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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 500-511)


27 OCTOBER 2008

  Q500 Paul Holmes: Caroline, even if clause 10 of the Bill is implemented, with its definition of "sufficient", there are 8,000 too few foster placements across the country—I presume that is just to match one foster carer to one child. However, we hear from many of the foster parents and children to whom we talk that they want choice. As Marion said, we cannot assume that a child will automatically match up with whichever foster parent happens to be free at the time—if there is one. We need a surplus, and not just an equal number. How will they achieve that?

  Caroline Abrahams: To be honest, that is going to be pretty difficult. However, we know that there are more young people coming into care with complex needs, including highly disabled children, and there are some specialist providers in the private and voluntary sectors who make great provision. The trick is to recognise the babies and bathwater argument here. However, it is right to get children closer to their home areas, to their schools and so forth. We must not implement this in a way that means, if there is absolutely the right facility just a bit further away, that we somehow cut off our noses—and particularly children's noses—and not let them go there. The trick is how it gets implemented. It will cut differently in different parts of the country. If someone is in an area where there is expensive accommodation and planning is difficult and so forth, but there is a lot of private provision just a bit further away, they are in a very different place from an area where the economics stack up rather differently.

  Q501 Paul Holmes: Marion, in her opening comments, said that her area had paid and supported their foster carers well, and that if they did not they would have to bring in private services. However, that would cost more. The implication seems to be that about 40% of foster carers are not paid.

  Steve Goodman: It would be news to me if that was the case. Foster carers are paid.

  Marion Davis: I think that you may mean paid a fee in addition to an allowance to meet the costs of caring for a child. There is huge variation across the country, and a number of organisations are campaigning for a national minimum fostering allowance. That would be a start, but it would not be the complete picture. We need to reward foster carers' skills as well as paying them for the costs of looking after these children, who by and large are more expensive than the average child. As you know, costs are rising even for looking after the most straightforward children.

  Q502 Paul Holmes: On the other hand, we heard quite horrific stories from some of the children we talked to that they were not allowed to eat with the foster family, that they had separate mugs and that they were barred from going to the new year's eve family party. They said that the foster families were in it just for the money. How do you square that circle?

  Pauline Newman: If you are paying for skills, then you are paying for evidence of the development of those skills. Certainly we have a payment for skills scheme that rewards increased assessed skills, with NVQs and so on. That helps, but we also have to invest. We are now investing because we realise the significance of having enough support, supervision and monitoring of the foster home. That is in the context that we were discussing earlier of social workers visiting and asking young people in private, "How's it going?" and "What does it look like?", and through children's trust arrangements on an individual basis. The review gives the child a chance to speak, and allows the education person to say that they do not look well at school. It is that sort of stuff. It is back to the whole system, but you have to have enough fostering support staff to do the reviews and the intensive monitoring, and to challenge issues and complaints. It is like any other system. We had the scandals in residential care many years ago; we have to quality assure things in order to minimise the change of having a person who is not what we would want in that role.

  Q503 Paul Holmes: The Children and Young Persons Bill might say that you must provide enough places or you will get a bad rating, but on the other hand the drive to provide more places might bring in people who are just in it for the money or not well trained. You said that in Manchester you have started to require higher training, but you have lost some people as a result.

  Pauline Newman: What we have had to do—it was on the back of our family placement service, bar the adoption part of it, not working very well—is reinvest in it, and create much smaller case loads for workers, who can both monitor and keep reviewing, visiting and assessing the quality of our foster care. Some of those standards mean we have lost a number of homes, but we consider that at this time—it is leading us to purchase more externally—a price worth paying, to end up with very much higher standards in the future. There is always this problem: we must never lose sight of the fact that we need quality, and you can go the wrong way, again, because of numbers.

  Q504 Paul Holmes: On disability, which Caroline has already mentioned, you were talking, with respect to disabled children, about specialist units that might be available but might be a bit further away. However, again, quite a number of children with disabilities would want to go into a foster family rather than into a unit. If disabled children generally have got a bad deal in the past, but now get much more access to mainstream education, what is the situation with foster care, and the placing of disabled children into individual homes rather than care homes?

  Caroline Abrahams: It has to be the right thing to do, doesn't it, but it is a bit like the issues one faces around day care with disabled children; there are issues there about ensuring that foster carers are trained and supported, that the money is there for home adaptations and that they get the additional support and supervision—the excellent support—that they will need to do a good job there. Again, it is about practice and about being child-focused.

