FosterTalk conducts survey into impact of government amendments on fostering and adoption regulations
FosterTalk is a not-for-profit organisation providing high quality independent advice and support to foster carers and their families throughout the UK. Part of the Martin James group of companies, FosterTalk is currently supporting 20,000 fostering families through its comprehensive membership package. It also delivers Fosterline England on behalf of the Department for Education, offering advice, support and information to foster carers and prospective foster carers via an interactive website and free to use helpline.
On July 14, the government announced in a written statement that most of the amendments introduced to the Adoption and Children [Coronavirus] [Amendment] Regulations 2020 are no longer required. However, these legal provisions will remain in place until September 25, and it is stated that some of the amendments may be extended beyond this date.
Since the introduction of these amendments, FosterTalk have been concerned that rather than strengthening the core duty of safeguarding children in care, the flexibility of these regulations may have the opposite effect.
Concerns centre around the fact that the amendments relax some of the statutory duties to be carried out by fostering services and presented potential safeguarding risks for both children in care and foster carers.
FosterTalk has acknowledged that the government’s intention is that amendments are to be used in exceptional circumstances. However, it also believes that proper planning removes the need for the majority of amendments being implemented.
For example, FosterTalk highlighted that existing legislation already allowed for panels to be conducted virtually with a full complement of members, but the amendment allows for a reduction to three panel members and also, if deemed necessary, removal of the need to hold a panel altogether. This reduction in panel numbers means that assessments for carers and adopters can be approved with reduced rigour. There has also been a relaxation in the timescales for the production of a placement plan and care plan from five days to “when reasonably practical”; emergency placements can last for six months; there is no requirement for temporary foster carers to have a connection with the child; all of which leaves the foster carer and child at potential risk.
The concerns have also been echoed by other organisations. Harvey Gallagher the chief executive of the National Association of Fostering Providers [NAFP] highlighted his organisation’s concerns in an article published in Community Care back in April and was present alongside FosterTalk at a recent discussion regarding the use of the amendments with the DfE.
Children’s rights charity Article 39 has also been granted a judicial review challenging the legality of the amendments, stating that many of the changes made under the new secondary legislation had been seen before, under 2016 proposals to allow councils to opt out of some duties, which were heavily criticised at the time and then withdrawn by government.
In response, FosterTalk has undertaken a survey to explore the impact of these amendments on its members and to better understand the ways in which the amendments have been used, with a view to presenting their findings to the Department for Education.
In a report accompanying the survey’s findings, FosterTalk’s managing director Steve Stockley commented: “There is no question that foster families have faced exceptional circumstances and often been forced into making decisions in the absence of other professionals and social workers during the lockdown period.
“Foster carers’ lives and the lives of children in care have been impacted upon and although the minister’s statement said the amendments were to be used to overcome exceptional circumstances, some of our foster carers have expressed concerns that the amendments have been used inappropriately or misinterpreted at best.
“For example, while social workers had been advised not to make home visits or undertake face to face contact with children or families, we have been made aware of foster carers being forced to travel over 150 miles to make introductions with adoptive families, forced into attending family contacts, placing themselves and their families at risk, while social workers were following advice not to make face to face statutory visits.”
Results of the Survey
FosterTalk sent two surveys out to members to gauge how many fostering services had used the amended provisions and the affect upon foster carers where they had been used. Both surveys asked similar questions but framed from the perspective of the target audience.
It is important to stress that the response to FosterTalk’s surveys reflect the views of those fostering services that chose to respond to the request for information. FosterTalk received 59 responses from fostering services. Of those fostering services that have made use of the provisions it is clear that they have been selective in the amendments used. There are some provisions that have proven to be beneficial to both the foster carers and the fostering service and it is these that need to be considered for extension after September 25.
Fostering services have strongly been in agreement that with the appropriate preparation, the majority of amendments were either not required or necessary.
45 per cent of responding services indicated that they had made use of provisions outlined in the amendments, while 55 per cent did not.
