Long-term foster care and permanence

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The Fostering Network strongly believes in the importance of foster care as an option in permanence planning for children in care. There should be no hierarchy of placement type; long-term foster care should have equal consideration alongside other options such as adoption. What is best for each child or young person will depend on individual factors.

Most children who cannot live with their birth family, or with kinship carers or family and friends carers outside the looked after system, will be fostered. There should be no hierarchy when it comes to permanence options; long-term foster care should have equal consideration as a permanence option alongside other options such as adoption and, in England and Wales, special guardianship. What is best for each child or young person will depend on individual factors.

The expression “long-term foster care” is not purely about the length of time, but rather refers to the care plan and the type of care which will be best for the child. Long-term foster care should mean that the care plan for the child is to remain in a specific fostering placement, usually until reaching adulthood and leaving care, and certainly for the foreseeable future.

In England long-term fostering has a formal status, while in Scotland long-term fostering refers to a placement of longer than 24 months that is not secured by a permanence order. These permanence orders exist only in Scotland, and mean that it has been decided that the child will definitely not return to live with their birth family – this type of fostering is referred to as permanent fostering, although it is not necessarily the case that the child will live with their current foster carers for the whole time.

Within long-term fostering, there is an expectation that the placement will continue throughout childhood until the young person leaves care and an aspiration that the relationships between the child and the foster family may endure into adulthood and indeed throughout life, on the basis of voluntary mutual attachments.

This does not mean that the child will necessarily consider the fostering family as a “permanent” family to the exclusion of the birth family. One of the key advantages which long-term foster care can offer is respect for the continuing role of the birth family, and support for the child to maintain a relationship with their birth family unless this is considered detrimental to the child’s interests.

In long-term placements, it is to be expected that the level of delegated authority – giving foster carers the authority to make decisions about a child – will be high, and this should be clearly established through the care planning process. In order to help ensure the success of long-term placements, it is important that long-term foster carers have access to relevant training as new issues arise. Foster carers may well need support to manage the changes in the child’s needs which emerge over time, to manage changing relationships with the birth family, or to support the young person to prepare for independence, for example.

Long-term fostering placements may also require and benefit from a lower frequency of social work visits and formal review meetings, although thorough support must be in place for the child and foster carer, and reviews must still take place by other means.

We are aware of many cases where a child is left in the care of a fostering family, sometimes for years, but the placement plan does not specify long-term foster care. Poor care planning, where decisions are not being taken, or are not being acted upon so that a foster care placement is allowed to drift with no clear direction, is unacceptable. This should not be confused with long-term foster care.

The Fostering Network’s view

There should be no hierarchy when it comes to permanence options; long-term foster care should have equal consideration as a permanence option alongside other options. What is best for each child or young person will depend on individual factors.

Children should be cared for in long-term foster care when this is deemed to be in their best interests and is set out clearly in their care plan. Our priorities for children and foster carers are consistent across the UK – we want legal and administrative systems which enable long-term foster placements to function as well as possible, and good practice embedded at local level. It is essential that long-term foster care across the UK is improved to a consistent standard so that it can provide the most suitable and stable family environment for these children.

We believe that:

  • Every UK country should have a national framework for long-term foster care.
  • Long-term foster care should have equal consideration in the care planning process with adoption, permanence orders, child arrangement orders and special guardianship as a family-based permanence option.
  • Responsible authorities should adhere to existing regulations that a placement cannot be ended unless a case review has been held and views of all concerned have been taken into account. This includes the child, if they are of sufficient age and understanding, their parents, their foster carer and the fostering service as well as the placing authority.
  • The child’s best interests and views must be at the centre of all decision making concerning long-term foster care.
  • A rigorous process for permanency planning is needed to promote good decision making, and to ensure that the plan is pursued in a timely way and that drift is avoided.
  • Long-term fostering placements made as part of a permanency planning process need to have a distinct status and be formally confirmed.
  • Where a child is in a fostering placement, the child’s foster carers should be entitled to apply to be assessed if it is decided that long-term foster care is in the child's best interests. This should be the case, irrespective of which service the foster carer is approved by.
  • Robust matching criteria are needed, suitable for long-term foster care.
  • Fostering providers should guarantee continuity of care for children in placement during any transfer of foster carers between fostering services.
  • Support requirements should be built into the long-term foster care agreement, and, because support needs may well change over time, the matter should be properly dealt with through reviews.
  • The process for reviews should be tailored to what works for the child, in line with the care plan, and should minimise disturbance to the child and the placement.
  • Stability in the social work profession needs to be improved if social workers are to maintain a long-term relationship with children in care.
  • In all countries, the government should provide adequate funding for schemes to enable care leavers to stay with their former foster carers up to age 21 where mutually agreed, whether or not the young person is in full-time education, employment, or training. At the local level, practice must change to enable the schemes to flourish.
  • The opportunity to remain with former foster carers must be reflected in care planning from the earliest opportunity, and must shape the expectations of young people and foster carers alike.