The Children, Young People & Families Select Committee has invited evidence in relation to its inquiry into looked after children, the first part of which relates to the Government's proposals in the Children & Young Person's Bill.
The Adolescent & Children's Trust (TACT) is a national charity operating in England, Wales & Scotland and has been working with children and young people, their families and foster carers for over a decade. We place more children in foster care than any other UK charity.
To assist the Committee in its inquiry, TACT's evidence:
· Reiterates the primacy of the best interests of the child or care leaver, which we believe to be paramount.
· Supports the commissioning of social work practices to encourage innovation and raise standards
And we explore steps that could strengthen the Bill further in:
· The improved use of and support for foster carers
· Transition to independence for children in foster care
· Promoting good health
· Preventing criminalisation
1. The core value of TACT is one that we share with the entire child care sector - that whatever decisions are made, they are taken in the best interests of the child and with their wishes having been fully considered. For this reason we welcome the steps this Bill takes in seeking to address the inequalities and hurdles that face young people in care and those reaching adulthood and independence. We see this Bill as a positive step towards improving dramatically outcomes for children in care.
Commissioning of social work practices
2. It is on the grounds of support for the best interests of children in care and care leavers that we support the proposals to pilot the commissioning of social work practices as a means of raising standards.
3. TACT is a founding member of the Fostering through Social Enterprise group, a consortium of voluntary and not for profit providers seeking to build capacity in the voluntary sector in terms of child care provision. It is our experience that fostering and adoption services can be more innovative, responsive and have competed to raise standards since local authorities have been able to commission these services. We believe the same benefits would accrue from commissioning social work practices.
4. As services are commissioned, there should be clarity with regard to the corporate parenting responsibilities. The implication is that the corporate parenting responsibility lies with the local authority and other statutory authorities. However, without diluting the statutory duty of care, there is an increasing proportion of residential and foster care provided by the independent sector, we would suggest that good corporate parenting should be an obligation of all partner organisations, including commissioned social work practices and schemes to promote best practice in corporate parenting in the independent sector.
5. While TACT supports the general principle of commissioning social work practices, we have specific concerns over the role of Private Equity firms involvement in this sector. Unlike charities, social enterprises and companies limited under certain guarantees, private equity firms have a single overriding objective to maximise financial returns for their backers. As an ethos, we find this to be incongruous in the child social care sector, yet private equity firms have the resources to operate and grow in a market far more rapidly than their competitors. Last year saw the collapse of the private equity run children's residential and educational provider, Sedgemore, a situation that could be easily replicated in commissioned social work practices to the great detriment of the children and young people dependent on their care and professional diligence.
Improving the use of and support for foster carers
6. Foster carers are an underrated element within the social care arena and there are a number of areas in which we would seek a strengthening of their role.
7. We welcome the emphasis on reducing the numbers of children that need to be taken into care through family intervention settings, such as short breaks, support care and family group conferencing. However, we believe there is a role here for experienced foster carers in a preventative context.
8. We are concerned at the level of private fostering, with perhaps only one-fifth to one quarter of privately fostered children notified as such and visible to their local authorities. Local authorities have had variable success in identifying privately fostered children and we would seek measure to obligate or support local authorities in identifying these vulnerable children.
9. A number of children miss out on certain opportunities and benefits due to a lack of delegation of responsibility to foster carers. We seek the publication of further guidance that would allow authorities to include foster carers more closely in the relationship with a child's school for example or the power to sign consent forms for field trips etc. Where relevant, it may be appropriate for a school governing body to co-opt a foster carer as an additional governor.
10. We support the moves towards making it easier for carers to transfer their registration from one fostering service to another. This has the potential to raise the level of support provided to carers with an improved focus on carer retention.
11. We support the registration of foster carers with the General Social Care Council, which would raise their status to better reflect the role of foster carers in the social care sector. However, we believe this should be part of an accreditation process certified against the carer's skills and knowledge.
Transition to independence
12. We believe the transition to independence is a challenging time for those in care and that there must be a degree of flexibility. Currently, looked after children must leave their foster homes at 17 years of age, yet it is unlikely they will be confident of their capacity for independence at this age. In the general population, the average age at which a child leaves the parental home is 24 years.
13. While the Government will be piloting arrangements for young people to stay with their carers until the age of 21, the Bill does not explicitly empower measures to be applied nationally. We seek reassurance that this is a major priority and a clear timetable outlining when this support will be available to people at this vulnerable stage.
14. Higher education support payment are welcome, however, it is unclear why this should be an opportunity that a care leaver loses at the age of twenty-five. We feel this cut-off age fails to reflect the challenges a care leaver faces during the transition to independence and the time it can take to overcome those challenges. We seek reassurance that the requirement to comply with a Local Authority prepared pathway plan cannot become an avenue by which exemptions are imposed on this opportunity for support in higher education.
Promoting good health
15. Looked after children are more likely to smoke, drink and suffer from mental illness than is proportionate for the general population of children and we are convinced that the healthcare outcomes for children in care are both as important to and related to the educational outcomes stressed by the Bill.
16. It is unclear why the obligation for schools to have a named member of staff responsible for the welfare of looked after children is not replicated in healthcare settings. We seek a similar obligation of NHS Trusts and a requirement for PCTs to ensure annual health checks for relevant children.
17. A further arena not touched upon in the Bill is the relationship between care and criminalisation. The anecdotal and statistical evidence available suggests a complex relationship between care and crime and we believe it should be a priority to seek out and address the causal links.
18. We seek reassurance from the Secretary of State that researcher will be commissioned into the causal links between care and criminalisation and an undertaking to address these links.
19. As an interim measure, we seek a commitment that children in care will not be subjected to exposure to the criminal justice system in circumstances under which any other child would be spared that exposure.
1. Corporate parenting responsibilities should be applied to partner organisations of Local Authorities in care provision or social work practice.
2. The role of foster carers should be explored in a preventative context.
3. Greater efforts should be made to identify children in private care arrangements.
4. Guidance should be issues enhancing the range of powers that can be delegated to foster carers in the best interests of the child
5. The General Social Care Council should be empowered to register foster carers after a form of accreditation.
6. Support in the foster home until the age of 21 should be enabled as a priority
7. Higher education funding and support should be available beyond the age of 25
8. Named members of staff responsible for the welfare of looked after children should be appointed within NHS Trusts.
9. PCTs should be responsible for ensuring looked after children receive annual health checks.
10. Research should be commissioned into the causal relationships between care and criminal behaviour.
11. Children in care should not be exposed to the criminal justice system in circumstances under which any other child would be spared that exposure.