Worcestershire council's proposal to charge parents when their children are taken into care has made the news this week but in fact is nothing new. Recoupment of the cost of providing services is covered under section 29 of the 1989 Children Act. Worcestershire themselves looked at the same suggestions in 2011 and other authorities are considering this move.
But if, as Worcestershire say, it would not apply to many families then why do it? There may be parents who, as is suggested, could offer their children a caring home but refuse to do so, although I have never met one in over 35 years of social work. Even if that were the presenting problem, to any social worker it would indicate a measure of the desperation they felt at the time, suggesting work was required on the underlying issues.
I have every sympathy with cash-strapped local authorities but now more than ever the focus must remain unwaveringly on the needs of children and young people. To resuscitate a long-dormant clause is to the detriment of the very people the Act is intended to help. It marks a decisive and perhaps irrevocable break with the principles of legislation already under pressure as resource shortages nibble away.
It becomes a deterrent aimed at parents yet by distancing families, it may deny children the services and protection they could need, whether they remain in the family or become looked after.
Hard-pressed families see social services as the last resort. Preventative budgets have been decimated already. This further disincentive makes families harder to reach which in turn means problems will be picked up later than they need be. The decision to take a child into care should be based solely on their welfare and best interests.
Section 29 also allows authorities to charge young people over the age of 16 for a proportion of their care if they are able to afford it. Worcestershire are evaluating this proposal too, yet at the same time the government supported Care Leavers' Charter urges authorities to improve services for care leavers drastically. As a result more young people will remain in care up to 18 and receive support until they are 25 so they can become independent when they are ready. It is hard to see how charging supports this welcome and long-overdue initiative. The young people I work with would see the mixed message straight away.
Hailed at the time as reform that would last, the 1989 Children Act enshrined the paramount importance of the child's welfare and the duty to work in partnership with parents. I am old enough to remember when one function of accommodation under S20 was as a preventative short-term service to be used alongside other provisions to keep children safe in their own families in the long-term. Parents and social workers worked to take the best possible decisions in the child's interests. Worcestershire has dubiously invoked the spirit of partnership with parents in support of their proposal whereas in reality they demonstrate total disconnection from the real issues faced by families and young people in care.
Authorities are placed in an almost impossible position, facing increased demands as they simultaneously reel from budget cuts. It is imperative to stay close to the communities of which they are a part and who they serve. Measures like these drive families further away regardless of whether an actual charge is made or not. The principles of the Children Act are just as valid now as they ever were. These measures will not help children one jot.
Alan Fisher is the director of care at Supported Fostering Services, a charity providing foster placements and packages of care, and is chair of Fostering Through Social Enterprise. He writes in a personal capacity.