Looked-after Children - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

  Building a care system founded on good relationships

1.  We believe that the greatest gains in reforming our care system are to be made in identifying and removing whatever barriers are obstructing the development of good personal relationships, and putting in place all possible means of supporting such relationships where they occur. (Paragraph 29)

  Relationships between children's services and families

2.  It is imperative that constructive relationships between children's services and the family are established at the outset, maintained while the child is in care, and continued when they return home. (Paragraph 31)

3.  In the wake of Lord Laming's review of safeguarding, we hope that the important contribution made by universal and preventative services to keeping children safe will be reaffirmed. Unfortunately, even the best child protection systems will not be capable of eradicating child murder, but we are convinced that better early intervention is vital in reducing the likelihood of child misery and ensuring children's wellbeing. (Paragraph 35)

4.  Focusing the efforts of social workers on child protection cases is, we believe, a practical response to resource constraints and the prevailing public view of the profession, rather than the ideal situation. This focus fails to realise the potential of social work to effect positive change in families, and means that the stakes of interactions are too high. We urge the Social Work Taskforce to consider ways in which social workers can be freed up to work with families before problems become acute. Specifically, we look forward to their conclusions about the extent to which administrative tasks prevent social workers spending time with families. (Paragraph 40)

  Relationships between social workers and looked-after children

5.  A new impetus is needed for children's social work recruitment, particularly in the light of diminishing public confidence in the profession. We are pleased to note that the Government has, in the Children's Workforce Development Strategy published in December 2008, decided to involve the Training and Development Agency in this task, and we will maintain a keen interest in how effectively it performs. (Paragraph 43)

6.  The piloting of Newly Qualified Social Worker Status is welcome, and the success of this initiative should at least partly be judged by its effect on vacancy rates. (Paragraph 45)

7.  We recommend that the Government consider, through the Social Work Taskforce or otherwise, the practicalities and possible benefits of guidance specifying optimum caseloads for children's social workers. (Paragraph 47)

8.  While we welcome the opportunity for innovation, it is not clear to us that the Remodelling Social Work pilots have been designed to address directly the wishes of children in care about their relationship with their social worker. We seek reassurance that evaluation of the pilot programmes will provide robust evidence of ways to achieve these specific aims. (Paragraph 49)

9.  We recommend that other examples of innovative local authority practice which aim to improve children's relationships with social workers be considered and evaluated alongside the Children's Workforce Development Council's Remodelling Social Work programme. (Paragraph 50)

10.  We ask the Government to examine carefully whether independent practices might lead to greater compartmentalisation of social work tasks, rather than the continuity we believe is desirable. We urge the Government to ensure that the views of children and young people are given particular prominence in the evaluation of the pilots. (Paragraph 56)

11.  Independent Social Work Practices seem to offer the potential to address many of the long-standing problems in the relationships between looked-after children and their social workers, and we welcome the piloting process. However, if independent practices are found to create insurmountable problems, or are not deemed workable by all local authorities, other ways will still have to be found to change the structures of social work to promote better relationships. The Government must not delay in investigating other solutions that can be adopted by all local authorities. (Paragraph 57)

  Relationships between the child and their carer

12.  Foster care approval processes should be reviewed to ensure that they are capable of identifying and assessing the most important personal qualities. Important as training is, fostering agencies must require that those who look after children possess the personal qualities needed to deliver genuinely warm and secure family life. (Paragraph 60)

13.  We ask the Government to enforce rigorously the requirement for foster placement agreements. (Paragraph 66)

14.  Care Matters adopts too narrow a view of 'support' for foster carers, concentrating mainly on developing their own training and skills. Important as this is, foster carers should also be able to expect a detailed specification of the practical and financial support that will be provided to them and their families to maintain placements and help children develop, including the education and health services that will be available. (Paragraph 67)

15.  We recommend that the Government strengthen its guidance about planning for long-term foster care, and include in this guidance the financial and other support that should be available to help maintain long-term placements. (Paragraph 68)

16.  We are pleased to note the prominence being given in Care Matters and in the Public Law Outline to family and friends care as an option of first resort. An increase in these placements will be neither possible nor desirable, however, without more consistent and equitable services and support for family and friends carers. The specifications of support for foster carers recommended elsewhere in this Report should include these carers, taking into account the distinctive task and context of family and friends care. (Paragraph 73)

