Long-term fostering in England

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Many children across the UK live with their foster families for many years, and sometimes for the whole of their childhoods and beyond. In 2015, regulations and statutory guidance came into force in England which together introduced a legal definition of long-term foster care and the conditions that need to be met, and strengthened it as a permanence option.

Across England, thousands of children live with their foster carers for many years. However, until 2015 long-term fostering had no legal status. The Fostering Network believes that the changes introduced in 2015 are very helpful in terms of introducing a consistent definition of long-term foster care placements across England, and in setting out the key steps and commitments involved for all parties. The changes rightly strengthen the importance of foster care as a permanence option for children and young people in care. 

The information below highlights the key issues in permanence planning arising from the Care Planning and Fostering (Miscellaneous Amendments) (England) Regulations 2015, which came into force on 1 April 2015.

The related statutory guidance has been incorporated into a revision of The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review which was reissued in June 2015.

Permanence

The new guidance provides a revised definition of permanence in England:

Permanence is the long-term plan for the child’s upbringing and provides an underpinning framework for all social work with children and families from family support through to adoption. The objective of planning for permanence is therefore to ensure that children have a secure, stable and loving family to support them through childhood and beyond and to give them a sense of security, continuity, commitment, identity and belonging.

The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations Volume 2: care planning, placement, and case review (pages 22-23)

It makes clear that there are a variety of options for permanence, all of which can deliver good outcomes for individual children. For children who remain looked after, the guidance emphasises that long-term foster care is an important route to permanence.

Long-term foster placements

The regulations provide for the first time a definition of a long-term foster placement, being when all of the following conditions are met:

  • foster care is the child’s plan for permanence, as recorded in their care plan
  • the foster carer has agreed to be the child’s foster carer until they cease to be looked after
  • the child’s responsible authority has confirmed the arrangement to the foster carer, the child and their birth parents.
     

Before making a long-term foster placement the responsible authority must assess the ability of the foster carer to meet the child’s needs now and in the future, and identify any support services that will be needed to achieve this. The child’s wishes and feelings must be taken into consideration, it must be considered that the placement will safeguard and promote the child’s welfare, the IRO must be consulted, the child’s relatives must be consulted where appropriate, and a new placement plan must be prepared and signed by the foster carer.

Local authorities are expected to have an agreed process for this matching consideration. To ensure that the requirements have been met, the decision to make a particular long-term foster placement must be discussed and recorded as part of the child’s review process. The same process must be followed for assessing the suitability of all potential long-term placements, whether this involves remaining with an existing foster carer or moving to a new family.

If the child’s permanence plan is long-term foster care and their existing foster carer wishes to be considered to provide this, the child’s responsible authority is expected to consider this in a reasonable timescale taking account of the existing relationship between the child and the foster carer, the length of time in placement, the child’s relationships with the foster carer’s wider family and community, and the progress of the child in placement recorded through the review process. If the authority does not consider it appropriate to assess the ability of the current foster carer to become the long-term foster carer, it should give the carer clear reasons in writing, and also communicate the decision to the child as appropriate to their age and understanding.

The statutory guidance makes no reference to staying put, but in considering the suitability of the proposed placement to meet the child’s long-term needs it would be appropriate to discuss whether or not such an arrangement might be possible and appropriate when the child becomes 18.

Visits by the child’s social worker

The frequency of visits to the child by their social worker should always be determined by individual needs and circumstances, and a visit must be made whenever reasonably requested by the child or the foster carer.

Notwithstanding this, there is a reduced legal minimum frequency of visits to a child in a long-term foster placement (as defined by the regulations). The child must be visited within a week of the start of the long-term placement, at least six-weekly during the first year of placement, and subsequently, at least six monthly providing the child (being of sufficient age and understanding) agrees to these less frequent visits.

Case reviews

A looked after case review must always take place at least six monthly, whatever the child’s placement. However, once the child has been in a long-term placement for more than a year there is no requirement to hold a meeting as part of the review process every six months, and the social worker should consult the IRO and the child (as appropriate to their age and understanding) in reaching a decision about whether or not to hold a meeting as part of each review. There must, however, be a meeting at least once a year. Any decision not to hold meetings every six months should be recorded in the child’s care plan, and the IRO must ensure that there is full consultation with the child and all relevant individuals.

The revised care planning regulations make explicit that the IRO has a duty to ensure that the wishes and feelings of the child’s current carer are taken into account as part of the child’s case review process. In the event that it is decided that the carer should not be involved in all or part of the review meeting, the reasons should be recorded and alternative arrangements made to ensure that they are still able to contribute to the decision-making process.

The revised care planning regulations also require that every looked after case review must include consideration as to whether the arrangements for delegation of authority to the child’s carer remain appropriate and in the child’s best interests. This applies in respect of all placements but may be particularly important when a long-term placement is being made.

This information was prepared for The Fostering Network by Doug Lawson

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