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

3  Building a care system founded on good relationships

27. Throughout our inquiry, one theme emerged as particularly dominant: the importance for children in care of stable, reliable, nurturing relationships with those who care for them and manage their care.[33] The failure of the care system to replicate or compensate for the stable relationships that most children have with their parents is one of its most serious and long-standing deficiencies. Even when all the right frameworks and structures are in place, it is the quality of relationships that will determine whether a child in care feels cared about on a day-to-day basis.[34] Chris Callender, Assistant Director (Legal) of the Howard League for Penal Reform, described the importance of a parental attitude to something as basic as care planning:

    You are mapping out the life of a very fragile human being—often very severely abused and neglected in the past—and it is simply not good enough to go through what I sometimes see as a tick-box process when I look through files. […] If we are going to have to look after children, we really have to do so […] as a parent, making parental decisions and in an emotionally appropriate way.[35]

28. There is an obvious dissonance in the concept of the "corporate parent": how can a large bureaucracy possibly act towards individual children in a way that simulates the personal care and attention of a mother or father?[36] Relationships are extremely difficult to influence directly, and it cannot simply be mandated from the centre that all children have access to someone they can trust, who listens to them and who manifestly cares about them.[37] The only way that the state can hope to achieve this is by empowering the individuals who are responsible for decisions, or present in a child's life, on a daily basis.[38] Trusting in social workers, foster carers and residential workers to be the hands and heart of the corporate parent means doing everything possible to invest in their skills and support them in their roles.[39] It is not acceptable for people trying to do their best for young people to be in a situation of working "in spite of the system"—the system must be reformed in a way that enables and encourages those workers and carers who "go the extra mile".[40]

29. 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. Care Matters acknowledges the primacy of relationships in children's lives in care, and proposes some measures which should help—but it is not clear that all potential levers are being exploited, nor all barriers addressed. A worrying thread runs through the evidence we received about the mismatch between roles and capacity in different parts of the workforce. Those members of the workforce with the most day-to-day contact with children, and therefore the greatest influence over their experience of care, seem in many respects to be those with least access to training, least experience, or least ability to act autonomously and influence decisions. Residential care workers have generally low levels of qualifications, social workers often move out of front-line work when they are experienced enough to become managers, and foster carers find that their personal relationship with the child is undervalued when local authorities make decisions about a child's care.

30. We wish to consider in detail the implications of this in three specific areas:

  • relationships between children's services and families;
  • relationships between social workers and looked-after children;
  • relationships between the child in care and their carer.

This includes promoting stability, for the chronic lack of continuity in the lives of many looked-after children militates against the formation of lasting bonds. Later in the Report we consider some of the factors contributing to placement breakdowns, which cause huge upheaval in the lives of such vulnerable children.

Relationships between children's services and families

31. We have endeavoured to see care in the context of children and families social care as a whole, though our evidence has led us to focus on the particular role of social workers within those services. Good relationships between children's services and families are vital to the success of family support to manage risks that otherwise might result in an admission to care, and of support to parents during and after their child's time in care.[41] Although we received little evidence on the subject, the majority of children who are looked after by the local authority will at some point return to live with their birth family, and we are particularly concerned by statistics showing that 46% of children are abused or neglected after returning home.[42] 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.

32. However, we have heard that fear and distrust of social services intervention jeopardises the effectiveness of services and people's willingness to seek or accept help.[43] Mary MacLeod, Chief Executive of the Family & Parenting Institute,[44] explained that families are often reluctant to use services that are labelled as the local authority's; the voluntary sector is seen as much more approachable. For example, she described services delivered by the Family Welfare Association for families with children on the edge of care as being less threatening, and we visited a similar service run by NCH.[45] Mary MacLeod told us that, "We have to realise that the social work profession and the term 'social work' are now associated in people's mind, particularly those who are most nervous of losing their children, with the bogies who are going to come and take them away."[46] Parents' campaigning groups told us that interactions between families and children's services are, in too many cases, fraught with anxiety, confrontation and a perceived lack of respect.[47] Parents suspect agencies of being more interested in surveillance than support.[48] This is true of children as well as parents; Mary MacLeod told us that

    […]children are very frightened of what will happen if they ask for help. They are aware that a juggernaut could hit the family […] Therefore, they involve themselves in ways of managing what is going on in the family that is not good for them, for example, by going to see their auntie at the weekend when things are very bad.[49]

33. We were reminded that any case in which child protection issues arise will occasion stress in families and difficult circumstances for social workers, which undoubtedly makes it hard to build trusting partnerships between services and parents.[50] The way in which social workers are deployed, and the balance of time they are able to spend on family support as opposed to child protection work affects relationships with families.[51] Jane Tunstill, Visiting Professor of Social Work at King's College, London, argued that, in the years since the adoption of the Children Act 1989, local authorities under resource constraints have put more emphasis on the "safeguarding" elements of the legislation at the expense of the "promoting welfare" elements.[52] She told us that

    In my view, any good social worker will be doing family support. Trust me, I have taught social workers for years and years and most of them go into social work to deliver something closer to family support than child removal […] I shall be very sad if, in the foreseeable future, social work becomes equated with working only with families who are in tier four [child protection and other acute problems].[53]

Kim Bromley-Derry, Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services (ADCS), told us that positive relationships with families are hampered because social workers are usually only involved with families in cases that meet high need thresholds, such as where there is a safeguarding concern: "we need a safeguarding system, but we need to spread our resources so that that interaction can be positive".[54] He also saw a mismatch between skills and tasks that needs to be addressed: "The professionals who have the skills needed to work with families are not always working with families, while some of the least qualified individuals have the greatest direct contact with families".[55]

34. Other witnesses were not sure that it would be an effective use of resources to deploy social workers' unique skills at lower tiers of need.[56] Steve Goodman, Deputy Director of Children & Young People's Services at the London Borough of Hackney, told us that councils should focus social workers' efforts on child protection, looked-after children and "edge of care" situations.[57] Pauline Newman, Manchester City Council's Director of Children's Services, argued that effective collaboration between agencies could help to reserve highly trained, reflective social work practitioners for the highest and most complex needs.[58] Other services, including those run by the voluntary sector and state-sector "universal" services such as schools and children's centres, have vital roles to play in identifying and supporting vulnerable children, either forestalling the need for social workers' interventions or working alongside them with chaotic and dysfunctional families.