17.  We recommend that the Government's promised new framework for family and friends care take full account of the very many children who are supported in this way outside the legal boundaries of the care system, while having needs comparable to those within it. We ask the Government to give careful consideration to ways in which those carers and children might be supported more thoroughly and consistently, including through the benefits system, without bringing children formally into care solely as a trigger for support. (Paragraph 74)

18.  Local authorities need more persuasion and reassurance to delegate responsibility for everyday decisions to carers who know a child well, so that their life in care can be 'normalised' as much as possible. Guidance should encourage a presumption in favour of delegation, and care plan reviews should be used as an opportunity to consider whether more responsibility should be delegated to the carer of the child concerned. Specifically, the Government should reconsider the process for allocating Personal Education Allowances to encourage greater involvement of foster carers. (Paragraph 80)

The importance of placement supply

19.  We recommend that the Government assess at a national level the supply of placements that will be needed to make the Care Matters reforms a reality. The problem of how to ensure sufficient placements cannot be solved merely by imposing a new duty on local authorities; the Government must do more to enable them to meet it without making any compromises on quality. (Paragraph 88)

Foster care

20.  While local circumstances and the many different types of foster care will always require some variation, we cannot expect more people to consider fostering as a potential career without greater clarity about the financial terms that are on offer. We recommend that a national framework for fee payments be developed, and that it include stipulations about 52-week payments or retainers when foster carers do not have placements. (Paragraph 93)

21.  We recommend that the Government reconsider its opposition to a national registration scheme for foster carers. We believe that such a scheme would be a useful tool to improve quality and take-up of training, and to cement the status of foster carers in the teams of professionals caring for a child. (Paragraph 94)

22.  We consider it unacceptable that foster carers are not afforded the same considerations as other professionals in the children's workforce when an allegation is made against them. We ask the Government to stipulate that carers continue to receive fee and allowance payments while an allegation against them is being investigated. (Paragraph 95)

Residential care

23.  We welcome the Government's investment in programmes that aim to improve the capacity of foster placements to benefit the most challenging young people. We hope that this will allow residential care to be considered on its merits rather than as a last resort for children who have been especially difficult to place elsewhere. (Paragraph 97)

24.  We recommend that the Government commission research on the flexible use of residential care as part of a planned package of care, and that it consider the resource and structural implications of enabling such uses. (Paragraph 100)

25.  We recommend that the Government show its commitment to addressing underperformance against the current National Minimum Standards for staff qualifications by making the Level 3 NVQ mandatory at the soonest practicable opportunity, and by analysing the reasons for the persistent failure of the sector to meet this standard. In the long term, a more coherent and ambitious strategy for the residential care workforce must be a priority, above and beyond the set of professional standards promised by the 2020 Children's Workforce Strategy. (Paragraph 104)

26.  The social pedagogy pilot programme is very welcome. We urge the Government to think broadly and creatively about the possible future applications of the social pedagogy approach in the care system rather than looking to import wholesale a separate new profession. (Paragraph 108)

27.  While the emphasis the English care system places on family environments is right, the potential of the residential sector to offer high quality, stable placements for a minority of young people is too often dismissed. With enforcement of higher standards, greater investment in skills, and a reconsideration of the theoretical basis for residential care, we believe that it could make a significant contribution to good quality placement choice for young people. (Paragraph 110)

Local authority commissioning

28.  We seek reassurances that cost constraints are not compromising children's access to the most appropriate placement for them, and that children's views are given particular consideration when 'value for money' decisions are made about providers. (Paragraph 111)

29.  We are concerned that spot purchasing of placements on a large scale would indicate a failure of needs analysis and planned commissioning. We recommend that the DCSF's Commissioning Support programme explicitly addresses good practice in planning for the future needs of the in care population. (Paragraph 112)

Consistency and compliance in local authority practice

30.  The quality of experience that children have in care seems to be governed by luck to an utterly unacceptable degree. When implementing the Care Matters reforms, we urge the Government to place the highest priority on ensuring that every child gets everything they are entitled to. (Paragraph 116)

