Below is a list of frequently asked questions (FAQs) from fostering services during the coronavirus pandemic. All answers are given at a country level therefore any decisions made in relation to children in foster care during this time need to also take into consideration local circumstances and guidance. In addition, each fostering service will need to make their own decisions about the best way to proceed based on their own particular circumstances and in line with advice, support and guidance made available to them through their own organisation and networks.
Overarching principles to decision-making during the coronavirus pandemic:
- Services should work within their government guidance in respect of coronavirus. As this is constantly being updated, arrangements will need to be kept under regular review.
- Services should ensure the safety of all involved and fulfil a ‘duty of care’ to the foster family as well as the children they look after. All decision making should be informed by a risk assessment and be made on a case by case basis.
- Children’s needs in particular will need to be kept under review as the coronavirus pandemic continues to impact on their education, contact plans, mental health and wellbeing, friends and family time and other support needs.
- Decisions should consider the needs of all involved, including any individual vulnerabilities or circumstances as informed by the advice of government and other professional bodies.
- The aim should be, as far as is possible and within current guidance, ‘business as usual’ in terms of the services provided to foster carers and children. However, the means by which this is achieved will need to be reviewed considering national government advice and any local variations. Where the usual approaches are not currently available, fostering services should look to pro-actively work with stakeholders to generate creative alternatives within current guidance.
- Do I have to obtain a full foster carer medical report before approval?
- Do I have to complete a full disclosure check before approving someone to be a foster carer?
- Can I hold virtual panels?
- Can social worker visits happen virtually?
- Can visits to foster carers’ homes happen?
- Can we still hold face to face support groups?
- Can training for foster carers still happen face to face?
- Can we still do Skills to Foster?
- What options are available to aid contingency planning for fostering services?
1. Do I have to obtain a full foster carer medical report before approval?
Full foster carer medicals still need to be undertaken but circumstances differ slightly depending what country of the UK you work in.
In England, a full adult health assessment completed by a medical practitioner will be required as part of any fostering assessment commenced on or after 25 September and must be obtained prior to presenting the assessment to a fostering panel and reaching a decision regarding suitability. You can read more about this in our briefing on the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) (No2) Regulations 2020.
In Northern Ireland, the guidance for foster carers and supported lodgings states that, in order to build capacity within fostering services in case of additional demand and to minimise delays to the approval of foster carers, HSC Trusts and independent/not for profit fostering providers can approve foster carers in advance of a foster carer’s medical being received. Where there is an absence of a full medical, approval should only be given in extenuating circumstances. Upon receipt, if the medical report is unsatisfactory, the HSC Trust or independent/not for profit fostering provider reserves the right to change their approval decision.
In Scotland, a full adult health assessment should be requested in the first instance prior to presenting the assessment to a fostering panel and reaching a decision regarding suitability. Where this is not possible, due to lockdown restrictions, if all other checks and assessments for a prospective carer have been completed satisfactorily then it may be acceptable for a health self-declaration to suffice. In such circumstances, the health declaration should be a formal, written record that encompasses specific declarations for all the aspects that are covered in the standard health assessment. The agency medical advisor must screen all such health self-declarations and the panel should be formally made aware of the absence of a health assessment and the reasons for this. It would be expected that a health assessment would be carried out as soon as reasonably practicable and an early review of the foster carer’s approval should take place in light of the health assessment received. The numbers and needs of children to be cared for must also take into account the fact that no health assessment has been undertaken. For further guidance see AFA Scotland’s advice from the Care Inspectorate.
In Wales, the proposed Adoption and Fostering (Wales) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 will bring the self-declaration process for medical assessments within the legislative framework for a specified period. There are, therefore, two separate processes to be adopted in Wales for the medical assessments of prospective foster carers:
- for those individuals who are able to access a face to face medical consultation, the original process should be followed and the prospective foster carer should continue to access an assessment from a GP
- for those prospective foster carers who are unable to access a face to face consultation with a GP, a medical self-declaration form can be completed
The Welsh Government has confirmed an eight week extension to the six-month period in which agencies must ensure a full adult health assessment is undertaken for foster carers who have used a self-declaration form. This means that all foster carers approved utilising a self-declaration of health, must have received a full adult health assessment and review of their approval, under the regulatory first year review process by 28 May 2021. Panels that have already been arranged for applicants up to and including 7 November can proceed as planned, including cases where the self-declaration health form has been used. As stated above however, a full adult health assessment and review of their approval, must be undertaken by 28 May 2021.
- CoramBAAF’s health guidance webpage.
2. Do I have to complete a full disclosure check before approving someone to be a foster carer?
Yes, in England, Scotland and Wales a full disclosure check is required. In England and Wales this is done through the DBS (disclosure and barring service) and in Scotland as a PVG (protecting vulnerable groups).
