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

Annex: Record of informal meetings with foster carers and young people

Informal meeting with foster carers

Thursday 10 July 2008

These notes are a general account of the opinions expressed by the group of foster carers who met with Members informally, under the auspices of The Fostering Network. They were speaking as individuals, although some had representative roles in various support organisations.

What foster carers said about fostering:

  • "The most rewarding thing I have ever done […] to be recommended, if you can manage it."
  • "It is worth doing because of the changes you can make in a child's life, the happy memories they may leave with, and the chance you give them to meet the good guys."
  • "Fostering would be even more rewarding if I was given the support to do it to the best of my ability."
  • "The best job I've ever done."

Support for foster carers

  • Carers were clear that placement breakdowns usually happen because of lack of support. Breakdowns mean more disturbance for an already unsettled child, and the next placement will consequently be even harder. Independent fostering agencies advertise themselves as offering a better level of support, in both manpower and financial terms.
  • There is a lack of respite care for foster carers. Whenever respite is put in place, it is usually organised at the last minute, with children often not getting a chance to meet the carers first. One carer with an independent agency spoke well of their planning for respite, however.
  • The Fostering Network told us that foster carers do a lot of work supporting each other that is not always recognised or appropriately supported by local authorities—Foster Care Associations sometimes "pick up the buck" for the councils. One carer reported that since their local FCA was established, social services have stepped back from their involvement in recruitment campaigns, buddying schemes and so on, but they do not provide any funding for the FCA to do these things on their behalf. There is perhaps greater scope for local authorities to formally contract with Foster Care Associations to provide certain types of support.
  • Members were urged to think in terms of "foster families" rather than foster carers. It was emphasised that everyone in the household and the wider family can make a contribution to the experience of the child in care, even if those contributions are rarely attract recognition, support or training. There was some criticism that a carer's own children find themselves excluded from activities or courses that the foster child has access to.
  • The carers spoke of really inadequate support for carers dealing with extremely challenging children, who can cause a great deal of physical damage to their surroundings as well as emotional distress. Insurance often does not cover the costs of replacement, cleaning or repair, and it can take a long time for claims on the local authority's insurance to come through. One example given was that of a child who frequently wet the bed; extra costs for laundry had to be fought for from the local authority.

Payments to foster carers

  • Inconsistency and anomalies in fees impact directly on a child's quality of life in care.
  • Some carers said that it would not be possible to keep up a career while also giving the children the support they need.
  • The policy on retainers differs. Where no retainers are paid, it becomes difficult for a carer to maintain their own family life, and this is a contributory factor to low recruitment.
  • One carer argued that foster carers should all be state-employed, and get the same treatment in terms and conditions wherever they are. Some, particularly single carers, said that they would welcome any measures that would enable them to work full-time as a foster carer, because they felt that this would be best for the children. However, others felt that having a career outside fostering was important in them being a good role model for the children, and one carer said he felt that being a full-time employee as a carer would alter his relationship with other professionals in an unhelpful way.

Social workers

  • Carers emphasised that the difference a good social worker makes to a child is immeasurable. When the child has an inexperienced social worker, or none at all, both child and carer suffer; the child feels unwanted and there is no-one on hand with parental responsibility.
  • There are not enough social workers; their caseloads are too large and they have too much bureaucracy to contend with, so they cannot spend time with the children. There can be such a high turnover of social workers that a child can be assigned a new worker before they have even met the previous one. The best social workers often end up in fostering recruitment teams rather than working directly with children. Foster carers have concerns about the quality of social workers and a lack of professionalism (failing to return calls, or turning up for meetings unprepared and without the necessary paperwork).
  • One foster carer said that two children for whom she was currently caring had remained the responsibility of the Child Protection Investigations team for three years after they had come into care, which meant that their visits from social workers were extremely infrequent (one visit in three years). Since being transferred to another team, the children had had four different social workers within a year.
  • It is becoming rarer for social workers to build relationships with children. Therefore, there is more expectation on foster carers—but with less support from other professionals.


  • Carers feel that all the work they do to keep a young person in education can be undermined by inappropriate placement moves.
  • A shortage of foster carers means that children are placed wherever there is a space, without regard for appropriate matches. One carer who was approved to care for older children was asked to take in a baby on an emergency placement at very short notice, when she did not even have the appropriate equipment in her house. Sometimes carers can feel under pressure to accept placements that they know will be made more difficult because of cultural or other factors, or that might destabilise a child they are already caring for. Some of this pressure comes from the prospect of loss of income; generally carers receive no fee when they do not have a placement, although agencies do differ in their policies on this.
  • There was a great deal of discussion about how foster carers' skills could be used in other ways when they do not have a placement, for example by mentoring other foster carers, or supporting families when children are at home but on supervision orders. However, the Fostering Services Regulations 2002 (Part 111 under Section 20(6)) prohibit foster carers from working for their fostering agency for more than five hours a week.
  • One carer spoke of their experience offering a 'shared care' placement for a disabled child: "we fostered her parents as well". The parents were teenagers who were not confident in their parenting ability—the child is now living with them full-time, and is in mainstream education which at one time seemed impossible.
  • One carer estimated that 90% of placements are made without a Foster Care Agreement in place.

