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.

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