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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 122-139)


21 APRIL 2008

  Q122  Chairman: I welcome Professor Ian Sinclair, Robert Tapsfield and Kevin Williams to our deliberations. I thank you for giving your time to help us with this inquiry. We have been told during the inquiry that the politically correct term has changed—it was "Looked-after Children", and it is now back to "Children in Care." I am not sure how you stand on that, but we are keen to remain up to date. If you do not mind, we tend to slip into relatively informal mode, and perhaps, Ian, we can use first names rather than "Professor". Is that all right?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: That is fine.

  Chairman: Excellent. Are first names okay?

  Robert Tapsfield: Fine.

  Q123  Chairman: I usually give people who are to give evidence to the Committee the chance, for a couple of minutes, to say where they think we are, and what they think the most important part of this inquiry should home in on. If you could do that in a nutshell, we shall get started. Ian, would you like to start?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: My research was initially into residential care for children, then into foster care, and more recently into how the care system works, why children move, how they move, and that sort of thing. I should like to raise three points, or hope that you will be able to discuss them. My first concern is the quality of care and placement, how children and carers behave towards each other, and what relationships they form. My concern is not that that is not normally high—in foster care it is often extremely high—but that it is extremely difficult to influence, and that as that is the heart of the matter, the problem of how the director of children's services, or whoever, achieves high quality care in placements is crucial. I am not convinced that performance indicators and various other things are an effective way of going about that. My second concern is the use of resources. I am concerned partly about the proportion of resources taken up by residential care, partly by the fact that it should be possible to have more children than is currently the case in the various forms of permanent care to provide them with a family, if not for life, but at least in the long term, and partly that we have lost the idea that some placements were designed to help children to sort themselves out. That used to be the role of residential care, which has now been greatly reduced, so what will take the place of that? My last concern is what happens after care, when children either go back home or enter a rather cruel wide world at a much younger age than most other children, often with little in the way of qualifications. That is often the Achilles heel, particularly of foster care.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Robert Tapsfield: The Fostering Network is a UK-wide organisation, but for today's purposes we are talking about England. Our members are local authorities and almost all independent fostering providers, with around 24,000 fostering families and around 38,000 individual foster carers. The three points that I want to make may repeat some of what Ian has said. Absolutely central to what happens to children in foster care, and to how well they do, is the quality of their relationship with their foster carer and what the foster carer does—or is allowed to do—with them, to them and for them. Getting that right is the key to improving foster care, which is where 71% of children in care are placed. The second point is the key importance of allowing children to remain with their foster carers after they are 18. Ministers have said very clearly in their pronouncements on care matters that they want that to happen. Everybody now recognises that most young people stay much longer in their families. Young people in care are a particularly vulnerable group, so helping and enabling them to stay longer with their foster carer is key to improving their outcomes. What the Government propose is extremely disappointing, to say the least. It amounts to nothing very much. We have to do much more to help young people to remain with their foster carers. My last point encompasses a bunch of issues to do with what we call the professionalisation of foster care. If we want to improve foster care, we must improve and clarify our expectations of foster carers, their training requirements, remuneration, status, and their authority to take decisions. A key area is how we look after foster carers when an allegation is made against them—inevitably, some will have allegations made against them. At the moment, we look after them very badly when that happens. Those are my three key points. The last thing that I want to say is that I am also chair of the Kinship Care Alliance, which is a group of voluntary organisations working to improve the situation for kinship carers. I am happy to share some of our thinking on kinship care.

  Chairman: We have a section of questions on that very subject.

