By Simon Haworth, Teaching Fellow
Department of Social Care and Social Work, University of Birmingham
In aid of Foster Care Fortnight (14 May-27 May) this post focuses on the recent review of foster care in England. The post could have concentrated on a variety of topics related to fostering, in fact I had even considered commenting on my practice experiences with foster carers having recently stepped out of frontline children and families social work. However, I decided to focus upon Martin Narey and Mark Owers’ recent review of foster care in England, commissioned by the DfE, which was published in February and has since sparked much debate and discussion within the field.
First, just a note on the statistics. There are currently around 53, 500 children and young people in foster care in England. Some 60% of these children and young people are aged 10 and over; 54% are boys and some 24% are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The statistics reveal that approximately 65% of children find themselves in care due to concerns around abuse and/or neglect. Second, to remind us all that foster carers include family and friends. Such placements can provide children and young people with continuity of care, family bonds and a sense of belonging.
The review itself entitled ‘Foster Care in England’ focusses on some relevant and significant themes that deserve further consideration and research. The voices of children and young people can too often not be heard or heeded within the care system, however within this review it was heartening to see that children’s views of fostering were generally positive, and credit for this must be given to foster carers. Having said this, children and young people also made a range of recommendations for foster care to improve, and I hope that such recommendations are acted upon. Some of the initial proposals are that they want to feel a part of families, genuinely listened to and see important birth family members.
The issue of physical affection was raised prominently within the review and has generated considerable debate. The review found that children and young people generally need and desire appropriate physical affection and comfort, to which I agree, and a number of children I worked with benefitted from carers who were willing and confident to do this. Without such shows of affection and care it can feel like a rather sterile and lonely world for children who have likely already endured suffering, trauma and painful feelings.
Contact, or as I prefer family time, is a regular issue for children and young people who are looked after. The review touched upon this issue arguably from a rather negative stance, but in my opinion would have benefitted from greater attention to the potential benefits of family time, as well as greater attention to the deeply contentious issue of sibling separation. These issues clearly need further in depth and ongoing consideration.
Permanence was also discussed and the Staying Put agenda was noted. The review firmly recommends that more should be done to support young people to stay with their foster carers into early adulthood and I support this fully. However, the mechanisms for achieving this require further exploration. The review proposes scrapping the role of the independent reviewing officer and queries the benefits of fostering panels.
The review did not support the idea that foster carers should be defined as professionals and again this has garnered strong views. For me, foster carers should be treated as skilled and knowledgeable, and not be looked down upon within professional circles. I imagine that this particular debate will continue.
The reaction to the review has ranged from praise to criticism and also offered a view that this was a missed opportunity to advocate for genuine transformative change in the system. What is clear is that it has generated quite extensive debate. Long may debate continue and evolve into positive changes that ensure that all looked after children and young people can receive the love, care and support that they need to thrive and enjoy life.