35. "Family support" is part of the role of a wide range of professionals including speech therapists, mental health workers, health visitors, and almost anyone who comes into contact with families.[59] As policy has emphasised that safeguarding is everyone's responsibility, not just that of social workers, so family support should be seen as a widely-shared task; preventative work is no less important to keeping children safe.[60] The fact that a significant, if small, proportion of children who become subject to care orders have not previously been known to social services emphasises how important it is that schools and children's centres are truly universal, and are in contact with the most vulnerable.[61] Adult social care and mental health services must also be involved in identifying where the problems experienced by a parent might affect the care they give to their children.[62] 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.

36. As well as thresholds for intervention, two other barriers to social workers building relationships with families were cited by witnesses. One is the frequent turnover of social workers, which also profoundly affects children in care; we shall deal with this in more detail in the next section.[63] The other major factor is how far a social worker is able to strike a balance between monitoring, recording and assessment, and interventions to improve a family's situation. This is a matter of both skills and capacity. Kim Bromley-Derry said of social workers that

    […]many of them argue that they increasingly spend less time doing direct work with people and more time undertaking assessment and process-orientated work. That puts a strain on the relationship. One of the things you would hope is that there are some positive benefits to interaction with a social worker. Rather than just someone having their child removed, you would hope that some social work goes on in relation to how you live with your family or the circumstances in which you find yourself. Carving out enough capacity for social workers to do that work is critical to the relationship because there have to be advantages to working with a social worker.[64]

37. Colin Green, the Association of Directors of Children's Services' spokesperson on safeguarding issues, concurred that there is too much monitoring activity, at the expense of evidence-based interventions that help to make life within their family better for a child.[65] We heard that social workers often do not have sufficient time to analyse the huge amounts of information they collect, and we were reminded that assessment should be informing rather than displacing intervention.[66] Witnesses to the inquiry were far from convinced that the correct balance between these elements has been struck in children and families social work.[67]

38. Implementation of the Integrated Children's System (ICS) came in for particular criticism from some quarters for reducing the amount of time social workers have to spend on face-to-face contact with families.[68] ICS is a tool for gathering and recording the information needed for individual children's case management, though the term is commonly used also to refer to the computer system being used to implement it. Professor Jane Tunstill reported that ICS was "dominating" the lives of social workers, and recalled from research fieldwork that "in some of the authorities we visited, had I told the team that we were going to a Vodafone call centre, they would have been none the wiser."[69] Steve Goodman criticised the system for generating paperwork that "does not help social workers […] to think through the complexities of what they need to do to intervene in families."[70] Colin Green, however, argued that although the IT systems being used to implement ICS are "clunky" and flawed, the heart of the system answers a clear need for sophisticated recording of very complex cases.[71] Steve Titcombe, Head of Children's Social Care at Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council, pointed out that social workers "must be sound in recording communications […] it is not clerking, but part of the professional job."[72]

39. Several witnesses expressed the view that social workers' training was not adequately preparing them for the task of working with children and families.[73] Steve Goodman told us:

    We believe that social work with families and young people is a complex task, more akin to other professions such as psychiatry and law. Hence, practitioners need high intellectual ability, good people skills and a tool box of interventions if they are going to practise it well. In this country, we are a long way off that. The situation has probably got worse rather than better over the past couple of decades. Training courses are not fit for purpose. There is a strong emphasis on training courses on values but they teach little about methodology. Those entering social work training are often lacking the basic ability to do such a complex job well. Recognising that, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and its predecessors and local authorities have introduced more and more layers of bureaucracy around children's social care in an attempt to compensate. The system has become risk averse and it strangles good social work practice.[74]

Witnesses were divided on the issue of whether the generic social work degree provides sufficiently specialised training for children's social workers.[75] We note that the Government established in January 2009 a Social Work Taskforce to examine social work training among other issues, and we are minded to investigate this topic ourselves in a future inquiry. Social work is a highly-skilled profession which demands the intellectual capacity to apply research in understanding families. The extent to which social workers are equipped with those skills, and how far they are able to keep applying them throughout the available career paths, are matters of great interest to us which we intend to examine further.

40. We are convinced that most social workers want to do the best they can for children, and that this includes building a constructive relationship with families. They do this work in incredibly trying circumstances, and whenever child protection issues are raised it will inevitably be painful and stressful for parents. Ultimately, a social worker has legal responsibilities to children which must override consideration of parents' wishes, but this should not be allowed to preclude families and children thinking of social workers as people who are there to help them rather than to punish them. 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.