  Kevin Williams: I just want to mention The Adolescent and Children's Trust.[7]7 We are the largest charitable fostering provider in the UK, the largest provider in Wales and a major player in England. We are also the newest approved adoption agency. I have three points as well. I support a lot of what Ian and Robert have already said, particularly around transitions. We are particularly concerned that children leaving care are among the least well educated. They are more likely to find themselves not in employment, education or training. They are the least well supported, financially, emotionally and practically, and they are often placed in the poorest housing. An inevitable consequence of that is that young people leaving the care system are more likely to resort to alcohol and drug misuse, have mental health problems and commit crime. Enabling young people to remain in the care system longer will reduce the cost to the state in the longer term. The huge cost to the health service and prisons in particular will be diverted to the care system. My second point relates to commissioning. We are particularly concerned about the current system, which seems to be a postcode lottery. Lots of different local authorities approach commissioning very differently. We recognise within the Bill the need to move towards regional commissioning, but we are still concerned that the main drive on commissioning is around price. It is not based on a drive for equality or delivering outcomes, but is about trying to reduce costs for local authorities. In the longer term, our concern is that a number of small, high-quality providers will be squeezed out of the market, and that is particularly true with the onset of venture capitalists. We worry that another Sedgemoor—the Northern Rock of child care—will happen. With venture capitalists in the market, the price of placement will increase rather than decrease, because of the current pressure to reduce prices and squeeze other people out of the market. The third area that I want to talk about is preventing criminalisation. There are a number of systems and processes within the care system that lead to children becoming criminalised. For example, children in residential care may break a window in anger or frustration and, as a consequence of that, may be charged with criminal damage. Also, a child who arrives late back to a foster home may be reported as missing. Inevitably, the police will interview that young person, when they may admit to criminal offences. We are concerned about the care system criminalising children as well as about their leaving care at an early age, as we have already said. Lastly, just a quick note: we talk about foster care as if it were a single entity, but it is actually a complex set of arrangements for young people. Some young people are there in short-term arrangements, some are there on a more permanent basis and some are there as part of a task-centred approach for task-centred work. We need to be really clear when we talk about foster care that we recognise that although it is a single entity, with young people being cared for in somebody else's family, there is a whole range of different arrangements to meet the needs of children in care.

  Q124  Chairman: That is very useful. Thank you very much for those introductory remarks. Having read an awful lot of stuff and listened to the evidence so far—as I said to you outside, the Committee is getting slightly dangerous now because we are learning all about this new field of interest—it struck me that this all seems rather British and amateur. I have read that there are 150 care systems and 150 fostering systems, so there is great diversity, and no one is quite sure of the quality across the piece or of a person's entitlement when they go into care. Nowhere in the literature that I have read so far—except in an allusion in Professor Sinclair's writings—have I read that we should do a study when people exit care or even find out what they think about care five years after leaving it. The picture is of something rather chaotic, nice, essentially English and a bit stuck together, rather than something that would be recognised as a proper system. Am I getting the wrong impression, Ian?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: If you look at local authorities, you will find that they behave in very different ways, and that is particularly so in relation to the decisions that they can take. Some will send a high proportion of children and young people home very quickly after they have arrived, some will be much more likely to keep them on, some will put many more in residential care than others and some will get more adopted. On all those decisions, they seem to have varying policies, and you get big differences that cannot be explained by differences in the kinds of children that authorities have. If you look at things like how "happy" the children or young people are, you see that that varies much less, if at all, by local authority. It varies according to the kinds of people with whom they are living. So, on the one hand, people have the mechanisms for standardising certain things, such as the nature of the care system. For example, the proportion of children you might be aiming to get adopted could be standardised a lot more. On the other hand, you have major difficulties trying to standardise something that is basically a matter of human relationships. How do you do that? My personal view is that part of the solution in the end must be about how you train, select and support people. We know something about how to support people, but we know much less about how to train or select them. In a funny kind of way, part of the difficulty lies in the enormous amount of inspection effort that goes on the managerial aspects of the system, rather than its quality. An enormous number of different things are measured, and there is a great variety of measurement, but the failure to say that certain things really matter and that we will home in on them to try to get everybody up to a high standard across the board works against that inspection effort. If you said, "Well the key thing is the quality of the care in the individual places," the quality of the quality assurance system in local authorities would be key. How do they know what that quality is? They might major on crime, for example, and inspect that, which might send a message that that is what they are really on about. However, in fact, so many messages are going out that you can pick and choose to some extent—there is a great variety of different things. I do not know whether that quite answers your question.

  Q125  Chairman: I think that it convinces me that I was right to ask about the lack of systemic features—it looks fragmentary rather than like a system.