Size of the care population and decisions about entry to care

31.  We are convinced that for some children, in some circumstances, care should be seen as the best available option rather than a last resort. (Paragraph 122)

32.  While some differences in care populations are inevitable, we are concerned by the huge variations in the rates of children in care across the country. Not only is this situation unfair on children and families, it seems to betray a lack of common understanding about the place of care in services for vulnerable children. The Government's commitment to investigate the causes of such variation is welcome, but a greater priority must be placed on reaching a national consensus on the rationale behind decision-making about entry to and exit from care. (Paragraph 123)

33.  We are pleased that the Government has set aside any notion of a 'target' number of children in care, but urge that there should instead be an unrelenting focus, through research, guidance and performance monitoring, on ensuring the quality and promptness of decision-making about individual children. (Paragraph 124)

34.  We recommend that the Government keep under close review the potential relationship between the transfer of care proceedings costs to local authorities and the number of care proceedings that are issued, with a view to reverting to the previous system if it can be shown that children in care are being left at risk as a result of the changes. (Paragraph 128)

35.  While the intention of integrating budgets for children's services was laudable, we are concerned that one effect is that child protection, children in care and family support work are in competition for shares of the available resources. We are particularly concerned that those authorities which are managing a historically large care population will not be able to invest greater resources in family support without an unacceptable reduction in the quality of services for looked-after children. We recommend that the Government ensures that such services become universally available at agreed minimum levels. (Paragraph 133)

Local authorities' accountability to children in care

36.  We welcome the introduction of Children in Care Pledges and Councils, and we hope that they will better enable children to hold local authorities to account for the disparities in the care they provide and to challenge poor practice. (Paragraph 134)

37.  The Government must spell out how local authorities will be held accountable for robust development of their Children in Care Councils and Pledges, and the impact these measures have on improving practice. It is not clear at present what the consequences will be for a corporate parent that fails to keep its promises to children, nor what action a child will be able to take if those promises are broken. Pledges must be detailed enough to be meaningful to young people, and we urge the Government to encourage local authorities to show ambition in their undertakings. (Paragraph 137)

38.  Councils and Pledges must not become the sole means of consulting with or involving children in policy and services. Local authorities should also be judged on the quality of their mainstream children's participation and children's rights work, and how effectively they involve looked-after children in it. (Paragraph 138)

39.  We are persuaded by the evidence received for this inquiry that these two distinct roles of Independent Reviewing Officer and independent advocate should in fact co-exist, and that the degree of inconsistency in the way local authorities are discharging their care duties makes it even more important that children have every possible opportunity to make their views count. Advocacy services should be routinely available for all looked-after children whenever decisions about their care are being made, not just when they wish to make a complaint. (Paragraph 143)

40.  We recommend that the duty on local authorities to ascertain and give consideration to children's views when decisions about their care are made should be strengthened by a requirement for Independent Reviewing Officers to record those views when care plans are reviewed. (Paragraph 144)

Extending the scope and rigour of corporate parenting

41.  We are concerned that the scope of corporate parenthood as usually understood leaves bodies other than schools and children's services too much leeway in the priority they give to looked-after children. If corporate parenting is to emulate family life, it must not be compartmentalised, nor truncated at age 18. We recommend that all Children's Trusts take responsibility for multi-agency corporate parenting training, to include managers within adult health and social care services, and officers and members of district councils where relevant. (Paragraph 148)

Health and wellbeing of children in care

42.  Looked-after children must have a higher profile in NHS performance frameworks. Children in care need 'champions' in senior strategic positions in the health service, and corporate parenting training should be mandatory for relevant senior NHS officers and board members with relevant responsibilities. (Paragraph 156)

43.  By comparison with its policies for the education of children in care—virtual school heads, designated teachers, priority in admissions and mandatory performance indicators—the Government has seemed timid in specifying what looked-after children should be able to expect from health services. The Government should seek to specify a range of good practice, in particular the roles of designated doctors and nurses, as a matter of urgency. (Paragraph 161)

44.  Children and young people in care should have guaranteed access to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, and resources must be provided to ensure that this is achievable. Urgent action must be taken to address the shortage of therapeutic services for children in care. We recommend that the Government should assess how specialist mental health teams for children in care can be put in place and sustained in all areas. (Paragraph 167)

