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Fostering services in need of radical reform, says Policy Exchange

Association of Directors of Children's Services calls for greater co-operation between local authorities

Fostering services in England and Wales are in need of radical reform, according to a report published by Policy Exchange, the independent educational charity. The report says that in some instances severely disadvantaged children are waiting for over a year for a foster placement and that the life chances for many children in the system are appalling.

The report – Fostering Aspirations – notes a 16% increase in the number of children in a foster placement during 2006-2011 and that the needs of children in foster care are becoming more varied and more challenging. Combined with a shortage of carers, this has led to a situation where there are limited foster homes available. According to the report, children can be placed with carers inadequately qualified to help them or far away from their birth family. In one case, a child from London was found to be being fostered in Cornwall.

Based on interviews with children in care and foster carers, information from freedom of information requests and analysis of existing research, the report found concerns over the inconsistent level of financial support available to the carer and the lack of contact between the carer and social worker.

Despite the frequent breakdowns of inappropriate placements, local authorities can still be reluctant to turn to private and third sector providers. Acting as both purchaser and supplier of fostering services, many local authorities display a bias towards in-house provision. This is even true when non-local authority providers might deliver better outcomes for the child in question.

The report makes a number of recommendations to increase the number of carers and the quality of the care they provide:

- The commissioning of foster care should move towards operating on a level playing field. 
- Placement options would be evaluated on the basis of suitability for meeting the needs of the child, not on the cost to the local authority. 
- The government must introduce a new statutory requirement for local authorities to maintain up-to-date information on children placed with them, including how long children are waiting for a placement that meets their assessed needs. 
- The Secretary of State should take action where local authorities are seen to be failing.

Matthew Oakley, co-author of the report, said:

"The lack of a stable, loving family affects a child's future chances in life. We must have high aspirations of what the foster care system can deliver. We desperately need to reform the current foster care system to give some of the most vulnerable children an opportunity that most of us take for granted."

Responding to the Policy Exchange report, Matt Dunkley, President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services said:

"Foster carers .... should be treated with respect, involved in the planning of care for the foster children wherever possible and allowed the freedom to build a welcoming and nurturing environment for the children they care for. This requires social workers to have sufficient professional discretion and time with foster families to understand the challenges they face and the support that they need.

"We know that the extent to which this happens in practice is variable in different local authorities and indeed from case to case but there are many outstanding examples of good practice where foster carers feel valued and supported in this important task. Local authorities seek to learn from each other and this is increasingly supported by the Children's Improvement Board's work in this area and this sharing of good practice is more likely to improve the quality of the service than additional bureaucratic burdens such as national data collections and increased guidance. Passing these responsibilities to an external organization does not necessarily improve the quality of the service offered and can hinder an integrated approach to supporting these families, though many independent fostering organisations do have strong relationships with their local authority and are commissioned where their service is the most appropriate means of securing a foster family for a particular child – based on quality, not cost."