  Professor Ian Sinclair: It is a lack of being really clear about what things really matter.

  Q126  Chairman: Robert, would you agree with that?

  Robert Tapsfield: No, I do not think that I do. At times, I can be a pretty fierce critic of the system. The key is to strike the right balance between the state setting rights, entitlements, expectations and the overarching principles on which the system relies and allowing some local discretion to deliver services to meet local needs. I do not think that that balance is always struck. Actually, in the past 10 years or so, we have had the advent of national minimum standards for the foster care system that govern how fostering services are run. They describe the expectations on fostering services provision. We have an inspection regime that has begun to report on standards, which has had an impact on driving them up. I accept that they may not always be the right standards for the right outcomes but, nevertheless, we have that national regime, and it has had an impact on services. We have seen more children placed in foster care as a proportion of the overall population. There are clear elements of a coherent system, but that is not to say that it is working in all places at all times—it clearly is not. Things need to be done to improve the system, but I do not think that I share your initial description of it.

  Q127  Chairman: I did not mean it in a negative sense; I simply thought that it was worth going over. It did not seem to be a system. We are used to looking at local authority performance, and when we recently looked at special educational needs, we found that some authorities had one method of delivery—special schools and so on—but others had gone further down the route of inclusion with hardly any special schools, or exporting children across local authority boundaries. We know about the diversity of local authority services. I suppose that we are trying to get a handle on how you judge how good the services are across the piece. Anyone can say to us, "It depends where you look."

  Robert Tapsfield: It does depend on where you look, but if you look across the piece, you will see evidence that young people in care are getting something out of it, so it is generally better than not being in care. However, we are absolutely clear that we could be doing so much better for those people. There is a task for the system significantly to improve outcomes for young people in care. I have no doubt that we can and should be doing much better for them.

  Q128  Chairman: If you look at such issues—we shall say more about this later—and ask what is the quality of educational performance and delivery, for example, you must look at the quality and training of the staff involved. However, when I go around asking questions in this Committee and elsewhere, people tell me that it is not to do with qualifications or the skills of the people in the care system, but, rather, about their ability to provide a supportive home background. We therefore end up not quite knowing what is the skill set or whether there should be one at all in the care system. Should there be a skill set? Should there be any sort of training for carers?

  Robert Tapsfield: Yes, absolutely—I have no doubt at all about that. We ask and expect foster carers to undertake an extraordinarily difficult task. Not only do we want them to be good parents and to have good parenting skills, but, if they do not know about the rules and regulations that govern children in care, they are going to fail at times. The same is true if they do not know what children expect of them. If foster carers do not know very clearly what some of the challenges are for young people who have been ill-treated or abused, they are likely to come unstuck in caring for children who do not simply respond in a straightforward way. Increasingly, children in care are presenting those challenging behaviours. If foster carers do not feel comfortable in working with and communicating with schools and teachers, it is unlikely that they will be able to help the children that they are caring for to overcome difficulties at school. We must have a set of very high expectations of foster carers, which really means that they must be skilled parents and then have "plus, plus, plus" on top. The "plus, plus, plus" on top is only likely to come from training. Exceptionally, it may come from some people who have not had training, but we would not want to place children in foster care where we had not made clear those expectations or talked to the foster carers about the particular challenges that they are likely to face. That is also true where we have not talked to them and had them think about how they can safely care for children who, for example, have been sexually abused and where there may be risks of children misinterpreting signals. There are real challenges for carers in performing their function in a way that keeps both carers and children safe. We cannot afford foster carers to be untrained any longer, if we are going to ask them to carry out this complex task.

