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Foster children disadvantaged by council policy

Ombudsman asks councils to check their approach on transport costs

Councils are putting foster children at a disadvantage compared to their peers when it comes to school transport, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

The Ombudsman is now asking councils across England to check their approach after it emerged foster children living further away from school than their peers were being treated differently by Warwickshire County Council.

The Ombudsman's investigation found the council told foster carers, whose children had to attend schools beyond statutory walking distance, they must pay for school transport out of the fostering allowance. This is despite the children being entitled to free school transport.

Using the fostering allowance in this way meant those children received less support than foster children who live closer to their school. They were also being treated differently from children who live with their birth families and attend schools beyond statutory walking distance, who would have free transport.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said:

"For many foster children, who have often had a turbulent start in life, councils sometimes decide it is important they maintain the stability of attending the same school regardless of where they are living. The children and their foster carers living further away should not be penalised for this.

"I am aware there are a number of other councils across the country taking the same incorrect approach as Warwickshire. I will be writing to those I have identified to make them aware of these findings.

"I am pleased that by the end of the investigation Warwickshire County Council accepted its policy was wrong. I would now urge others to check their own policies as a matter of urgency to ensure they are treating fosters carers, and the children they look after, fairly when it comes to school transport."

The problems came to light after a couple who are foster carers complained Warwickshire County Council gave incorrect advice when they agreed to look after a child.

The council told the couple the child had to attend a school 4.6 miles away from their home, and they would have to drive the child there every day – without receiving any mileage allowance.

The couple were told to pay the cost out of the fostering allowance it paid them to care for the child.

In this case, the council has agreed to apologise to the carers and reimburse them for the period they transported the child to school.

The council has also agreed to review a number of handbooks and policies to ensure looked after children, who are eligible, receive free home to school transport.

It will also write to all foster carers inviting them to complain if they believe they have been similarly affected, and in future ensure all foster carers receive clear information about the allowances and expenses payable.

For a link to a report of the case, click here.