In Northern Ireland, a disclosure check is completed via AccessNI and known as an enhanced disclosure check. In order to build capacity within fostering services in case of additional demand and to minimise delays to the approval of foster carers, HSC Trusts and independent/not for profit fostering providers can approve foster carers in advance of a foster carer’s full enhanced disclosure certificate being received. The HSC Trust or independent/not for profit fostering provider must have received confirmation from an enhanced criminal record check that the individual or any adult members of their household are not included in the Children’s Barred List held under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups (Northern Ireland) Order 2007. However, upon receipt, if the enhanced disclosure certificate is unsatisfactory, the HSC Trust or independent/not for profit fostering provider reserves the right to change their approval decision.
- DBS guidelines have been updated: read the guidelines.
- Covid-19 free-of-charge DBS applications and fast-track barred list check service: read the guidance or get more information on changes to DBS.
- Covid-19 DBS FAQs
- Disclosure Scotland’s coronavirus webpage.
3. Can I hold virtual panels?
Yes, virtual panels are currently allowed in all four countries of the UK. When deciding to hold a panel virtually, it is important to bear in mind the following principles:
- Fostering panels must be conducted in keeping within the regulations and in a way that supports the making of timely, quality and appropriate recommendations in line with the overriding objective to promote the welfare and wellbeing of children in foster care.
- Any changes to the conduct of fostering panels in response to the current coronavirus guidance should include adequate support and preparation for all involved.
- Panels held virtually need to be fair and transparent and afford foster carers and prospective foster carers the opportunity to be heard and to (virtually) bring a supporter if they wish.
Things to consider if running a virtual fostering panel
- Does the virtual panel fulfil its functions as laid out in regulations? How will local policy and procedures need to be amended
- Have all the panel members confirmed they have the right equipment and connections? Have they received instructions and time to practice in order to fully participate in meetings? Have members been briefed on confidentiality and data protection?
- Do foster/prospective foster carers have the right equipment and connections? Are they prepared and supported to ensure they are enabled to take part confidently, effectively and ensuring confidentiality?
- To avoid unnecessary waiting and delays, has consideration been given to the agenda and to prioritising the most essential panel business for a virtual panel?
- How are panel members prepared and briefed on access and expectations about involvement? Will they be given a choice between electronic or paper documents? Do they have any additional communication needs? What guidance will they be offered? Does anything need to be reconsidered in the panel members contract?
- Are all panel members able to express views in the panel meeting and ask appropriate questions? Do they need guidance as to how to demonstrate respect to applicants, foster carers and social workers who attend? How will questions, queries and responses be managed? Has consideration been given to how well ‘difficult’ conversations can be had?
- Is the panel chair sufficiently/appropriately experienced and skilled to both manage the panel meeting and in addition a video conferencing meeting? Does the chair need additional administrative support?
- Are all attendees joining from a quiet, secure, separate space in order to guarantee confidentiality? How is this monitored?
- Has sufficient time been allocated, including preparation, setting up and breaks to allow for this different way of operating a fostering panel?
- Can the quality of record keeping still be upheld? Will discussions be recorded and if so, are participants aware of this
- Does the quality of IT/video conferencing equipment support a virtual panel?
- Is IT support on hand and able to ensure systems are working effectively? Are all participants able to access the video conferencing software? Is there a back-up plan if poor IT/connectivity leads to interruptions to the virtual panel for some or all participants?
Resources on virtual fostering panels:
- In this blog, a panel chair shares her thoughts and experiences on virtual panels.
- You can download some top tips on developing and running virtual panels which have been collated from several services and panel chairs.
- Our friends at CoramBAAF have information regarding fostering panel virtual meetings and best practice advice.
Resources on using virtual platforms:
- Information about using technology to deliver children's social care during coronavirus, a resource by the Department for Education in England.
- The following guidance is also available for making Zoom accessible for Deaf British sign language users.
4. Can social worker visits happen virtually?
Yes, social worker visits can happen virtually as long as the reason for not doing the visit in person is justified and the meetings remain in line with statutory timescales. The approach taken in any particular situation should always be what is best for safety of all concerned, be risk assessed and in line with Government guidelines. A face to face visit may sometimes be essential for safeguarding or support purposes.
Considerations include: the age of the child, the choice of device or platform to match the nature of the communication, and when and how works best for the child and foster family.
- Top tips for virtual direct work with children & families during COVID-19
- The PCFSW Best Practice Guide for Video Call/Contact and Virtual/Online Home Visit
5. Can visits to the foster carers’ homes happen?
Guiding principles for face to face meetings
- In line with advice from all four governments across the UK, face-to-face meetings should be minimised as much as possible with support to carers given via phone/video calls.
- If visits are made, staff are ringing beforehand to inform their risk assessment.
- Face coverings must be used and social distancing maintained as much as is reasonably practicable in line with government guidance.
- Some services are offering ‘doorstep’ visits where their fostering households are self-isolating or previously shielding.
- Some services are conducting individual coronavirus risk assessments for all their carers and social workers to assess their risk in relation to face to face meetings during the pandemic.
- Foster carers views and wishes should also be taken into consideration to ensure they are happy with face-to-face visits.