  Kevin Williams: Coming back to your earlier point about whether there are 150 different systems, I disagree, because I do not think that there are 150 different systems. I think that there is generally one system and that that system is well understood by the professionals working within it with foster carers and young people. However, I think that there are local differences, which are about local need. We work with most local authorities in the UK, and if you look across local authorities, most policies and procedures are fairly similar. What often changes is the relationship that children have with their social worker. If there is a consistent social worker with a consistent care plan, we see better outcomes for that child. Where we see difference is where there is inconsistency of social worker—changes of social worker often lead to a change in the care plan. There is a single system that responds to local need, but underneath that is the relationship between individual social workers, foster carers and young people. In relation to the point about foster care training and support, we wholly agree with Robert's comments on training. We say, first, that it is about pre-qualifying training. Our concern is that, while there is a level of consistency of pre-qualifying training for foster carers, there is not accredited pre-qualifying training for foster carers. We would certainly like to see accreditation for foster carers, which would then lead to registration. Secondly, training is something that needs to continue and be ongoing. There is certainly some work around at the moment from the Children's Workforce Development Council which looks at ongoing support for foster carers and training and development, because it is about continuing development. We have recently undertaken a study with Professor Bob Broad from South Bank University. As yet, that is an unpublished study, but one of the key findings is that foster parents tell us that the relationship that they have with their social worker—ongoing support with their own social worker, not the child's social worker—is important in helping them to manage the tasks that they do. Foster parents also talk highly about the training that they receive—both pre-qualifying training and ongoing training—and about other support systems, including a lot of practical support. Often, foster carers find that practical support is invaluable. The other area that we need to address is that it is not just foster carers themselves who are involved in foster care, because it is a whole family commitment. It involves both the nuclear family in that particular household, including the children of foster carers, and the extended family. Fostering is often an extended family activity, supported by the foster carers' wider extended family and friends.

  Chairman: Thanks for that, which has got us all warmed up.

  Q129  Fiona Mactaggart: You have both talked about how the population of children in care has become more challenging and how their problems have become more complex. I am interested in learning whether foster care can deal with the problems of the most difficult children, including those with behaviour problems, problems in terms of their relationship with the criminal justice system, psychiatric issues and so on. Is foster care capable of meeting those children's needs?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: I need to distinguish between the things that I say that are based on research and the things that I say that are not. One thing that I say that is not is that some young people are one-man or one-woman crime waves and continually run away, or whatever. In the end, it is extremely difficult not to lock them up. Clearly, foster care is not going to cope with them, because it is not adapted to be a single prison. It is clear that foster care can, in one sense, deal with much more difficult people than was thought possible in the past. In Scotland, a highly supportive form of foster care has been provided for young people who are supposed to be in secure accommodation, but it was not clear from the study whether it produced better results. However, it was clear that it was rather cheaper, and it was also clear that the roof did not fall in. In other words, none of the foster carers left, for example, although it would be quite untrue to say that none of the young people committed offences. To the best of my memory, the researchers said that they thought that about a third of the people going into this very extreme form of care probably could not be coped with and that, for some people in that third, the solution would be for them to start in secure accommodation and then graduate out of it. The limits of that scheme are perhaps less than have been thought. However, if you are to do this kind of thing, you clearly need to provide good support. Again, the foster care scheme in Scotland is, in my view, an excellent example of the kinds of things that are needed, many of which have been mentioned by Robert. The only other thing that I would add relates to what Robert said about training. I agree that, in the end, training has to be part of the solution. We also need to face the fact that we have very little evidence. We have evidence that training improves the morale of foster carers and that they like it—it keeps them from turning over; it makes them feel part of a professional group; and they meet other foster carers—so it has all sorts of benefits. It is very difficult to get any evidence showing that it improves their results with young people, but it is worth going for the first set of things anyway. It is crucial that we do not just assume that training is a good idea simply because, in the end, it must be. We should go on trying to work out what sort of training is needed until such time as we get a form of training that really produces results. I am happy that Robert said the kinds of things that he said, because in the end that must be the solution. Again, as he said, 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. In relation to the question about very difficult young people, if you are that sort of person, it is highly likely that, if you are given some skills and behaviour management and so on, you will do a better job than if you are not. However, that needs demonstrating, and we need to put effort into demonstrating it, because at the moment very little research has been done on training.