Relationships between social workers and looked-after children

41. Both foster carers and young people have told us what an important influence a social worker is on a child's time in care; children value their support and particularly the opportunity to build a relationship with them when they can.[76] Unfortunately, many children do not get such an opportunity, either because of turnover in the workforce or a lack of time together. We heard from several quarters how important consistency of social workers is for looked-after children—and how rarely it is achieved.[77] Julian Le Grand, Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics, told us of children whose assigned social workers had changed so rapidly that they had not even had time to meet in person before another new worker was assigned, a scenario that was familiar to the young people in care that we met. Those few children in care who do have a consistent, friendly, supportive relationship with a social worker "threw into relief the plight of the others who did not have it."[78]


42. The lack of continuity is at least partly attributable to severe and persistent problems with recruitment and workforce retention.[79] The proportion of vacancies in children and families social work has remained at around 9-11% for some years; average vacancy rates vary significantly between areas and are particularly high in London at 15%.[80] About two-thirds of local authorities report recruitment problems.[81] High use of agency staffing in some local authorities (an average of 21% in London) can also hamper continuity of contact with children and families.[82] Councillor Les Lawrence, Chair of the Local Government Association's Children & Young People's Board, saw the answer in an ambitious "workforce remodelling process" for children's social care, similar to that achieved in the teaching profession under the auspices of the Training and Development Agency, to improve the public's appreciation of the value of social work.[83] It is clear that negative press coverage influences public perceptions of the profession, a factor we are particularly mindful of in the light of reaction to the Baby P case in Haringey.[84]

43. 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.

44. Retention may be an even greater problem nationally than recruitment.[85] Turnover of children's social workers is typically 12% in any one year.[86] The General Social Care Council explained some of the contributory factors amongst those new to the job: recently-qualified social workers report that they lack support and supervision, and are allocated large and complex caseloads, including difficult child protection cases, very early in their career.[87] New social workers clearly need to be carefully supported if they are to survive their first few months on the front line. However, vacancy rates and high caseloads mean that departments' best intentions about careful induction are often overridden by the urgency and pressure of work.[88] Furthermore, experienced staff may seek opportunities in specialist services and management posts that take them away from the front-line.[89] This not only depletes the front-line workforce, but reduces the number of experienced practitioners available to provide supervision.[90]

45. The Children's Workforce Development Council (CWDC) began in 2008 a pilot of "newly-qualified social worker status" (NQSW), which will ensure protected time for development, supervision and support of new recruits, in a similar vein to newly-qualified teacher status.[91] CWDC Chief Executive Jane Haywood was optimistic that this would start to address the problem of social worker churn.[92] Research in Practice welcomed the NQSW project but also drew attention to the importance of post-qualifying training and continuing professional development for children's social workers—an aspect of training which is no longer linked to a local authority performance indicator.[93] 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.


46. Regardless of the length of time an individual social worker remains responsible for a child's care, there appears to be great scope for improving the frequency and quality of their interactions with looked-after children. Foster carers and young people have told us that too often children and carers are let down by missed appointments, inability to get hold of support outside office hours and poor communication.[94] We heard from witnesses that there is a high degree of consensus among children in care about what they want from their relationship with their social workers:

a)  Time to develop a relationship; Maxine Wrigley, Chief Executive of A National Voice,[95] said that this is "the No.1 thing" that children say about social workers, because they feel that time with them is always rushed.[96] Young people told us that they appreciated it when workers spent time getting to know them better, but that some social workers seemed to be in touch with them only when something was going wrong.[97]

b)  Accessibility; Young people told us that social workers often seem to be unavailable, or too busy to talk to them, and they do not get back to them promptly.[98] Children in care frequently express the desire to be able to contact someone other than their immediate carers "24/7", and certainly outside normal working hours, as that is when problems often occur.[99] This does not necessarily have to be a social worker[100]—but there has to be someone. It is also important that some contact with social workers can take place away from a child's placement and carer, so that they can discuss things freely. About a quarter of looked-after children say that they are always with a carer when they see their social worker.[101]

c)  Effectiveness; Of great concern to children is the degree to which social workers have the authority to carry out a plan that has been agreed with the child "without it either unravelling or disappearing into some other process so that children do not know where they are".[102] Budget decisions being made at several removes from the front line are a particular concern.[103] Professor Julian Le Grand identified the place of social workers in the hierarchy of professionals working with children in care as obstructive to their effectiveness. He reported that social workers said to the Care Matters working group which he chaired:

    They felt very much that they were at the bottom of the local authority heap […] They said that they did not have control over the numbers on the case load, the budget for their looked-after child or access to the looked-after child, the school, the foster and residential place, the child and adolescent mental health services and additional tuition or psychological support. They said they were the least powerful members of the children's services department, although they felt that they were the most trained. What seemed to be happening was the takeover of professionalism by managerialism.[104]

d)  Good communication; Almost a quarter of looked-after children surveyed by the Office of the Children's Rights Director said that they were not usually kept informed by their social worker about what was happening to them.[105]

e)  Reliability; Keeping appointments, and keeping promises.[106]

47. Children and young people are well aware that when their relationship with their social worker is not all they would wish it to be, the reasons are often to do with heavy workloads and lack of administrative support.[107] Maxine Wrigley told us that "Young people have made comments about how tired [social workers] look and how many cases they have".[108] 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.


48. Care Matters contained a proposal for Remodelling Social Work Pilots within local authorities to test ideas for strengthening the current system. Nine of the intended 18 pilot projects commenced in September 2007, and they are due to run until 2011. The pilots are focusing on different aspects of the service. Steve Titcombe of Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council told us that one aspect of their Remodelling project will look at how to increase the contact children in residential care have with their social workers.[109] Research in Practice wrote that they welcome the Remodelling pilots as a way of exploring new structures to improve continuity of care. However, they had concerns that it will be difficult to identify general trends across only 18 pilots which may be influenced by many other factors: "What may happen is that pockets of good practice emerge that cannot be attributed to any particular intervention." They warned that a generous timetable is needed for the pilots and their evaluation.[110]

49. 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.