  Pauline Newman: I would be very surprised if in a few years we were not looking at a real increase in the numbers of disabled children of looked-after status because most authorities—certainly Manchester—are struggling enormously with the numbers and the level of complexity of need now coming through. That is to do with advances in medical science but also to do with further diagnosis of autism and Asperger's and all of that. Obviously, Aimhigher is helping us to deal with that, but I am surprised that we do not have even more than we have, because some of the parents are under enormous strain.

  Marion Davis: Most local authorities have a foster care scheme providing short breaks for children with disabilities, to provide some respite primarily to parents, but also to the young people themselves, but I suspect that it will be harder and harder to keep up with the demand for that kind of foster care resource.

  Chairman: There are a couple of items that we must cover. Annette, you are going to deal with leaving care. We are nearly there; don't worry.

  Q505 Annette Brooke: I shall be very brief. I have visited Hackney's care leavers service. A big issue throughout the Bill and throughout our inquiry has been the desire of many young people not only to have a good foster parent in the first place but to stay on beyond 18. Now we have the Staying Put pilots, but what is the obstacle to local authorities providing that facility for young people if they want to stay in the family? Perhaps everyone could identify the chief obstacle.

  Steve Goodman: I think that the chief obstacle is culture. It is something that the Care Matters agenda has prompted us to change our view on; you think, "Why did we not do this before?" There are some reasons, but now we have got 14 young people over 18 still with their foster carers and we have a policy emerging that says that that is the default position now, as opposed to the exception, as it used to be. The supply issue was always something: if you had a demand for foster carers and you could move a young person on at 16 to a semi-independent position, that was a foster carer freed up. But what we found was that if foster carers are looking after a child for many years, they do not automatically go back and take another child. The barrier can sometimes be the foster carer. Early planning is important, because sometimes the foster carer has expectations that at a certain point, the young person will move on. There may be foster carer barriers. We should remove local authority barriers, free up foster carers and try to recruit others. It is the norm in our society now that young people continue to live in the family for a lot longer, and that is the direction in which we need to go. It is a very good point made in Care Matters.

  Q506 Annette Brooke: Does that answer it for all of you? I have a follow-up question.

  Marion Davis: We are piloting both Right2BCared4 and Staying Put for 18-plus. The barriers in the past have been, to a certain extent, some young people being keen to leave care as soon as possible because it has not been a positive experience. More recently, perhaps there has been a cost pressure—particularly beyond 18, although not in the 16 to 18 age group—and a desire to free up placements. We are now trying to give those young people a more normal experience. Many young people, whether they leave home at 18, 19 or 20, come back often, sometimes staying for long periods, and depend on having their washing done and all that sort of thing; I can see the Committee smiling with familiarity. Young people who have been in care are not generally as well equipped as the average young person to be independent and look after themselves. Surely we need to give them that opportunity if we are to see successful outcomes for them into adult life. We are piloting and putting in a lot of support for foster carers, not expecting them to do it on their own. In the past, lots of foster carers, despite not getting an allowance after the young person turned 18, have continued to offer that backstop and have even become foster grandparents, if you like, to those young people's children when they become parents. We are now trying to put that on a firmer footing and give those young people the best start in young adult life.

  Q507 Chairman: As a protection for those young people, is a child a child until the age of 18, in your view?

  Steve Goodman: Yes. It does not change at any particular moment, but as to the point that you are making, there is a lot of experience of young people who were looked-after children going into their own flat, albeit with support, and attracting all sorts of young people to the flat, and it being absolutely chaotic, with the young person suffering. It is absolutely right that the policy that we were all implementing in the past was bad. We need to switch to what we are now saying.

  Q508 Chairman: Outcomes for children do not stop at 16, do they?

  Steve Goodman: No, absolutely not.

  Marion Davis: Nor do their needs.

  Q509 Annette Brooke: May I ask Caroline a quick question? I raised a point on Report that I wished that I had raised earlier, as it was too late to achieve anything. I discovered that local authorities were not required to make returns on young people staying on with foster parents at 18, 19 and 20. The Government said that they thought that the data on 19-year-olds could be extracted, but that there were huge cost implications of collecting data on young people aged 20. I do not see how we can move the policy forward without the necessary statistics. What can you in the LGA do to convince the Government that it would not be too expensive for local authorities to add a line or two to their returns on what is happening to young people?