  Robert Tapsfield: Two things. Foster care is dealing now with some exceptionally difficult children and young people, so I do not think there is any question but that it can deal with them. The Government have invested quite a lot in multi-dimensional treatment foster care, which is a fairly rigorous programme of expensive foster care designed to treat some of the most disturbed and challenged young people. That is undergoing evaluation as we speak. I think that they are optimistic that it is showing encouraging signs at the moment, but I am sure they would not go further at the moment, because it is still relatively young. Fostering services are now caring for some very challenging young people. We know that to ask and expect foster carers to care for the sorts of young people you are talking about, you not only need to build in a much bigger support service with much quicker and more immediate access to clinical psychologists and other support experts, but probably need to pay them well, because you are asking them to do a very difficult job. You also probably have to have far more intensive review mechanisms to review the placement and the child. However, local authorities are doing that as we speak, and the question is that those services are in themselves expensive—not as expensive as a residential alternative, but nevertheless expensive. I have no doubt that foster care is coping and can cope with some of the more challenging young people.

  Kevin Williams: Absolutely. I support that, and I would add that different challenges come from different people's behaviour and the group that you described are not always necessarily the most challenging for some of our foster carers to care for. Young people who may self-harm can be equally challenging, but not as overt in that challenge to the community in which they find themselves. I also agree it is about making sure there is the appropriate team around the child. It does come back, I think, to relationships that are developed between foster carers and young people, but I also think it is possible to have a relationship between residential care and foster care. I do not think the two systems should be seen as bifurcated. There is the possibility of having children who move from residential care into foster care, who have a relationship with residential providers who continue to support them while they are in foster care. I think too often in the care system we move children from placement to placement and see the previous placement as an end rather than as a transition into the new placement. So I think I would like to see foster care for those very challenging, difficult young people you have talked about having greater relationships with residential care, so it is not seen as an end when they move on from residential care into foster care, but is seen as part of the continuum and a transition, where they may need to go back to residential care for periods, for support.

  Q130  Fiona Mactaggart: I am struck by the use of the concept of relationships, because I was acutely aware of Ian's early statement, in which I think he was trying to suggest that some of the sorts of things that we inspect get in the way, to some degree, of the core issue of the relationship between the cared-for child and the caring adult. You are saying that as well as that vertical relationship, if you like, there is also a set of horizontal relationships, which can enable the child's transition through different bits of the care system to work better. I am not hearing—and in the evidence that I have read I do not know that I have seen—shining examples of mechanisms that support those sets of relationships well. I have heard people talking about the need for better support from social workers, and better training and so on, all of which relate to that matter, but are there shining examples of how to help to reinforce the adult-child relationship and the foster carers' relationships with those around them who will also intervene in the child's life?

  Chairman: Who wants to take that? I am not going to give you all the chance to reply to every question, or we shall not get through our seven sections. Who would like to lead on that?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: Clearly, relationships are extremely difficult to create, so you cannot say, "You two shall get on." What you can do is celebrate and acknowledge when people do get on, and try and support that. One thing that Kevin said, I think, is extremely important, which is that children in the care system who are moved around a lot frequently speak of previous relationships that they have had which were very valuable to them, but which were treated as though they were totally at an end. For example, if someone goes back into the home of their birth family, it can work very well if the carer who looked after them also gets on with the family—taking them on weekends, supporting both and so on. That is a minority, but when one sees it, it is a highly impressive way to use relationships. Clearly, the whole issue of contacts and all that relates to the child's relationship with its own family, and there are lots of things to be said on that. There are things to be said about practice in terms of flexibility. If a placement is chosen by both sides and if, although it was supposed to be short-term, they really get on and want to stay together, that helps, although it is not automatically guaranteed. The last thing is that 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. I suppose that I am saying that that cannot be created, but there are lots of ways in which it can be profited from, because it grows naturally.

  Q131  Fiona Mactaggart: Is it the fact that in some foster placements there are a large number of unrelated children? Does that help or hinder it?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: You cannot have rules of thumb. In some places, it is like they are your foster sister or foster brother, and you really get on. In some places, they really get on your nerves. It varies. In some places, they bully you, or even worse. Again, one must be very conscious of what is actually going on, I would say.