50. The London Borough of Hackney told us about their Reclaiming Social Work programme, which is restructuring the front-line social work service into "social work units". The aims are to create more continuity for the child, to ensure that social workers can spend more time with children and families, to develop professional autonomy, and to reduce the possibility of "drift" in decision-making for individual children.[111] 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.


51. The Care Matters White Paper put forward a proposal for developing independent Social Work Practices: autonomous organisations, similar to GP practices, that would be commissioned by local authorities to fulfil the social work functions in respect of children in care, holding budgets for their care and being contractually accountable for their outcomes.[112] Provisions enabling the piloting of Social Work Practices are contained in Part 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 2008.

52. Professor Julian Le Grand chaired the Care Matters working group which developed the Social Work Practices proposal. He explained to us how he sees them operating, and their potential benefits: practices would co-ordinate and integrate services for each child, closely tailoring services to their needs, and would offer greater continuity.[113] He suggested that practices may be able to provide the 24-hour service wanted by young people.[114] Only by piloting the measure will we see whether practices will be more free than local authority children's services departments to organise their care in a way that helps build relationships.[115] Professor Le Grand believed that there would also be benefits for the professionals involved, providing a more supportive environment for training and mentoring, and attractive career paths that would not neglect front-line practice.[116] Additionally, there could be cost savings "from losing a lot of the managerial overhang within local authorities—you would not have that hierarchy".[117]

53. We asked Professor Le Grand if greater innovation and variety in practice stemming from Social Work Practices poses a further danger to the consistency of the care system for children. He responded that he would consider variation to be one of the virtues of the idea, and that the checks and balances of the current system, such as Independent Reviewing Officers, would remain. Contracting for outcomes with local authorities "will ensure the right degree in maintaining both national consistency and accountability".[118]

54. Maxine Wrigley reported the opinions of some young people in care about Social Work Practices:

    Young people are nervous that there could be another layer between them and the corporate parent. They are also slightly nervous about the idea of independent, add-in people making profit from the care system. On the other side, they are quite keen on a new model, like the GP model, that would allow for 24/7 access to support and for needs to be met better and more locally […].[119]

Barnardo's and the Local Government Association expressed concerns that independent practices could dilute the accountability of the corporate parent, and distance care for looked-after children from other council services such as education and housing.[120] The Care Matters Partnership warned that the highest quality staff could be attracted to the practices, effectively lowering standards in local authority work.[121]

55. The working group chaired by Professor Le Grand recommended that at least nine pilot projects would be needed to test different models adequately.[122] Six pilots have been announced.[123] Professor Jane Tunstill pointed out, with specific reference to Social Work Practices, that the methodological rigour of pilots is compromised if, through a desire to see something work and carry on, they are much better resourced than existing, mainstream services.[124] Celia Atherton, Director of Research in Practice, expressed scepticism about the value of the Social Work Practice pilot projects, given their short timescale (two years), and cautioned that significant improvement would depend on cultural rather than structural change.[125] We asked Professor Le Grand whether the pilots would be able within that timescale to demonstrate a verifiable impact on children's outcomes. He responded that the outcomes the Government would want to know about

    […]are so far in advance that no conceivable piloting process could test them. We felt that two years was probably an acceptable compromise […] Given the substantial degree of discontinuities and instability in the system at the moment, we will be able to see whether it will make some difference.[126]

56. In our Report on the Children and Young Persons Bill, we concluded that it was vital that Social Work Practices be properly evaluated, and that they should not be rolled out unless they can be shown to improve continuity and stability for looked-after children. Evidence received for this inquiry has confirmed this view, and in that light we are concerned that fewer pilots are being undertaken than recommended by the Care Matters working group. 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.

57. 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.

Relationships between the child and their carer

58. For most young people in care, their most important relationship on a day-to-day basis is with their foster family. We met a group of foster carers to discuss our inquiry and were impressed with their dedication, and with the compassion and kindness that evidently underlay their desire to provide a loving, nurturing home for children. Not all children in care are lucky enough to be placed with such good ambassadors for the profession, however. Some young people told us that they have been placed with carers who, despite rigorous approval procedures, have not been disposed to provide a truly caring environment for them. Children do not necessarily want foster carers to try to replace their birth parents, but we heard shocking stories of children in some foster homes being excluded from normal family life such as eating meals and watching TV together, and from special family occasions.[127] Experiences such as these lead children to become cynical about the reasons why people choose to foster, viewing many carers as motivated by financial reward.

59. Ian Sinclair, Professor Emeritus at the Social Policy Research Unit, University of York, described the traits needed to be a good foster carer: "[…]it must build on the basic parenting qualities: you actually like these kids or, if they are young, you love them; you are clear about what you want; you do not let them wind you up; you show that you are the sort of parent that all of us would wish to be."[128] Barnardo's argued that the most important qualities—warmth, patience, tolerance—are those that are difficult to measure and assess, and can be neglected during approval processes for carers.[129] Training may focus on child protection and processes at the expense of developing relationships.[130] Pam Hibbert, Assistant Director-Policy at children's charity Barnardo's, told us

    Some years ago, I sat on a fostering approval panel. I resigned from that panel because it would not disapprove some foster carers who were up for their annual reviews. There was nothing concrete—they had not abused the child and had done all of the things that they were supposed to do—but they did not have the warmth, empathy and relationship. Because we are often short of placements, it is too easy to keep people on who do not do the job well […].[131]

60. We are convinced that the large majority of foster carers enter the profession for the right reasons, motivated by kindness and a sincere desire to help vulnerable children. The tradition of foster care in England should be a source of pride, and its continued development as a valuable part of the children's workforce must be supported. However, it would be unwise to allow the gratitude owed to these carers to blind us to the bad experiences that some children in care have of everyday life in a foster home. 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.