45.  The Government's support for a holistic view of the wellbeing of children in care is very welcome, but it sits oddly with the withdrawal of national funding for the Healthy Care Programme, which appears to embody this principle. We recommend that the Government monitor the impact of the end of national funding for Healthy Care Partnerships on local collaborative working and the priority that looked-after children are given in services. (Paragraph 169)

Leaving care

46.  We welcome the Government's assertion that it should become exceptional for a young person to leave care before they turn 18, and hope that it will precipitate a culture change in local authorities. We recommend, however, that the Government show more ambition by making a commitment to narrowing the gap between the average age of leaving care and the age of independence for other young people. Remaining in care in some form until at least age 21 should become routine. (Paragraph 173)

47.  We welcome the Right2BCared4 and Staying Put pilots, and urge the Government to make their benefits available to all young people in care—including those in residential placements—at the earliest possible opportunity. (Paragraph 175)

48.  The success of efforts to ensure that young people stay in care for longer will depend on factors the Government has not yet fully addressed, such as supply of foster placements, support to prevent placement breakdowns, and the effectiveness of Independent Reviewing Officers and review processes. Local authorities must be given all necessary assistance to achieve these changes. (Paragraph 177)

49.  The Right2BCared4 and Staying Put pilots should be used to explore how more flexibility can be built into the process of leaving care, so that young people who find they are not yet ready for independence are able, and encouraged, to revert to a higher level of support. (Paragraph 178)

50.  The vulnerability of care leavers to sexual exploitation is a matter of great concern to us. We urge the Government to analyse any ways in which features of the care system itself expose young people to greater danger, and take urgent steps to protect care leavers from this sort of exploitation. (Paragraph 179)

51.  We recommend that national standards for leaving care services should be developed with local authorities so that these services can be objectively assessed. The standards should include a greater degree of consistency and transparency in the financial support available to care leavers and the criteria on which it is determined. Each authority should include details of what it will provide in its Pledge. (Paragraph 184)

52.  We are concerned that the benefits of specific support to enable young people with disabilities to move on from care, as distinct from the care services related to their disability, have not been recognised in the Care Matters programme. Equal access to all features of effective leaving care support must be guaranteed to care leavers with disabilities. (Paragraph 185)

53.  The duty to provide a Personal Adviser should be extended to all care leavers until age 25, not just those who have education or training plans. The terms on which this provision has been extended risk excluding some of the most vulnerable young people from continuing support. The role of the Personal Adviser should include facilitating access to health and social care services when needed. We recommend that the Government explore ways of ensuring that care leavers have full and proper access to health, social care and education services, commensurate with their needs, until they are 25 years old. (Paragraph 187)

54.  We seek reassurance from the Government that funding will be made available to local authorities that experience particular difficulties in finding suitable accommodation for care leavers due to local housing shortages. We recommend that the Government extend the new 'sufficient placements' duty to include supported and independent accommodation for those leaving care. (Paragraph 190)

55.  A quality assurance framework for care leavers' accommodation should be developed so that housing options can be assessed against nationally agreed standards; it should not be left up to a young person to say that the accommodation they are offered is unsuitable. No care leaver should be placed in bed and breakfast accommodation, and the availability of suitable accommodation must be considered a prerequisite for a move to independent living. (Paragraph 191)

56.  There should be a presumption against declaring any care leaver intentionally homeless. Every children's services authority should be required to adopt a joint working protocol with the relevant housing departments or authorities, to ensure that care leavers are given every possible support in maintaining tenancies. Key managers within housing departments should be included in corporate parenting training. (Paragraph 193)

Preventing involvement in the criminal justice system

57.  To some extent, we recognise that general improvements in the care system—stable placements that are properly supported, help to achieve at school, and a gradual transition to independence—will help to prevent looked-after children offending. However, opportunities have been missed to take further specific steps to address this. We ask the Government to revisit the Youth Crime Action Plan to address explicitly the state's responsibility as corporate parent for the disproportionate criminalisation of young people in care. (Paragraph 197)

