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Family and friends foster carers being treated unfairly, says Ombudsman

Family Rights Group calls for remedies in Children and Families Bill

Carers who look after young relatives or the children of friends are being treated unfairly by some local authorities, the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) is warning.

In a report issued on Carers' Rights Day (29 November), the LGO highlights the stories of 'family and friends carers' receiving unfair treatment, as well as the common issues found in the complaints it handles.

The stories include hundreds of foster carers in a single council who were denied the correct financial support, a grandmother who filed for bankruptcy because she had to give up work, and children being placed at increased risk because councils failed to properly assess the suitability of a family or friend placement.

Since 2009 the LGO has seen a 53 per cent increase in the number of complaints received each year about children's services.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

"The cases in this report show examples where children and their families, some of whom are very vulnerable and at risk, are being treated unfairly. They highlight the importance of fair treatment so that all children have the best start in life and the best possible support to make their own way and contribute effectively as adults.

"We understand that a third of councils in England are still to publish their policies on family and friends carers, despite successive Education ministers calling for them to do so.

"I hope this report will assist councils in meeting their statutory obligations, and that it helps to initiate a cultural shift to recognise the efforts of all foster carers."

The LGO says that across the country, around 145,000 children are cared for by people who are not their parents. Around 7,000 of those live with approved family and friends foster carers as 'looked after' children. The remaining children are cared for through informal arrangements, sometimes with support from the local authority if the child is deemed to be 'in need'.

The law says councils must provide support, such as accommodation and allowances to carers, if the child has the legal status of a 'looked after' child. Sometimes there is disagreement between councils and family members about whether the local authority has placed a child with the family, and so is in law a 'looked after child', or whether it was a private family arrangement.

Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of the national charity Family Rights Group, commented:

"The Local Government Ombudsman's report shines a light on an area of child welfare which for too long has been neglected by Government and gets the Cinderella treatment by local authorities.

"We know from the thousands of calls that we deal with on our advice line, as well as research studies that we have undertaken that the injustices highlighted by the Local Government Ombudsman are common place.

"Action is needed now by central and local government.  Councils are under financial pressures but there is no justification for their failing to comply with the law, and forcing some children in family and friends care into financial hardships without access to essential help, such as bereavement counselling.

"Central government also needs to step up to the mark.  They have the opportunity in the Children and Families Bill to:

-       Introduce a national financial allowance so children in family and friends care aren't forced into the care system as the only means of getting the help they need;
-       Introduce new duties on local authorities to provide support services for all children being raised in family and friends care who cannot live with their parents regardless of their legal status;
-       Enable family and friends carers raising children outside the care system to have a right to paid leave when they take on the children, just as the Government is doing for adopters, so that they are not forced to give up their job and become reliant on benefits, when they take on the children."

The LGO's report can be downloaded from this page.