Foster carers provide children and young people with stability, security, attachment and often their first positive experience of family life. However, the fostering system does not always support foster carers to deliver this stable environment. This can be due to poor matching, an ongoing need to recruit a larger and more diverse group of foster carers, the high turnover of social workers, unnecessary placement moves, and carers not being treated as an equal member of the team around the child.
Stability means ensuring that every child in care is found the right placement as soon as possible. Where this is with a foster family, both child and carer are supported to help make the placement work for as long as the child needs. Careful matching between the child and the foster family is the first step in achieving stability.
Although some placement moves may be in the best interests of a child, too many looked after children are experiencing multiple moves and placement instability. For example in England the mean duration of the 49,240 foster placements ceasing during 2016-17 was 369 days. 26 per cent of foster care placements that ceased had lasted less than a month, 48 per cent had lasted between a month and a year; 12 per cent had lasted between one and two years; and only 13 per cent of placements had lasted for more than two years.
According to the latest Stability Index from the Children’s Commissioner in England, some children experience several different types of instability all within the same year. Nearly 2,400 children (six per cent of children in care attending school) experienced a placement move, a school move and a change in social worker all within 12 months . We have no reason to believe that the picture differs in other parts of the UK.
We are concerned that many of the decisions to end a placement are not in the best interests of the child. The National Audit Office (NAO) report stated fostering services in England were not being commissioned based on thorough assessments of the child’s needs but instead based on costs. We believe that the independent scrutiny over placement decisions needs to be increased to ensure decisions are purely in the best interests of the child and not financially motivated or for other reasons.
A child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing is compromised every time they have an unplanned move, and placement instability often contributes to a range of poor outcomes, including poorer educational outcomes, breakdown of relationships with trusted adults and increase in vulnerability.
This can lead some children to fall through the gaps and be exposed to exclusion, exploitation and abuse. As well as instability being costly for the child with the implications being felt throughout their childhood and into adulthood, it is also costly for the public purse.
At the heart of improving outcomes for children and young people is ensuring they have a strong voice in all decisions which affect their care. Too often, despite good intentions, children and young people’s voices are absent from the system, decision making and reviews.
Finally, the legislative framework, policies and structure of local service delivery teams create a barrier to providing a smooth continuum of care for young people up to the age of 21 years. Policies and services focus on 0-18 years (or 0-16 years in Scotland) and then the young person is no longer looked after.
If legislation, policies and support structures were more child/young person focused and saw this as one journey from child to adulthood, it would help overcome many of the problems that currently exist for formerly looked after children.
The Fostering Network’s view
We believe that:
- Each local authority/trust should conduct an annual needs analysis of their local looked after children population, in order to determine the types of care placements required and to inform targeted recruitment programmes for foster carers so they are able to find the right foster carer for each child as soon as possible.
- All children and young people should be placed with a foster carer who has the skills and experience to meet their needs, including cultural, language and religious background, and ideally within their home community. High quality matching and permanency planning must be embedded into all social work practice.
- Siblings should be placed together, unless it is not in their best interests. Where they cannot live together, every effort must be made to nurture the sibling relationship and keep them in meaningful contact, as appropriate.
- Foster carers must always be given all the available information they need to help children reach their potential and keep them, and those around them, safe. This should happen before a child moves, except in emergency circumstances, and throughout the placement. When a child moves on from a placement the former foster carer should have the opportunity to contribute to the referral information.
- All foster carers must be given the financial and practical support they need so that they can properly look after the children in their care, including for post-18 care.
- Fostering services must value and actively protect placements. Support and training for foster carers should be tailored to the individual needs of the child they are caring for and should be matched to the developmental stages of the child.
- Foster carers must be recognised and valued as the experts who best know the children they care for; their views must always be taken into consideration and they must be treated as equal members of the team around the child.
- Foster carers should be given the authority to make everyday decisions on behalf of children in their care without unnecessary delays and restrictions.
- All fostered children should be made aware of the support and services available to them and should have access to an independent adult they can trust and who can represent their interests if required.
- Responsible authorities in England and Wales should adhere to existing regulations and ensure that a placement cannot be ended unless a case review has been held and views of all concerned have been taken into account, including those of the child. A placement should only end if it is in the child’s best interests. Similar scrutiny should be introduced in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
- All policies and practices at a national and local level should ensure a smooth continuum of care for all young people up to the age of 21 years.
- A much higher value must be placed on the relationships a child develops throughout their lives, and that these relationships must be protected and nurtured. When it is in the child’s best interests to move on, it should be done in a timely fashion and their relationship with their former foster family should be supported unless they do not wish this to happen.
Responsible authorities should ensure that they have in place mechanisms for listening to the voices of their fostered children, and that this guides and supports any decision making relating to the child.
To contact the policy team please email email@example.com.
 Department for Education Children looked after in England (including adoption), year ending 31 March 2017
 Children’s Commissioner in England Stability Index (June 2018), Overview and Findings p4
 Children in Care (2013), National Audit Office
 Children’s Commissioner in England Stability Index (June 2018), Overview and Findings p1