In England, Scotland and Wales all fostering services are governed by legislation, regulation, standards and statutory guidance. To measure compliance with these, fostering services are subject to regulation and inspection by the national care inspection body operating in each of the three nations. The care inspection bodies are responsible for the registration of fostering services and set standards which must be met before registration is granted. It is illegal to operate a fostering service prior to registration. In Northern Ireland there is no inspection of fostering services as there are no standards against which to inspect.
Fostering services are inspected in different ways as defined by the inspection framework governing the service type, whether that's public sector services such as local authorities or health and social care trusts or independent fostering providers. In England the regulatory body, Ofsted, inspects local authority fostering services as part of the Independent Local Authority Children’s Services (ILACS) inspection of the whole of children’s’ services in the authority. Fostering services provided by independent fostering agencies are inspected as part of the Social Care Common Inspection Framework (SCCIF) inspection of the fostering service.
The relevant inspection bodies are:
All inspections are made against a set of published standards which are applicable to the individual nation states and as such are different in England, Scotland and Wales. Therefore it is important that services ensure that they are operating as per the required national framework where they are registered. All of the standards have the same general aim which is to ensure that children who are looked after by people other than their parents receive the best possible care and that the services who provide that care are responsible for meeting an agreed standard.
Inspections of independent providers are conducted by regulatory inspectors, inspections of local authority children’s services are conducted by Her Majesties Inspectors. Reports of all inspections are published on the inspection body’s website e.g. in England this is the Ofsted website. A judgement is made on the standard of care which the agency provides, noting required actions with a timescale for these to be implemented and other recommendations for the improvement of the service. In England the “benchmark” judgement for services is set as “good”.
Inspections are conducted as part of a regular cycle, in most cases this is a three yearly cycle. Services judged to be of a standard below “good” are likely to be inspected more frequently than those judged to be performing well i.e. “good” or “outstanding”.
The The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority is the Northern Ireland regulatory authority, but they do not inspect fostering services as there are no standards against which to inspect. Foster care in Northern Ireland is governed by 1996 regulations. New draft regulations were consulted on in 2015 before the Northern Ireland Assembly fell. These regulations were not approved and remain draft although, had they received assent, they would have triggered the development of standards for foster care.
Currently the proposal within the draft regulations is only to inspect the independent sector, which accounts for approximately six per cent of children in foster care in Northern Ireland. There is no current plan going forward to subject HSCTs to inspection. It therefore remains the case that there is no regulatory basis for inspection of fostering services in Northern Ireland. In 2013, RQIA undertook a baseline review of foster care in NI which made a range of recommendations including one to “establish relevant key performance indicators for measuring compliance with the implementation of the new Fostering Services Standards once developed by the DHSSPS”. As stated, without regulations, there can be no standards and therefore no inspection.
The draft Adoption and Children Plan in Northern Ireland, proposes amendments to the Children (NI) Order and Care Planning legislation which will make some changes to fostering panels which will allow a move towards inspection. This legislation is draft and requires executive and ministerial approval to proceed which, given the current stasis in the Northern Ireland Assembly, means there is no timescale for implementation.