  Caroline Abrahams: Unfortunately, I am not sure that I can give you that assurance—I am sorry about that. The LGA has gone on record as saying that we think that young people should be able to stay in care for longer—to 19 and possibly beyond in some cases. What is completely unacceptable is for foster carers, out of the goodness of their hearts, to care for children longer and to lose out as a result. We really must do something about that. Frankly, that is about money. This is partly a cultural issue. We need to push towards it so that there is a change in expectations. I have to say that I am not entirely convinced that you need to go through the process of collecting data on children and young people up to that age to do so. Of course there are greater responsibilities for tracking young people in their education beyond 16, which will come in as a result of raising the age for leaving education. However, I do not think that that will go on much beyond 18. There would also be practical difficulties, because young people move around much more once they reach that sort of age. On the basis that I will get bashed around the head by my local government colleagues if I say yes, I cannot do so, but we could always look at it.

  Q510 Annette Brooke: I want to raise this issue because if everybody has a commitment, which I believe they do—you have already made submissions on young people who go into accommodation—it is just a case of going that extra mile so that we are tracking the new policy. I do not want to talk about that, however, so could we go back to those young people who will continue to choose to go into supported accommodation, or even independent accommodation. Obviously, this is quite a problem, although I did hear quite good things about Hackney finding suitable accommodation. What are the main barriers for local authorities to finding suitable accommodation for young people who leave care and want something more independent? What more could the Government do to assist them?

  Chairman: These will have to be brief answers.

  Pauline Newman: In Manchester, it relates to the general lack of affordable housing.

  Marion Davis: People who are going to provide accommodation, whether private landlords and landladies, the voluntary sector or whoever, need to have a degree of support so that they feel confident about young people being sustained in their tenancies. There is a range of mechanisms for that, such as Supporting People, care-leaving services, Connexions and so forth. However, the general housing shortage is a problem.

  Chairman: This is the very last question, on addressing local authority performance.

  Q511 Mr Timpson: There are a lot of national indicators to assess your performance as local authorities, and I know that you have core ones that are priorities. Is that the right way in which to judge outcomes for children in care, or does that concentrate too much on what can be measured, rather than what is important for a child in care and their experiences?

  Steve Goodman: Yes. I think that the problem in social care is that, because of complexity, the Government measure process through a lot of indicators, such as how quickly assessments are carried out and whether reviews are conducted on time. Those things are not unimportant—process matters are important—but they do not get to the nub of outcomes for looked-after children. That is more complex. Some measures, such as educational attainment, are outcome measures, and we should be looking for others on social care interaction. The Anna Freud centre has a pilot based on the child and adolescent mental health services outcomes research consortium, which uses various measures, such as strengths and difficulty, children's global assessment scale and Commission for Health Improvement questionnaires for young people and their families. Those things give us more qualitative information about people's experience. That is more challenging, but such measures would tell the Government whether we were doing the best by looked-after children.

  Pauline Newman: I would agree with that. Obviously, the data are important, but we could do a lot more with what might be termed soft, qualitative data. That way, you know much more about what the young people and children say and feed back. There is an annual "Tell Us" survey for an authority, but there is not a chunk of that directed at looked-after children.

  Marion Davis: The Government have assured us that all they will collect is the 198 national indicators, but it certainly does not feel like that within local authorities or local area agreement partnerships. We are aware sometimes of the burden of collecting data, regulation and inspection. We need to pay more attention to what we are really measuring, so we need qualitative as well as quantitative measures. Measures need to be proportionate, based on risk, and to add value. I could talk about that all night, but I promise that I will not.

  Caroline Abrahams: The only thing that I would add to what colleagues have said is that in the spirit of our Narrowing the Gap project, we are pretty clear that the things that people are required to record for national purposes are sometimes not exactly what local authorities need to understand what is happening locally. For example, there might be fewer than 500 children involved in Warwickshire, but that authority needs to understand what is happening for those children at an individual level to ensure that the right things are in place. What you are required to collect nationally will not always help that process. We are suggesting, as is happening with adult services at the moment with the Department of Health, that it might make sense for DCSF to think about what authorities need locally and what else might be necessary on top of that for national purposes. At the moment, the system is geared the other way around, which is probably not helpful to children.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. This has been a long sitting and it has been like mining gold for us, because you all know so much about the subject. I should also say that if we cannot ask relevant questions by now, we ought to give up the job. If you go away and think, "Why on earth didn't that bunch of amateurs ask this question?", please be kind to us and e-mail or contact us in some other way. We will start writing our findings up soon, so we would be grateful for any other information that you think will make our report better rather than worse.

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