A recent press release from the Department for Education vowed to improve the use of residential placements for looked-after children, putting an end to unnecessary out-of-area placements. I agree that there is an over use of out-of-borough placements, but these changes need to be carried out in conjunction with the reforms for foster carers.
First, there needs to be immediate, intensive support for foster carers who take on children recently separated from their families to ensure they are helping the children to cope with the change and transition. This would reduce the number of moves and address those behaviours that lead to breakdown before they become unmanageable.
There needs to be extensive support for the carers of children with behavioural difficulties, or local authorities and independent fostering agencies need to have a pool of "special rate carers", carers who are given a package of support. They are paid extra to support children with behavioural difficulties, learning difficulties, mental health issues etc, and given increased supervision, training and respite. These particular carers should have a more stringent assessment procedure because they will need the normal skillset required by a foster carer, as well as more time and involvement.
Second, demographics need to be considered because it may mean a local authority has no choice but to go outside its area. There is a high concentration of carers in certain areas and minimal in others. This may not be down to the local authorities efforts to recruit; it may have to do with the makeup of the area. Every effort should be made to place the child as close as possible to the local area to ensure, where appropriate, they remain connected to family and friends.
Third, social workers and managers need to be better at explaining and evidencing the need for placing a child outside a borough. This can be a valid decision, especially in instances of gang involvement, exploitation, dangerous families, lack of placements or repeated offending.
Our responses need to be based on the need of the child or young person. Our professional judgment needs to be robust enough to withstand scrutiny, and sometimes will go against what the child or young person wants. We are still the professionals.
Finally, robust and appropriate residential facilities are needed locally. We cannot ignore the fact that foster care will not be appropriate for every child or young person. We need to account for the fact that some children will benefit more from a residential placement. This does not have to be severely restrictive, and it is possible to have placements that operate at different levels to benefit the needs of the children and young people they house.
The government needs to offer some incentive for local facilities (if they haven't already) so such services can be offered within a borough. There needs to be a gap analysis conducted by local authorities, looking at the number of children or young people they have in out-of-borough residential facilities and how many of those could return to the local authority. If the response is such that it is warranted, a tender should be put out for the service. If there is only a small proportion of children in residential facilities or the majority of those placed in these out-of-borough facilities are not appropriate to return, there should be a partnership with neighbouring boroughs to reduce cost.
Things are heading in the right direction. This change needs to be managed well because it would go a long way to improve children's outcomes. This is essential as part of an overall reform for placements of looked-after children. There are changes happening in the recruitment of foster carers that address part of the need. But I am a big proponent of having specialist carers, either at the initial stages of being in care to help stabilise children or young people or for those who have already been in the care system for an extended period and are experiencing multiple disruptions. I hope changes continue for the better.
Tiffany Green is director of TG Consultancy and blogs atKeepingtheBalanceinSW