Detailing their reasoning as to why they believed the amendments were unnecessary, fostering services noted the following:
· They were not necessary
· There has been no need for us as a service to use them. We have managed to make adaptions to cover any difficulties and have maintained the same standards, just completing things in a different way e.g. virtual panels, visits, and meetings
· Have not been necessary to manage current situation and we did not want to compromise on standards
· We felt that we would try and remain compliant with the previous regulations as these were considered by our LA to be best practice.
· We have found the revised adult health assessment templates from Coram BAAF useful but we have tried to maintain the usual practice in terms of assessing mainstream and connected foster carers.
· We felt that it was important to keep the safeguarding of children at the heart of what we do and maintain best practice when supporting children and foster carers
· There were too many short cuts for applicants that were concerning, for example, no panel required, no medical, etc.
· We felt the amendments were too risky to implement as could have had negative impact on children placed later down the line
· We feel we are able to follow best practice without the need to cut the corners in the Coronavirus Regulation amendments
This runs contrary to the belief that fostering services had called for the amendments to be implemented.
With the amendments, the potential to remove independent panels has raised concerns and potential safeguarding issues for looked after children. Although this removal of panels is minimal from the responses FosterTalk received, the risk would be amplified if they remain in place post September.
One independent fostering service commented:
“Through the temporary regulations, the independent panels which approve foster carers have become optional. This means that an assessment of a foster carer can proceed straight to the decision maker for approval. As an independent fostering agency, this would ultimately have a positive impact from a business perspective as speedy approvals could lead to more placements. However, our agencies view is that this is a retrograde step in terms of safeguarding children, as it removes a layer of scrutiny for these highly important decisions on the suitability of people in whom we will be entrusting the care of vulnerable children and young people. We are taught that a holistic approach is needed in securing better outcomes for children and young people. The diversity of expertise in panels supports this theory, and, to remove this, would fall short of promoting better outcomes for foster children.
“We feel that a combination of the amendments would potentially culminate in a greater risk. If we take the temporary medical self-declaration by prospective foster carers in the assessment process.
“The relaxed regulations provide for fostering applicants to be assessed and approved without a full medical report under the proviso that one is obtained as soon as is possible. A medical report on prospective foster carers is needed to ascertain the applicant’s emotional stability and physical health to prevent children being placed in a volatile environment. Approving foster carers with a temporary self-declaration on their health and without a full in-depth report from their GP places an additional layer of risk The emotional, mental and physical health of a prospective foster carer is a crucial part of the Form F assessment and we do not take short cuts when it comes to safeguarding children and young people.
“In addition to the relaxed fostering regulations, DBS guidelines have also been amended during the Covid-19 period. The amended guidelines state that if a fostering applicant or adult member of the household has a DBS from a social care setting which was completed within the last three years, then this can be used by the fostering services. This again adds another layer of risk and undermines safeguarding of children, as an applicant could have had a conviction after the date of the last DBS.”
Stockley commented: “On their own these risks present significant questions but when placed together the sum of all their parts could be devastating.”
Survey responses from foster carers
FosterTalk also hoped to establish a holistic view of the impact of the amendments and how they were affecting foster carers themselves. The organisation commented that it had received an increase in enquiries to its support services with foster carers expressing anxieties and seeking advice on good practice.
1,600 foster carers were included in the survey to help formulate a response. 53 per cent were part of an independent fostering agency, 44 per cent worked for their local authority and three per cent worked for the Children’s Trust.
Of those carers, a majority of 59 per cent indicated they were unsure whether their service had used any of the amendments. Meanwhile, 38 per cent reported that their services had, with a mere three per cent indicating that their services had not done so.
The responses seem to indicate that foster carers have used their resilience and maintained their fostering status quo with the majority of foster carers not knowing if the situations they have faced are actually within the amendments or not. It highlights that foster carers adapt and carry on, putting the wellbeing of the children they look after at the heart of what they do.
