such recommendation always being made in the best interests of the child. But with this recommendation, a link is made to “potential cost savings to hard pressed local authorities.” In any case, such a move could potentially hugely increase the workload of social workers where staff turnover is already a problem – and identified as impacting negatively on foster children. Saving money seems to be a recurring theme. It has also to be remembered that is only recently the Westminster Government came under pressure to reverse a discriminatory decision to exclude all foster children from receiving an additional fifteen hours of free childcare. Charities and other organisations attacked the decision as being unfair. The authors of the foster care stocktake have also satisfied themselves that the levels of remuneration for foster carers are sufficient.
True, there are other elements to the stocktake such as a National Register, but many will share the reaction of Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network, who has said he is “disappointed” by a “lack of vision and ambition”.
As has already been mentioned, the authors state that the money saved could be directed to front line and line management staff to ensure that children are appropriately placed. It is reasonable to challenge the report’s authors to explain how precisely this money will be directed. Simply assigning a sum of money does not guarantee outcomes. There seems a worrying lack of rigour in such a suggestion. How much better it would be to pose the question “what kind of foster care system can ensure all children entering care are appropriately placed.” Exploring this would have led to the kind of ambition and visionary thinking Kevin Williams was right to have expected.
In time this stocktake may itself be subject to a ‘stocktake’ all its own. It will not escape the judgement of history if it turns out to have been casual in the face of impending problems affecting fostering provision. Nadhim Zahawi, who has now been confirmed as under-secretary of state for children and families, has welcomed the report and said it is an opportunity to “celebrate foster care”. Was that its remit?
The world of fostering poses new challenges today: the referrals from local authorities are increasingly coming through now for youngsters who have with complex emotional and behavioural needs. Why? Because so many of them have suffered abuse and neglect. Trained therapeutic foster carers are able to care for such children and young people. As their problems can be particularly deep seated, being able to help them make a success of their lives is highly satisfying.
If you feel you can be trained to meet such a challenge and are interested in finding out more, call 020 8427 3355 – or our National line 0330 311 2845.
Foster care news from Rainbow
Leading foster care charity critical over minimum allowances
22nd, February 2018
The Department for Education has now published the new national minimum allowance rates for foster carers (more) http://bit.ly/2e8PrIK
Good news at the end of our Rainbow…some more birthdays to celebrate – Happy Birthday to our foster carers and children.