Looked-after children in custody

58.  We recommend that children accommodated under voluntary agreements should retain their looked-after status when entering custody; we consider that this would be a greater safeguard of the continuity of each young person's care than the new requirement to continue visiting children. We are concerned that even children on care orders may not be receiving the services they are entitled to when in custody, and we seek reassurance that inspection will be an adequate tool for enforcing the new visiting requirements when it has apparently failed to enforce existing requirements. (Paragraph 202)

59.  We recommend that the Government identify and implement a mechanism for automatically triggering a needs assessment by the relevant children's services authority when a child comes into contact with the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 203)

60.  We recommend that the lead responsibility of children's services for looked-after children in the youth justice system be re-asserted, so that extremely vulnerable children are not denied the support they need by being excluded from mainstream services when they come into contact with Youth Offending Teams. (Paragraph 204)

61.  We ask the Government to guarantee future funding for social workers posts in Youth Offending Institutions. (Paragraph 205)

Unaccompanied asylum-seeking children

62.  We recommend that the Department for Children, Schools and Families assume formal joint responsibility with the Home Office for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. (Paragraph 208)

63.  Clear guidance must be given to local authorities that all of the provisions of Care Matters, and the principles of good care planning, apply equally and without exception to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. We are particularly anxious that the Government resolve the contradiction between the importance that Care Matters places on continuity of care for looked-after children older than 16, and the expectation that young asylum-seekers will leave their foster placements at that age. (Paragraph 209)

64.  We support the idea of appointing guardians for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, to ensure that they are properly supported through the asylum process, and that swift access to services such as education is arranged on their behalf. We are concerned about the particular vulnerability of this group of children to trafficking, and would like the role of guardian to include a remit to ensure that children do not go missing. (Paragraph 210)

The performance framework for the care system

65.  We fear that the increased emphasis on self-assessment and light-touch, "proportionate" inspections in schools and children's services as a whole is exerting an inappropriate influence on the inspection of children's social care. In particular, it may lead to unwise over-reliance on the National Indicator Set as a barometer of authorities' ability to keep children safe. There is potential for quarterly updates of performance profiles to engender false confidence, and this practice seems to be at odds with the Chief Inspector's reassurance that on-the-ground investigation will be a prerequisite for passing judgement on services. We recommend that ways of promoting more frequent, informal contact between inspectors and local authorities be explored, such as designating a named inspector for each authority who would make regular visits. (Paragraph 215)

66.  We consider that the evidence on which performance assessments are based should be retained by Ofsted for at least three years after publication. (Paragraph 216)

67.  We recommend that the Government reassess how the new inspection regime for children's services can be made a more effective vehicle for spreading good practice, perhaps through the inclusion of a peer review element, or whether a different mechanism is needed. Ofsted must also improve the representation of officers with extensive social work experience in its senior leadership positions. (Paragraph 217)

68.  There is at present too much emphasis on measuring processes in the care system and not enough on assessing its quality. The quality of decision-making and the quality of relationships are difficult things to measure, but they are fundamental to the success of the care system. To help address this problem, children's satisfaction with the care they receive—independently sought and expressed—should feature prominently in performance indicators and assessments of the care system both locally and nationally. (Paragraph 222)

The annual 'stocktake'

69.  We look forward to examining the first of the annual ministerial 'Stocktakes' of the care system, and we welcome the focus and priority this process promises to place on how well the whole state is performing as a corporate parent. We recommend that children's views and their satisfaction with the care system should form a crucial part of the evidence used in the Stocktake. In order that Government as a whole can be held to account for its performance, the Stocktake must involve the Home Office and Ministry of Justice as well as the Department of Health and Department for Communities and Local Government. (Paragraph 223)

70.  The present performance framework is insufficiently flexible to allow the progress children make in care to be captured. The Stocktake should promote a comprehensive view of outcomes for young people who have been in care (up to age 25). (Paragraph 224)

71.  We consider that lack of data about some sections of the care population, and care leavers, compromises the corporate parenting task. The Stocktake should be used as an opportunity to fill some of the gaps in data relating to looked-after children; specifically, the lack of information about the circumstances and outcomes of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and about looked-after children in the criminal justice system. (Paragraph 226)

72.  We are pleased that data on children missing from care will be included in the Stocktake, and we look forward to seeing evidence of improved performance in this area. (Paragraph 227)

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