61. It was clear from talking to young people with experience of the care system that disruption, uncertainty and instability were constant features of their time in care. They described sudden, unplanned placement moves for which they had neither explanation nor preparation; one young woman said that she had simply been left outside a social services office on a Friday night by her carer; and a boy related coming back from school one day to find his bags packed and a cab waiting for him outside his now former foster home. One young woman told us that she had had four different placements in nine months, and her sister had been through 18 placements in the same time. Others said that complaining about unsuitable placements is not worth it when you feel you will be moved on at some point anyway; unfortunately, making the effort to fit in with a new family often does not seem worth it, either.[132] The prospects for building lasting, constructive relationships in such circumstances are naturally bleak.

62. Each placement breakdown causes more disturbance for already unsettled children, which then makes the next placement even harder to maintain.[133] Preventing placement breakdowns and unplanned moves is fundamental to ensuring that children attain stability. In a later chapter we will look at the contribution of placement choice to stability. Here we will deal with another major factor: the support that can be put in place to prevent problems in placements escalating to the point where the child is moved, and to ensure that good relationships, where they occur, are reinforced rather than squandered.

63. The Care Matters White Paper acknowledges that "carer stress, and the need to respond to difficult behaviour account for a high proportion of placement breakdowns", and that training and support must therefore be provided for foster carers. However, the White Paper largely defines "support" for carers in terms of initiatives to develop their own skills and abilities. For example, a national rollout of the Fostering Changes training programme is planned to equip carers with positive parenting techniques to manage difficult behaviour.[134] Initiatives to improve provision of training for foster carers are of course welcome. Carers cannot simply be expected to rely on "normal" parenting skills when caring for children whose responses are complicated by a history of ill-treatment, neglect or challenging behaviour.[135]

64. The foster carers we spoke to agreed that placement breakdowns usually happen because of lack of support, but they did not speak in terms of training; they talked about practical help, respite placements and day-to-day contact with social workers and fostering agencies.[136] While some spoke well of the support they receive from their agency, others told us of really inadequate help in dealing with extremely challenging children, who can cause a great deal of physical damage to their surroundings as well as emotional distress. What appear to be trivial practical matters, such as making insurance claims for replacement, cleaning or repair of furnishings, can be draining and time-consuming to resolve, and carers gave the impression of having to fight for everything they receive from some fostering agencies.

65. Barnardo's argued that there should be greater provision of "out of hours" support and intervention for both foster carers and residential workers, to prevent crises escalating and leading to placement breakdowns: "foster carers tell us that if they had access to such advice and support it could have more impact on whether they continue with both individual placements or generally as a carer, than the financial remuneration."[137] Children themselves make the same point, and worry about carers giving up fostering for lack of support or advice at a crucial time.[138] Short breaks or respite services can be effective, whether in a crisis or as part of a planned package of care, but not all fostering agencies offer these opportunities in an organised way.[139] The foster carers we met urged us to think in terms of "foster families" rather than just carers, pointing out that everyone in the household and the wider family can make a contribution to the experience of the child in care.[140] Those contributions, however, rarely attract recognition, support or training.[141]

66. During debates on the report stage of the Children and Young Persons Bill, the Government rejected an amendment that would have obliged fostering agencies to publish a charter of the support they provide for carers. The Government argued that this measure would be difficult and confusing to implement as foster carers have agreements both with their providers (which may or may not be a local authority) and with the local authority placing a child with them.[142] One of the carers we met, however, estimated that nine out of ten placements are made without a foster placement agreement being put in place.[143] In the short term, it seems unwise to rely on such agreements to stipulate the support that will be available. We ask the Government to enforce rigorously the requirement for foster placement agreements.

67. Foster carers do not only need skills; they also need confidence that someone is backing them up, particularly when children have very challenging behaviour or when placements reach a crisis point. The services that are available to children outside their placement can also make a decisive difference to whether a carer feels supported in looking after a child: whether therapeutic support is available for children who are traumatised by past abuse (an issue we will discuss further in Chapter six), or whether tutoring or activities and trips will be available. There is merit in the idea of ensuring that fostering agencies are clear about what practical help will be available to support placements—not only so that placements can be supported, but to assist carer recruitment and retention. 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.

68. We heard evidence that long-term foster placements are neither adequately supported nor given enough consideration in planning as a potentially permanent option for children who will not be adopted.[144] Some fostering agencies pay lower allowances and fees to those who take on placements long-term, on the assumption that a stable placement needs less support when in fact it is the quality of support that makes such placements viable.[145] Robert Tapsfield, Chief Executive of the Fostering Network,[146] commented that "our efforts should be aimed at making such things happen more often, not at seeing whether we can get them more cheaply when they do happen."[147] He argued that long-term foster care has too low a profile in national policy, and that the DCSF should do more to promote it as a desirable outcome alongside adoption and special guardianship.[148] Professor Ian Sinclair told us that breakdown of long-term placements can be accepted too readily:

    Long-term fostering often starts when the child comes in at four or five and works fine until they start going to secondary school, when there is a bust-up and it breaks down. I feel that instead of being treated in the same way as it would be treated if it happened in a family—pulling out all the stops to keep the two together, or bringing them back again if they have to break up—that is treated as though, 'Well, this is fostering; they can't get on anymore', and they move on, having lost something that is very valuable.[149]

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.