In England, yes, social worker visits to foster carers’ homes are allowed as they are for work purposes. However, any decisions should be made in line with the overarching principles listed above and public health advice. The Fostering Network’s briefings outline instances where face-to-face meetings in relation to the fostering role are an exception to the national lockdown and/or rule of six.
In Northern Ireland, yes, social worker visits to foster carers’ homes are exempt from the rule of six. However, any decisions should be made in line with the overarching principles listed above and public health advice.
In Scotland, social worker visits are exempt from the rule of six. In line with Scottish Government guidance on safe and ethical social work practice during covid-19, visits can take place. The guidance states that all direct contact should be risk assessed and planned in advance, taking account of local guidance and the public health guidance.
In Wales, when considering in-person and face to face contact, local authorities should continue to risk assess (based upon an assessment of both necessity and risk) on a case-by-case basis. Fostering services will already have their own risk assessment processes in place and these should continue. Operational decisions will need to take account of local and national restrictions.
- BASW have produced professional practice guidance for home visits during the Covid-19 pandemic.
6. Can we still hold face to face support groups?
In England, yes, face to face support groups are exempt from the national lockdown however, some restrictions still apply. The group must be organised by a business, a charitable, benevolent or philanthropic institution or a public body to provide mutual aid, therapy or any other form of support to its members or those who attend its meetings, cannot exceed more than 15 persons, children aged five and under are exempt from this number, and the meeting must take place at premises other than a private dwelling.
In Northern Ireland, face to face meetings should be minimised/suspended in light of public health advice. Foster carer support groups should therefore happen using alternative formats of communication and participation e.g. through tele/video conferencing.
In Scotland, although foster care support groups are not specifically referred to, guidance on adult social care building-based day services provides principles that can be applied to any decisions on whether to run foster carer support groups. Any decisions on re-opening of adult support services need to be made locally and should be based on individual service risk assessments and be mindful of local restrictions in place at the time.
In Wales, although fostering services meetings and foster care support groups are not specifically referred to, the current Welsh Government guidance for children’s social services during the covid-19 pandemic will inform decisions on whether to continue to run virtual meetings or resume face to face meetings for foster carer support.
Many services across the UK are continuing to provide virtual support groups for foster carers to ensure they feel supported.
7. Can training for foster carers still happen face to face?
In England, yes, training is exempt from the national lockdown restrictions. Any decisions made around meeting face to face must consider local risk levels and whether the training can happen virtually.
In Northern Ireland, as face to face meetings should be minimised/suspended in light of public health advice, fostering services should consider using virtual platforms to conduct training.
In Scotland, many services are successfully delivering training online. Although foster carer training is not specifically referred to, guidance on adult social care building-based day services provides principles that can be applied to any decisions on whether to run foster carer training. Any decisions on re-opening of adult support services need to be made locally and should be based on individual service risk assessments.
In Wales, in keeping with government guidance, all training should currently be offered virtually.
Many services across the UK are successfully delivering training online and continuing to do so to reduce risk and promote inclusivity.
8. Can we still do Skills to Foster?
Yes, a digital version of the third edition of our market-leading The Skills to FosterTM Pre-approval course is now available. Find out more here.
9. What options are available to aid contingency planning?
- Fostering services have a duty to ensure the recruitment and assessment of foster carers meet the regulatory framework as laid out in legislation.
- Fostering services have a critical contribution to make to the sufficiency of safe resources for children and young people requiring alternative family settings.
- Wherever possible every fostering service should seek to continue with their recruitment strategy but consider any government advice and ensure children, staff and carer safety are not compromised.
Things to consider
Consider how you will monitor timescales that may not reach regulatory requirements during this time and ensure safeguarding is not compromised.
Consider different platforms other than telephone calls to engage with prospective carers, for example virtual meetings, which can support the continuation of initial visits, assessment meetings and initial family and friends assessments (viability assessments). These could include:
- Use of FaceTime, WhatsApp, Messenger phone calls to view/discuss issues
- Skype calls in place of assessment visits
- Virtual tours of the home
- Sharing information securely electronically
In circumstances of the immediate placement of children – consider joint online conversations between the children’s social workers and the proposed carers to establish adequate information is shared, gathered and understood for safeguarding requirements. At least one home visit should be undertaken to comply with statutory guidance, verify the identity of the connected person and ensure adequacy of accommodation for the immediate needs of the child(ren). If this is not considered safe to undertake in line with government guidance, then services can explore if it is feasible to undertake this virtually using video conferencing. Below is a list of things to consider in these circumstances:
- What are the contingency plans when placing a child in these circumstances?
- Can electronic signatures /emails be accepted as temporary means of consent - use your data protection officer.
- What means of ensuring confidentiality remain in place for safeguarding all parties and storing information?
- Can references be sent securely via emails to reduce delays with follow up interviews undertaken remotely?
- Utilise online dedicated web pages to keep people updated.
- Discuss contingency plans for delays of medicals, as GPs are only doing priority work – what might be acceptable (especially for immediate placements that can’t wait)?