Put simply, although there is very little in the report that we fundamentally disagree with – and indeed a number of recommendations which we support - it lacks teeth.
The Fostering Network is disappointed with the Westminster Government’s response to the fostering stocktake and education select committee inquiry in England, Fostering Better Outcomes.
It fails to set out an ambitious plan that will create the much-needed systemic change in the fostering sector, and we do not believe that it will achieve the improvements that are desperately needed to ensure that foster care is the best it can be for children and the families that look after them. We are concerned that they have fundamentally misunderstood the role of foster carers and what they need to be able to do their job properly for children. We believe the continued insistence of referring to ‘foster parents’ ignores the wider role and responsibilities of foster carers and the skills and experience they bring.
While the report does lay out a vision for foster care – it begins with five excellent over-arching ambitions – it is not clear how this will be delivered in concrete terms. Moreover, the Government appears to be taking virtually no responsibility for the delivery of this vision – phrases such as ‘we will urge’ and ‘we will encourage’ run throughout the report with no explanation of how those being urged and encouraged will be supported financially and practically to achieve this change or held to account. The apparent complete lack of scrutiny means that the current status quo will be too easy to maintain. In terms of recommendations, the report also sets out very little that wasn’t already known or isn’t already happening.
During the consultation process for both the stocktake and enquiry, The Fostering Network and our members were very robust in our responses. This included over 2,500 foster carers expressing their views through our State of the Nation survey. Although the report does pick up on our Foster Carers’ Charter and our Keep Connected campaign, it appears to gloss over the most important issues raised in our responses – allegations, respect, the professional role of foster carers, pay and allowances, a foster carer register – while highlighting areas like physical affection which, while important, are not the issues which are going to lead to a step change in fostering. We are staggered to think that after two years the Government believes that foster carers feeling more empowered to hug the children in their care is one of biggest issues facing fostering.
Our current State of the Nation survey, which is still open for foster carers to take part in, shows that only four in 10 foster carers feel that the allowance they receive is actually covering the costs of looking after the children in their care. The report ignores our call (and indeed the education select committee’s) for a review of the national minimum allowances, meaning that foster carers are having to subsidise the care of young people on behalf of the Government, the children’s corporate parents. In the same way, the report ignores our call for foster carers to be paid properly – which we know is a major issue for many foster families – simply passing the buck to fostering services. Indeed, the lack of funding is ignored throughout the report, as it turns a blind eye to any financial issues facing fostering services and foster carers
Staying Put is another area that the report takes only a cursory view on. We are pleased that the report says that the Government will “refine the policy to address some of the most significant practical barriers” but we have been very clear that the primary practical barrier is the lack of funding for Staying Put. The report does not address funding at all, and without this, the wellbeing of future generations of young care leavers is being jeopardised.
We are also surprised at the lack of focus in the report on allegations. Nearly four in 10 of the 2,500 foster carers who have already taken part in this year’s State of the Nation survey say that they have had an allegation made against them. In any other area of work, this would not count as “infrequent”. It is absolutely not enough for the Government to “urge LAs to ensure their allegations processes are fit for purpose and ensure the well-being of foster parents throughout” without any plans to hold local authorities to account when - as happens all too often - these processes are not followed. Again, the lack of scrutiny and taking responsibility is abundantly obvious. Allegations have a significant impact on foster carers and the children they are looking after. Nothing this report suggests will, we believe, change the current situation for foster carers facing allegations.
We are disappointed that the report makes no recommendations about a register beyond saying this is to be explored. Surely the last two years has been the opportunity for exploration, and now should be the time for action. We remain convinced that a national register of foster carers would raise the status of foster carers, increase their portability and help increase the safeguarding of children.
We welcome the focus on stability, and the introduction of the National Stability Forum, as well as the promise to tighten up some guidance. We warned the Government after the publication of the stocktake report that it was not evidence based nor would it create the necessary change. We are pleased that the Government has ignored some of the more controversial recommendations from the stocktake report, such as the dispensing with the role of independent reviewing officers, but this was a chance to radically overhaul the fostering system to make foster care better, but it feels like an opportunity missed.
There is no sense of the Government taking ownership of improving fostering, nor of the urgent need for change. The voices of foster carers have largely been ignored and the tens of thousands of children and young people in their care have been let down.
We would encourage all foster carers to take part in our current State of the Nation survey. 2,500 foster carers took part two years ago and it is now all too clear that those voices were not loud enough for the Government to listen. We need more people to take part this time so that their voices cannot be ignored.