69. Children can be placed in the care of extended family members or others connected to the family both within and outside the care system. In the care system, placements with relatives or friends account for 11% of all placements.[150] In these cases the carer may be an approved foster carer, and the local authority has obligations to support them accordingly. Care Matters noted that there is variation across the country in the extent to which family and friends placements are used. It proposed to put in place a "gateway approach" to ensure that this type of placement is considered as an option at every stage of decision-making. Reforms to care proceedings through the Public Law Outline, introduced in April 2008, have also increased the profile of kinship care as an option for children. Kim Bromley-Derry, Vice President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, told us that this "will improve the level of consistency in its consideration".[151]

70. While the prospect of an expansion in family and friends care was generally welcomed by those who gave us evidence, there was concern that local authorities might turn to it as a "cheap option" rather than necessarily the best option for the child, because of the lower levels of support offered to family and friends carers in many places.[152] Some local authorities continue to pay lower allowances to kinship carers than to other foster carers, and other forms of support such as an allocated social worker may also be lacking.[153] Authorities that have made less use of kinship placements in the past will have to develop specialist services and support to manage an increase in this type of placement; family and friends care is in many ways a task distinct from mainstream foster care, and the motivations and circumstances of carers may be quite different.[154]

71. Outside the care system, however, it is estimated that between 200,000 and 300,000 children may be cared for by family or friends; many of these arrangements start on a short-term basis to avoid the need to take the child into care.[155] Children are very much in favour of a greater emphasis on investigating the possibilities for family and friends care before they are taken into the care system.[156] While the needs and circumstances of a child in these cases may be identical to those of children within the system, the support on offer to carers is usually very much less if it exists at all.[157] This can even occur in cases where the arrangement has been made at the behest of children's services.[158] Caroline Little, Co-Chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, told us that children's solicitors spend a great deal of time "fighting" within the court system to obtain the appropriate support for someone within the family who is willing to care for the child but is financially unable, or lacking suitable housing.[159] There is a risk that informal arrangements intended to forestall the need for care, if not adequately supported, may break down and result in the child going into care after all.[160] We were interested to hear of Hampshire County Council's provision of means-tested allowances for kinship placements outside the care system, and we would like to see similar examples of practice surveyed to inform national policy.

72. The Care Matters White Paper announced "a new framework" for family and friends care. It acknowledged that current arrangements for financial and practical support are "not sufficiently robust", and it set out the Government's intention to ensure that all local authorities have transparent policies in relation to the support they offer to family and friends carers.[161] Robert Tapsfield and David Holmes, Chief Executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), were not convinced that the Government's stated proposals amounted to the promised "new framework", rather than a platform for "developing local practice", and the Family Rights Group expressed concern about the lack of detail.[162] Robert Tapsfield suggested that kinship carers should have a right to be assessed for the services they may need, similar to that introduced by the Adoption and Children Act 2002 for adoptive parents.[163] The idea of a specified entitlement to funding and services also had a measure of support.[164]

73. 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.

74. 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.


75. A foster carer described to us the experience of children being fostered: "This isn't family life, it's parenting by committee, and the young people resent us for it. If we're going to be foster families, we have to be able to function as families."[165] Dr Roger Morgan, Children's Rights Director for England,[166] picked out as one of the issues that children would like to have a stronger emphasis in Care Matters, "the principle of trying to provide as normal a family-type experience as possible for children in care".[167] Normalising the experience of children growing up in care is particularly important because children feel so acutely the stigma of being singled out as different in any way.[168]

76. We heard evidence that a highly bureaucratic and risk-averse culture is denying children opportunities that others take for granted and fails to replicate good parenting.[169] There was, among the evidence we received, a great deal of support for the idea of normalising children's experience of life in care as much as possible by increasing the capacity of foster carers to make everyday decisions about a child's care.[170] Foster carers themselves feel that, having gone through stringent approval processes and often having undertaken extensive training, they should be able to exercise a greater degree of responsibility for a child's care rather than having to wait for day-to-day decisions to be made by managers who may not even have met the child.[171] These decisions can include purchasing clothes or other items, signing school consent forms for activities or trips, taking a child for a haircut, obtaining a passport, or giving permission for a child's photograph to appear in a newspaper. It is not always clear—even to social workers—where responsibility for different types of decisions lies.[172]

77. Care Matters does set out the principle that "children should, as far as possible, be granted the same permissions to take part in normal and acceptable age-appropriate activities as would reasonably be granted by the parents of their peers, and we would expect carers to behave as any other parent would in such situations."[173] The Fostering Services Regulations stipulate that approval for school trips or overnight stays should be explicitly addressed in the foster placement agreement.[174] The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Young People and Families, the Baroness Morgan of Drefelin, told us:

    […]it is essential that foster carers are clear about what is and is not delegated to them and what their roles and responsibilities are […] That is why we will be looking at amending the fostering service regulations to ensure that there is a review of the foster placement agreement at least annually, or sooner if there is a substantive change in the circumstances of the placement.[175]

The Fostering Network told us, however, that foster placement agreements are "far from universal", and when one does exist it often will not give any clear guidance on how to deal with the specific issues such as school trips.[176] Robert Tapsfield explained the importance of explicit government guidance on these issues:

    The Government could issue guidance to push local authorities to delegate more authority to foster carers. A few years ago, foster carers could not agree to overnight stays and it was terrible. The Government said, 'We don't need to issue guidance; it's perfectly possible for local authorities to agree to this.' But many local authorities did not do so. In the end, the Government did issue guidance, which solved the problem almost at a stroke, because local authorities then followed the guidance and were happy to delegate, unless there were reasons why they should not. So clear guidance from the Government about delegating authority would make it easier for local authorities to get over some of their natural risk-averseness, which they have at the moment, and would make it more difficult for them to hold blanket decision-making at local authority level.[177]