  Q132  Fiona Mactaggart: My last question concerns that kind of setting: a foster family with a number of unrelated children. One of the things that I am interested in is whether we are right in Britain—we are different from the rest of Europe—to think that as far as possible, families rather than institutions are the best place to put children who need care. I am interested as well in where the boundary is—where something stops being a family and starts being a quasi-institution. It occurs to me that some such settings might come close. I can see Robert shaking his head. He is saying that we are right. Maybe, Robert, you are the person who should start answering.

  Robert Tapsfield: One of the things that we now have is a rule that foster carers should not care for more than three children. That rule can be broken, if there are very good reasons and exceptional circumstances—a bunch of siblings, for example—but generally, we are looking at foster carers not taking more than three. Part of the reason for that rule was to find a way to draw a distinction from what otherwise might become more akin to residential care, and I think that it has been largely successful. In Scotland, where that rule does not exist, there is also concern that some foster carers are encouraged to take more children than is probably best for them or the children. That is not so good, and it is not as successful. I think that the rule of three that we have here is helpful in casting a limit around the number of children in a foster care house. It means that those are genuine families and do not become quasi-residential institutions.

   Kevin Williams: I would agree with that. We should also consider the relationships that foster carers have not just with children currently in placement, but with those previously in placement. Often, a very positive message is sent to children in current placements, if their foster carers keep in touch with children whom they have looked after previously—they take on a family-for-life notion for a number of children. We have a number of foster carers who, during festive seasons, will have 10, 11 or 12 previous foster carers around the table with their children, so it becomes a wider networking community. That is a very good message to send to children in care: it is not just about an end when they turn 17 and move to independence; we are there to provide ongoing support.

  Chairman: That leads us on to our second section, on placement stability and permanent options.

  Q133  Mrs Hodgson: The Care Matters: Time for Change White Paper advocates a consistent focus on stability—an emphasis reflected in two performance indicators in particular. With those performance indicators in mind, can you tell me about what is going wrong in these placements or, indeed, what is going right, using those indicators as a guide?

  Robert Tapsfield: One of the things is about the status and standing of long-term foster care. My understanding of the research evidence, in terms of what works and is helpful for you people, is that it is about living in a family with whom they want to live for as long as possible, and that actually the legal status probably is not the key indicator in determining whether they do well. I think that the Care Matters White Paper goes some way towards making a very positive statement about long-term foster care. Although local authorities are encouraged to seek permanence as an option for children, for them long-term foster care does not count as a permanent solution. They are judged on the number of children who are adopted and the number subject to special guardianship orders, but they are not allowed to count among that group those placed in long-term foster care. I do not think that that is helpful, because it also means that there is a lack of clarity up and down the country about quite what long-term foster care is and means. Different councils describe it in slightly different ways: some have permanent foster care and long-term foster care, but some have one or the other. It would not be easy, however, to count the number of children in long-term foster care, because there is no agreement, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families does not require local authorities to count in decisions on whether the placement of a child should be long-term or permanent. As I have said, they count adoption, and special guardianship. I think that it would help if they were required to count long-term foster care as well. On the one hand, the quality of the relationship is what counts, and some evidence suggests that what you do structurally might not make the key difference. However, I think that it would be helpful to tell a family and child that a placement is intended to be long-term. You could then consider the levels of delegated authority given to those foster carers, so that fewer decisions have to come back to the local authority. Foster carers could be empowered to make decisions on things such as school trips, photographs and so on—otherwise, they have to go to the local authority. It would also be helpful if, at each review, the reviewing officer was not required to ask whether the child can return home, because the decision will already have been made that they will grow up with the foster family. In various ways, we could do with constructing a category for long-term foster care along with adoption and special guardianship, because it would emphasise the fact that some groups of children are intended to remain with their foster carers long term. Through targets and other things, we should encourage local authorities to make that decision, but, to start with, the DCSF should be more proactive in defining long-term foster care as a desired outcome and status, and to take steps to measure whether it happens.

  Q134  Mrs Hodgson: I understand that there is considerable local variation amongst these indicators. Is there any particular reason for that, or is it just local circumstances?