FosterTalk’s previous survey, conducted with the Martin James Foundation, explored the mental health of foster carers and from the enquiries received through FosterTalk and Fosterline, indicate it is without question that fostering has experienced massive changes during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yet, the response to the survey seems that foster carers have been unfazed by the changes and continued to put children first.
33 per cent of those surveyed welcomed another child or young person into their home during the pandemic, and from those foster carers that welcomed children, just 40 per cent received a placement plan at the time of the child’s arrival. 21 per cent had still not received the plan at the time the survey was taken.
One of the major amendments that foster carers have experienced relates to statutory visits taking place during the pandemic, with over 70 per cent of respondents reporting that visits were conducted virtually, compared to just over ten per cent saying that they had been conducted in person with social distancing in place.
Stockley said: “The merits of virtual visits and supervisions should be evaluated with a view to retain the provision post September. A mixed balance of virtual and face to face visits would complement busy schedules of both social workers and foster carers and contribute to a more efficient way of completing statutory requirements.”
But what does the future hold?
The government has told councils that most exemptions from children's social care duties introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic are no longer required.
However, children’s minister Vicky Ford has said that the laws will remain in place until the end of September as planned and councils can still relax their duties to vulnerable children when they have “strong justification” to do so.
Some restrictions may also be extended beyond September, the government has confirmed. In a written parliamentary statement, Ford said that the emergency legislation was brought in during the pandemic in anticipation of councils finding it impossible to meet their duties, due to staff shortages and sickness.
In the parliamentary statement, it references protecting vulnerable children has been at the heart of the government’s response to the virus. These regulations formed part of that response, alongside keeping schools and other settings open for vulnerable children, substantial additional investment, and additional support direct to children, young people, and their families.
The government states it has always been clear that these temporary amendments should be used only when absolutely necessary and only if consistent with the overarching safeguarding and welfare duties that have remained in place.
What has been clearly evident in the communications FosterTalk have had with fostering services and foster carers alike is that a new way of working has arisen from the Covid-19 crisis. Forward thinking fostering services and foster carers alike have adapted and created positive engagements in the support of children in care. The initial evidence received by the Martin James Foundation has shown that placements were more stable with less breakdowns in the early months of lockdown.
Stockley said: “If we truly want to place the child at the centre of their own care planning then we should look to conduct planning in an environment that they are more comfortable in rather than move children and young people into what we expect.
“The use of virtual platforms has proven successful for conducting panels, training and supervisions. Conducting everything in the virtual space would increase potential safeguarding risks however a balanced combination and forward thinking could improve the engagement and availability of both foster carers and children in care.
“While we would not wish to see all the amendments adopted nor dismissed the approach should be measured. Many will be familiar with the work Cornerstone produce with their VR programme and have evidenced that people trained within the VR environment report 340 per cent more confidence to employ what they have learnt. There is no reason why we could not apply this technology into the care planning for our looked after children.”
Alison Alexander, CEO of The Cornerstone Partnership, added: “We now teach children through Zoom and so why can we not have a weekly check in with children in care using tech. Imagine the hours of travel time no longer needed and the increased flexibility – social workers and young people can meet virtually over breakfast or at gaps in young people’s day. It’s now time that children’s services are given approval, by the DfE, to make the leap and join the rest of the world in delivering their business using tech.”
On July 16, the Department for Education opened a consultation on the amendments with a proposal to retain 3 main areas: virtual contact/visits; medical reports; and Ofsted inspection frequency, with the remaining amendments reverting to the pre-amendment situation. The consultation closes on August 5.
Stockley concluded: “This is to be welcomed and in the next round of discussions we need to ensure our planning is capable of flexing to allow for our children returning to school, potential of local lockdowns, further reduction of social distancing, and any onset of a second wave entering the winter.
“Most importantly we need to ensure safeguarding of children and young people is placed at the heart of all planning in social care. Children at risk in the community have not had the safeguards of teachers or other responsible adults looking for signs of neglect and abuse. We, in the fostering sector, fully expect there to be an increase in the numbers of children entering care once schools re-open and statutory visits resume.”