78. Several witnesses made the point that delegation to carers is dependent on context, specifically the skills and experience of the carer, and the nature of the placement.[178] Long-term placements in particular could be strengthened by greater delegation; the Fostering Network told us it is "wrongheaded" to require a carer who has known a child for five years or more to get permission from social services to enable them to participate in activities at school.[179] However, if a child is changing placements regularly, managers are entitled to feel less confident in delegating. Pauline Newman, Director of Children's Services at Manchester City Council, reasoned that, "you can imagine the scenario when we get this wrong: we let them go, and they are abused."[180] The ideal solution is to have a good understanding between the foster carer and the child's social worker, but the Fostering Network reported that social workers do not universally recognise the expertise of carers as the practitioners with the greatest day-to-day involvement in children's lives.[181]

79. The Government expects local authorities to provide £500 per year for each child in care who is at risk of not reaching the expected standards of attainment, a measure introduced in April 2008.[182] These Personal Education Allowances can be used to pay for, for example, personal tuition, leisure activities, and trips and visits that will enrich their learning and development. Guidance states that it is for local authorities to decide how best to use this funding.[183] The Fostering Network argued that foster carers should be more involved in the scheme, along the lines of the 'Fostering Achievement' programme in Northern Ireland, which gives responsibility for grants of £800—intended for much the same purposes as Personal Education Allowances—to foster carers. This model emphasises the role of foster carers in "supporting and pushing the education of the children in care, just as parents do for their own children."[184]

80. Care Matters sets out good intentions with respect to delegation of decision-making for children, but we are concerned that these intentions will run aground on the actions of individual, risk-averse managers. 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.

33   Q 192 [Dr Harris] Back

34   Q 484 [Caroline Abrahams]; Q 281 [John Hill] Back

35   Q 319 Back

36   Q 281 [John Hill] Back

37   Q 123 [Professor Sinclair]; Q 53 [Dr Morgan] Back

38   Q 10 [Dr Morgan] Back

39   Q 124 [Professor Sinclair] Back

40   Ev 144 Back

41   Ev 28 [FPI]; Ev 200 [AIMS] Back

42   Care Matters White Paper, para 2.48 Back

43   Q 613 [Professor Masson] Back

44   The Family & Parenting Institute (FPI) is a national centre of expertise, policy and research in families and the upbringing of children. Back

45   Q 72 Back

46   Q 72 Back

47   Qq 380, 383 [Jean Robinson]; Q 389 [Trevor Jones] Back

48   Q 380 [Jean Robinson] Back

49   Q 72 [Mary MacLeod] Back

50   Q 431 [David Holmes] Back

51   Q 72 [Mary MacLeod]  Back

52   Q 57; see also Q 58 Back

53   Q 70 Back

54   Q 432 Back

55   Q 432 Back

56   Q 232 [Jane Haywood] Back

57   Q 493 Back

58   Q 462 Back

59   Q 70 [Professor Tunstill]. For further discussion of family support services see para 129 ff. below. Back

60   Q 72 [Margaret Dillon] Back

61   Q 604 [Professor Masson]; Q 613 [Colin Green]; Q 63 [Professor Tunstill] Back

62   Qq 92-3 [Mary MacLeod] Back

63   Q 431 [Kim Bromley-Derry] Back

64   Q 431 Back

65   Q 611 Back

66   Q 641 [Professor Masson]; Q 645 [Colin Green] Back

67   Q 206 [Celia Atherton]; Q 87 [Margaret Dillon]; Q 86 [Professor Tunstill] Back

68   Q 636 [Henrietta Heawood]  Back

69   Q 86 Back

70   Q 494 Back

71   Q 635 Back

72   Q 209 Back

73   Ev 213 [ADCS]; Qq 400, 409 [Kim Bromley-Derry]; Q 218 [Celia Atherton] Back

74   Q 459 Back

75   Ev 230 [GSCC]; Q 218 [Celia Atherton]; Q 409 [Kim Bromley-Derry]; Q 439 [Steve Goodman] Back

76   Q 38 [Dr Morgan]; Annex: Record of informal meetings with foster carers and young people Back

77   Q10 [Dr Morgan]; Q 38 [Maxine Wrigley]; Q 128 [Kevin Williams]; Ev 83 [Care Matters Partnership]; Ev 142 [Foyer Federation]; Ev 318 [Ofsted] Back

78   Q 206 [Professor Le Grand] Back

79   Q 241 [Professor Le Grand] Back

80   Ev 214 [GSCC] Back

81   Q 216 [Jane Haywood] Back

82   Children's Workforce Development Council, The State of the Children's Social Care Workforce 2008 (May 2008), p16 Back

83   Q 462 Back

84   Q 206 [Jane Haywood] Back

85   Q 207 [Jane Haywood] Back

86   Ev 214 [GSCC] Back

87   Ev 214 Back

88   Q 209 [Celia Atherton] Back

89   Q 206 [Steve Titcombe] Back

90   Ev 230 [GSCC] Back

91   Q 208 [Jane Haywood]; The CWDC is a Sector Skills Council Body and workforce reform agency, responsible for improving workforce skills in areas including early years, foster care, children and families social work, and children's homes managers. Back

92   Q 235 Back

93   Ev 118; Research in Practice operates a network for voluntary and public sector organisations, focusing on using evidence and research to improve services for children and families. Back