Leaving care

  • Foster carers feel that they put in a tremendous amount of effort to support young people, often compensating for a lack of other sorts of support, but this work can all be undermined when support is abruptly withdrawn upon leaving care, and for the young person things often 'fall apart' at this stage.
  • At the moment the system for leaving care does not adequately recognise that maturity, readiness for independence and chronological age do not always go together; there needs to be greater ability to use discretion in assessing when a young person is ready to leave.
  • Discussions about leaving care start too early. With exams and other worries, 16 is not a good age to be moved to a leaving care team (which some children come to think of as a 'don't care' team), and in some cases they may be introduced to these teams when as young as fourteen.
  • Whenever a young person becomes an adult, a foster carer can get cut out of discussions about pathway planning and what happens next, even when there has previously been a good relationship with the social worker.
  • When children stay on with a foster carer past the age of 18, it is often an arrangement arrived at in spite of the system rather than with its support. One carer who provides supported lodging for a care leaver now receives much less income in rent than the allowance he received as the young man's foster carer.
  • Formerly looked-after children who go away to university, or join the armed forces, do not have homes to return to when they are on leave or out of term time. When a placement ends, there is huge pressure because of the shortage of carers to take in more children, so the possibility of offering holiday accommodation for students is reduced.

Delegation of responsibilities to foster carers

  • Foster carers should be able to embody the principle in the Children Act that each of us act towards the child in care as a reasonable parent would: "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."
  • Carers said that they needed to be trusted more to exercise their professional judgement. They undergo a stringent approval and scrutiny process, but responsibility commensurate with that is then not delegated—for example, the ability to make day-to-day decisions about haircuts, pocket money, or school trips. Guidance on these issues is needed, but local authorities have a great propensity to misinterpret guidance unhelpfully.
  • The people who do make decisions and give authorisations are just signing a form, sometimes without even having met the child—all they are interested in is police checks and insurance. If the manager with responsibility is on leave, a child can end up missing out on a school trip, for instance. There is a need for a common-sense approach to issues such as police checks—for example, when a former looked-after child who is aged over 16 comes back to stay for a night with their former carer, do they need to be checked? Many local authorities also insist upon a separate bedroom for each child, even when foster parents' own children are sharing rooms.

Involvement of birth families

  • While the foster carers were supportive of the idea of birth parents, where possible, remaining an important part of a child's life, they raised some serious concerns with contact in certain circumstances. There was a feeling that the type of problems that now lead to children being taken into care mean there are greater risks to children from contact. There may be significant safety problems when allowing parents to come into a foster carer's own home, for example. Several carers agreed that visits by birth parents could confuse the child about their foster home being a place of unambiguous safety. However, there was recognition that birth families need to be considered and treated on an individual basis.

Informal meeting with young people in or formerly in care

Thursday 9 October 2008

These notes are a general account of the opinions expressed by the group of young people who met Members informally in October, under the auspices of A National Voice.

The importance of feeling normal

'Feeling different' from other young people is a huge issue for young people in care. Young people said:

  • "Being prioritised for support in school made me stick out like a sore thumb."
  • "If I want to stay with my sister, or a friend, social services have to do lots of checks first, which stops me feeling normal."[631]
  • "It's not a normal life […] you have to act ten years older than you actually are."
  • "The highlight of my time in care was my school prom, because that was when I felt just like everybody else."

Getting the services and support you need

Young people feel strongly about the lack of consistency in grants, allowances and so on between different local authorities. However, one young person said she felt money had "been thrown at me", to stop her complaining about her circumstances in other ways. One young woman who has left care said that becoming pregnant has triggered a great deal of support from social services that was very difficult to get previously; for example, she had been waiting for permanent accommodation for five years, and had only secured it since becoming pregnant.

  • "Why can't all boroughs be the same?"


The young people felt that placement decisions are made on the basis of where there is a free bed, not where or who will be a good match for the child. They reported not being consulted about whether they felt a placement was right for them (or even whether they would prefer residential or foster care), and pointed out that if you are unhappy in a placement you are more likely to spend time out and about and perhaps get into trouble. One young woman reported having had four different foster placements in nine months; her sister had been in 18 different placements in the same time. Another said that she had been through seven placements within a month.

Children in care feel that they often have no explanation and no preparation for things that happen to them, such as sudden, unplanned placement moves; one young woman said that she had been left outside the social services office on a Friday night, and a boy said he had come back from school one day to find his bags packed and a cab waiting for him outside.

A disabled young man said that he would have liked to have been able to have a placement closer to home, and he does not get to see his parents as much as he would like. Young people in some places are asked to give reports on the placements they've had, but not in others.

  • "Our sister is 13, and she is placed in a residential home with three 17-year-old boys."
  • "Sometimes you don't complain because it doesn't seem worth it. And making the effort to fit into a family doesn't seem worth it either, when you know you could be moved soon."
  • "I got so used to change when I was in care, that now I constantly change around the furniture in my flat."