  Robert Tapsfield: Part of the challenge is that the system is so complex and there are so many different variables that can impact on what is happening that it is very difficult to identify a single variable that is likely to make a difference. What has been shown in terms of the report—the work that Jane Held and others have done on stability—is that you are looking at a range of factors. You are looking at the quality of decision making that goes into the placement decision at the beginning, at the quality of foster care and social work, and at the support that is given during the placement. You are looking for evidence that those working with the child are listening to the child and the carers—are you picking up when things are going well or not going well? Key to local authorities doing better is that they have a better decision-making and matching process at the beginning. The system is so complicated that the danger is that you pick out one thing and focus on it to the exclusion of a lot of other things. You do not then see the desired outcomes because the other things were also very important—if that makes sense.

  Professor Ian Sinclair: Moves are generally to be deplored and should be avoided if possible because they are worrying, cost money, are disturbing for the child and so on. But having said that, there are very different kinds of moves. If you move after you have been in a placement for five years and you thought that it was a placement for life, that is a totally different kind of thing than if you are three months old, in hospital and someone decides that you have been abused, and you move from hospital to somewhere else. That is a move, but it is a different kind of thing. Like Robert, I distinguish between when someone has decided that they want a long-term permanent place, which they want to work out and really do not want to break if they can help it. However, there is one caveat to that: when someone becomes a teenager they are to some extent able to break placements where they are unhappy, but when they are five or six years old, it is much more difficult. There is the odd sturdy toddler who can do that, but it is much harder to break placements at that age. If you talk to foster children you will find some who say, "We were very unhappy for three, four, five years. It looked like good news in that particular foster placement, but they didn't like us." The first thing is that you need to distinguish between different kinds of moves. The vast majority of moves are in fact intended: they are moves in, moves back home, moves to longer placements and so on. One might think that the movement indicators measure breakdowns, but they do not. The second thing is that the data on which they are being measured are extremely inaccurate. If we calculated these indices on the data that the DCSF would have to use to calculate them and then recalculated them in a way that we thought was a bit more accurate, there would be a totally different rank order. The third thing is that they do not take account of the backgrounds of the children. If you take account of the fact that different authorities have to take in different kids and so on and allow for that, you get a different order yet again. These things are useful to know, so I certainly think that people should measure them and that Robert is right in saying that we should have a category called something like "permanent foster care". We want to see how often that breaks down and whether it lasts. But there is an awful lot of concern about the "three moves in a year" measure or the "however many moves in 30 months", and one needs to do an awful lot of unpacking before one understands what both the variations are about.

  Q135  Mrs Hodgson: Can you say something about the relationship between stability and permanence in placements, and the outcomes that those children experience?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: One thing that does seem fairly shocking is that when one looks at children who are 17, say, who came into the care system under the age of 11, when they were mostly being placed in foster care—they could have been in the same placement for five years or more—you will find that they are there, but, from memory, about 18% of that particular lot who were in a five-year placement have achieved something that long. It seems to me that it should be a lot more than that. Having said that, it is true that children who move a lot are more "disturbed, difficult or challenging" than those who move less, but it is not clear which is chicken and which is egg in that scenario. It is also true that quite a lot of children are moved a lot—three or four times—early on in their placement before they find somewhere that suits them and they settle down. So, although moves are to be discouraged in every possible way, the belief that they are the sole thing mucking up the system is over the top.

  Q136  Mrs Hodgson: Which groups of children in care are less likely to have long-term foster care placements and why? Is there a particular group?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: Sorry, who are you asking?

  Chairman: There will be plenty of different categories in which the other witnesses will lead. Please carry on, Ian.

  Professor Ian Sinclair: If you come into the system aged under five, particularly under one, there is a choice between adoption, long-term fostering and going home. Quite a lot of the children in that age group are adopted. They will frequently hang around in the system for two or three years until they are adopted, and then they move out of it. As far as is known, they tend to have very stable subsequent careers. If you enter the system over the age of five, or fail to be adopted and stay in the system past the age of five, you have a reasonable chance of getting a long-term fostering arrangement, but if you start to break down in your teens, you are quite likely to have some disturbance. If you enter the system in your teens and cannot go back home for some reason, you are highly likely not to have a long-term fostering arrangement, partly because there is not that length of time available and partly because you may not be looking for that: you may want something else because you feel that you have a family of your own. Another reason is that such children are frequently quite a handful and it is quite difficult for anyone to cope with them on a long-term basis.