94   See Annex Back

95   A National Voice is a voluntary sector organisation run for, and by, young people who are, or have been, in care. It seeks to influence policy on the care system, raise awareness of the experiences of young people in care, and promote young people's rights. Back

96   Q 38 Back

97   See Annex Back

98   See Annex Back

99   Q 15 [Pam Hibbert]; Q 16 [Maxine Wrigley, Dr Morgan] Back

100   Q 232 [Jane Haywood]; Q 227 [Professor Le Grand] Back

101   Q 38 [Dr Morgan] Back

102   Q 38 [Dr Morgan] Back

103   Q 23 [Pam Hibbert, Dr Morgan] Back

104   Q 206 Back

105   Q 38 [Dr Morgan] Back

106   Q 38 [Dr Morgan]; Annex Back

107   Q647[Henrietta HeawoodBack

108   Q 38 [Maxine Wrigley] Back

109   Q 231 Back

110   Ev 117 Back

111   Ev 235 Back

112   Care Matters White Paper, paras 7.18 ff. Back

113   Qq 219, 225 Back

114   Q 226 Back

115   Q 220 Back

116   Qq 210, Q 229 Back

117   Q 230 Back

118   Q 222 Back

119   Q 24 Back

120   Ev 2 [Barnardo's]; Ev 14 [Pam Hibbert]; Ev 233 [LGA];  Back

121   Ev 81 Back

122   Julian Le Grand, Consistent Care Matters: exploring the potential of social work practices (DfES 2007), Recommendation 10 Back

123   DCSF, 2020 Children and Young People's Workforce Strategy, December 2008, para 4.11 Back

124   Q 75 Back

125   Q 233; Q 206 Back

126   Q 224 Back

127   Annex Back

128   Q 129 Back

129   Ev 4; Q 47 [Pam Hibbert] Back

130   Q 44 Back

131   Q 44 Back

132   See Annex Back

133   See Annex Back

134   Care Matters White Paper, paras 3.28 ff. Back

135   Q 128 [Robert Tapsfield] Back

136   Annex; see also Q 128 [Kevin Williams]. Back

137   Ev 4 Back

138   Q 45 [Maxine Wrigley] Back

139   Ev 3 [Barnardo's]; Ev 59 [Fostering Network]; Annex Back

140   Annex; see also Q 128 [Kevin Williams]. Back

141   Annex; see also Ev 57 [Fostering Network]. Back

142   HC Deb, 8 October 2008, col 361 Back

143   Annex; Ev 56 [Fostering Network] Back

144   Ev 60 [Fostering Network] Back

145   Ev 60 [Fostering Network]; Q 138 [Kevin Williams] Back

146   The Fostering Network is a charity representing over 50,000 individual foster carers, all local authority fostering services, and many independent fostering agencies. Back

147   Q 138 Back

148   Q 133 Back

149   Q 130 Back

150   DCSF, Statistical First Release 23, September 2008. Although some local authorities draw a distinction between 'kinship care' and 'family and friends care' according to whether or not they are within the care system, we follow common practice in using the terms interchangeably. Back

151   Q 420 Back

152   Ev 3 [Barnardo's]; Ev 81 [Care Matters Partnership]; Q 50 [Pam Hibbert]  Back

153   Q 428 [Kim Bromley-Derry]; Ev 335 [Family Rights Group] Back

154   Q 168 [Robert Tapsfield]; Q 420 [Kim Bromley-Derry] Back

155   Ev 330 [Family Rights Group] Back

156   Q 50 [Dr Morgan] Back

157   Q 168 [Robert Tapsfield]; Ev 332 [Family Rights Group] Back

158   Ev 331-2 [Family Rights Group] Back

159   Q 426 Back

160   Ev 332 [Family Rights Group] Back

161   Care Matters White Paper, paras 2.34 ff. Back

162   Q 168 [Robert Tapsfield]; Q 420 [David Holmes]; Ev 330 [Family Rights Group] Back

163   Q 168; Ev 334 [Family Rights Group] Back

164   Q 427 [Caroline Little]; Q 428 [Kim Bromley-Derry] Back

165   See Annex Back

166   The Children's Rights Director is a statutory post, hosted by Ofsted, whose function is to ascertain the views of children who are living away from home, receiving children's social care services, or leaving care. Back

167   Q 14 Back

168   See Annex Back

169   Q 23 [Pam Hibbert, Dr Morgan]; Q 39 [Maxine Wrigley]; Q 49 [Maxine Wrigley, Dr Morgan]; Q 166 [Kevin Williams]; Ev 56 [Fostering Network]; Ev 144 [Rainer] Back

170   Q 48 [Pam Hibbert]; Qq 133, 163, 167 [Robert Tapsfield]; Q 166 [Kevin Williams] Back

171   Ev 55 [Fostering Network] Back

172   Qq 17, 23 [Dr Morgan]; Q 39 [Dr Morgan, Pam Hibbert] Back

173   Care Matters White Paper, para 3.10 Back

174   The Fostering Services Regulations 2002, Schedule 6 Back

175   Q 518 Back

176   Ev 56 Back

177   Q 163 Back

178   Q 166 [Kevin Williams]; Q 467 [Steve Goodman] Back

179   Ev 60 Back

180   Q 471 [Pauline Newman] Back

181   Q 467 [Steve Goodman]; Ev 55 [Fostering Network] Back

182   Care Matters White Paper, paras 4.42 ff. Back

183   DCSF, Personal Education Allowances: statutory guidance for local authorities, May 2008, para 7 Back

184   Q 163 [Robert Tapsfield] Back

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