Foster carers

The young people told Members that they all needed love, support and stability, but that they did not get these things in a lot of foster homes. Although some of the group spoke highly of some of the foster carers they had lived with, several had stories about ways in which they had been excluded from normal family life by their foster carers—being made to eat in a separate room on big occasions like Christmas, for example. When asked what sort of environment they would have liked to have been in in care, several of the young people said "a proper family setting". Although it could cause problems if carers tried too hard to replace your birth parents, young people highlighted everyday things like all watching TV together and eating together—and being allowed to use the same crockery as the foster carer's own family.

The young people felt very strongly that a lot of foster carers do it for the money, and pointed out that many agencies' recruitment strategies are based on advertising the financial reward available. Although the young people were aware that foster carers go through a rigorous approvals process, they said that carers are not always assessed against criteria that young people themselves think are the most important; for example, the process does not reveal enough about their personalities.

Young people complained that there is not as much support for kinship care as for other foster care. They were adamant that kinship care should not be seen as a cheap option—"just because you are family does not mean you can automatically cope".

  • "My foster carer turned me out of the house at 8 o'clock every morning, even on days when I didn't have school, because she wouldn't let me stay in the house while she was at work."

Social workers

The young people complained that social workers' caseloads are too high, and that this meant they could not give them enough time or attention. One person talked about how social workers often missed appointments without warning or explanation, and left young people waiting for a long time.

  • "Social workers always seem to be too busy to talk to you, or on holiday, and they don't get back to you quickly."
  • "Social workers are supposed to visit your regularly, but some of them will only be in touch when things are going wrong. If you act up, you get a lot of support and even treats. That is part of the reason why children in care may get into trouble—it is the only sure way to get attention from adults. No-one ever phones up to say 'well done' when things are going well."
  • "The workers who spend time with you get to know you better."

Siblings and other important relationships

The young people said that a lot of children in care want to see more of their siblings. They said that keeping in touch with foster siblings can be important too, but that social workers often do not understand why they want to keep in touch with children who are not their birth family, or with workers in residential homes.

  • "We've been stopped from visiting our 13 year-old sister at the residential home where she is placed, because they say it would affect her behavioural problems—but social workers should work around that rather than giving up on us seeing our sister."
  • "We've got a little brother who has been adopted; we haven't seen him since the court order was made, even though it took 18 months for him to start living with his adoptive family, and now we won't have any contact with him until he is 18."
  • "I was nothing to the children's home I lived in, after I left. I went to visit my friend there and they told me to get off the property unless I had previously-arranged business."


Getting a good education is a high priority for young people in care, but they can be frustrated by their circumstances; missing out on months of schooling because of delays getting a school place after a change of placement, for example. Some of the young people described an alternative education scheme, where young people went to a youth centre and played pool or table tennis most of the day, with only one hour's education, which was repeated daily and was exactly the same for everyone—so they reasoned that there was little point in turning up, even if you were actually interested in getting an education.

One young woman said her authority had done everything they could to keep her at the same school when her placements changed, even though at times this meant a two-hour each-way commute by taxi.

Two of the young people had been involved in an Aimhigher project in Liverpool, which took them to Liverpool University for mentoring once a week. There were financial rewards for participating in the programme, including for every GCSE grade achieved above what was expected. At the end of the project, there was a trip to New York. The Looked-after Children Education team organised their participation, and the young women said that it had helped them to believe that they weren't going to fail; they went on to achieve good GCSE grades. A National Voice worker said this was one of the best education initiatives she had seen, but it was a pilot and the loss of funding meant that the reward elements of the scheme have been lost.

  • "In Year 10 I went to four different high schools."
  • "It is almost assumed in a residential unit that no-one will want to go to school."
  • "When you do go to school you can get treated very differently, and it makes you not want to go back."

Leaving care

Young people who had left care described being told exactly how to spend their leaving care grants by social workers; and being told to accept dirty and smelly second-hand furniture because it was a bargain and they could put a throw over it. But this works differently in different places - some young people said they got all new, if cheap, furniture, and also got to keep the change from their grant.

  • "At 18, you're basically thrown out."
  • "The day my college course finishes, I've got to move house."
  • "I have a leaving care worker who has been really good, really cares, and gets things done."

Getting their views heard

A National Voice believe that the Pledge and Children in Care Council should be required in legislation, not just in guidance. They reason that what young people will tell you about a service is often completely different from what the professionals say, and so it is important that the Councils 'have teeth' and are properly accountable. A National Voice also argues that the role of Independent Reviewing Officer cannot truly be regarded as an independent voice for children in care.

631   Maxine Wrigley (Chief Executive, A National Voice) told the group that it is a myth that police checks need to be done before a child in care stays elsewhere overnight-actually carers have discretion to decide, but many social workers are apparently unaware of this, and prefer to be cautious. Consequently, overnight stays are still a very big issue for children in care; they feel it is something that adds to the stigma surrounding care, and can even induce young people to run away from their placement. Back

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