  Q137  Mrs Hodgson: I have one more question about financial discrimination. Is there ever financial discrimination regarding who may get a long-term fostering placement, or does that issue not enter into things? Some of the evidence that I have read mentions instances of financial discrimination.

  Professor Ian Sinclair: Very quickly, there are disincentives to adopting for foster carers, because if you adopt, or if you used to go for residence orders—I am not quite sure about the special guardianship relationship—there is quite a healthy financial disincentive. There is also a disincentive regarding whether you will get support from local authorities, which some of them like.

  Q138  Mrs Hodgson: So, when you adopt, the support stops?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: It is likely to be less. My view is that there should be more of a level playing field if at all possible. Some children are really keen to be adopted, but that is the last thing in the world that other children want, although they do want a home from home. You need to be able to cater for these different needs without their being distorted by all sorts of other considerations.

  Kevin Williams: There is certainly anecdotal evidence of local authorities making decisions based on finances, particularly for children in the independent sector, as well as for their own carers. There is huge pressure on local authorities to see that their own carers are cheaper and provide better outcomes, but there is no evidence to suggest that. In fact, a recent report by The Fostering Network and the British Association for Adoption and Fostering on the true cost of foster care says that the average cost of a low-charging independent-sector placement is the same as a local authority placement. However, we have pressure on our foster carers to take out special guardianship orders, for example, with threats along the lines of, "If you don't move into special guardianship, we may need to move the children," although the placements are perfectly stable. We think there is a worry there, and it is probably driven to some degree by financial pressures on local authorities. That goes back to the point that I made about commissioning. There is a move to drive down individual costs on individual placements, rather than to take a coherent look at how to save money and deliver best value through a different commissioning strategy. That could include a discount for long-term placements from the independent sector and recognising that the stability of long-term placements is about not only the relationship between the foster carer and the child—as important as that is, and our research suggests that it is the most crucial relationship—but the support that the foster carer receives to develop that relationship. There is the ongoing support from their supervisor, social worker and network. Too often, when a placement becomes stable, local authorities assume that it will remain stable if you remove other parts of the jigsaw, but it is the whole that supports placements. There is some pressure for finances to dictate care planning.

  Robert Tapsfield: I support that. Some local authorities pay slightly lower allowances to children in long-term foster care and some want to negotiate a lower fee with the independent agency if the placement becomes long term. In one sense, one understands that that is because of the assumption that a placement that has become long term has become simple and straightforward and is just like a family life, so the authority does not need to pay as much. However, the real concern for local authorities should be that long-term placements are not happening often enough, and authorities should want to make them happen more often. Where they do happen, it is often because long-term foster carers have made them possible by putting in high levels of skill, work and support for the children. So 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.

  Chairman: Let us move on to placement choice and placement success.

  Q139  Paul Holmes: Before I ask about that, may I go back to something that Ian was saying. You were saying that quite a few children in care move on through a number of placements, but you were not quite sure whether it was chicken or egg. Had they come from disturbed backgrounds and therefore had problems with relationships, or was the system not handling them very well? To a layman, it would seem fairly self-evident whether it was chicken or egg. Why is it difficult to establish the cause?

  Professor Ian Sinclair: If you do the statistics on it, which I did, the "disturbance" seems to be the more important factor—placements were breaking down because this was a very difficult child. However, I just did not believe the statistics, and it is probably a bit of both. Irrespective of that, however, it is clearly undesirable to have a child going through placements like a knife through butter. So I do not put enormous weight on that particular finding of mine.

7   7 See TACT written evidence published in the First Report from the Children, Schools and Families Committee, Session 2007-08, Children & Young Persons Bill [Lords], HC 359, Ev 19 Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 April 2009