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Fostering stocktake’s recommendations could 'weaken children’s protection'

Coalition of organisations and experts say the fostering stocktake’s recommendations could weaken legal protection of vulnerable children.

Published on 16th March 2018

Five recommendations from the fostering stocktake could “greatly weaken the legal protection” of vulnerable children, a coalition has warned.

The fostering stocktake carried out by Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers and published last month, makes 36 recommendations for the future of fostering  However, a group of more than 40 experts and organisations say that five of the recommendations should be rejected as they would weaken the legal protection offered to children.

In a letter to children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi, the coalition warned: “If acted on, recommendations 4, 6, 7, 8 and 33 would greatly weaken the legal protections enjoyed by our country’s most vulnerable children and young people.”

“They each advocate a dilution of legal safeguards; together they communicate a lack of understanding for the origins and importance to children’s welfare of existing policy. We are doubtful that any of the legislative proposals would be compliant with the UK’s human rights obligations, both within the Human Rights Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child,” the letter added.

The coalition is made up of organisations such as BASW, Association of Professors of Social Work, Nagalro, UNISON, CoramBAAF and The Care Leavers’ Association as well as experts including Dr Maggie Atkinson, former Children’s Commissioner for England, Dr Liz Davies, Emeritus Reader in Child Protection, London Metropolitan University, Brid Featherstone, Professor of Social Work, University of Huddersfield, Ray Jones, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, Kingston University and St George’s, University of London and June Thoburn CBE, Emeritus Professor of Social Work, University of East Anglia.

Recommendation four of the fostering stocktake asks the Department for Education to remove authority from parents whose children are being voluntarily accommodated under s20 Children Act 1989, so that there is automatic delegated authority to foster carers.

However the coalition says that it cannot see how the 2015 guidance could be amended to categorically remove the right of parents whose children are accommodated under s20 (and children with capacity) to exercise and influence decision-making in day-to-day parenting matters. “Such a move would require a radical change to the Children Act 1989 and to the Family Law Reform Act 1969 (in relation to 16 and 17-year-olds), neither of which we believe would be compatible with the UK’s human rights obligations,” it warns.

Recommendation 6 states that a single social worker should be given the task of supervising foster carers and discharging the local authority’s duties to children in long-term foster placements. The coalition warns that aside from quotes from two carers, the fostering stocktake report relies on the pilot conducted by Match Foster Care to advocate a change to care planning regulations. Yet the evaluation report from the Match Foster Care pilot describes a complex picture, including that two of the eight children in the very small sample were still visited by their own local authority social worker and there was ambivalence within local authorities about how they discharged their legal responsibilities. In addition, the evaluation was not conclusive in respect of the benefits to children of a single, all-purpose social worker

Yet children having their own social worker is a “fundamental safeguard and a lynch-pin of the care system, warns the coalition”. When it works well, it gives children the opportunity to develop a positive and trusting relationship through which they can safely explore their history and identity, share their experiences and raise any concerns.

Recommendation seven says local authorities should be able to remove the role of Independent Reviewing Officers after the stocktake “found little evidence to recommend the role,” and suggested the funding could be ploughed into frontline services.

“This recommendation could have a profound impact on the rights and welfare of children, including those who are remanded to custody, yet there is a dearth of evidence for it within the stocktake report,” warned the coalition. It adds that IROs have a critical statutory role and responsibilities in ensuring young people’s successful transitions to adulthood. Furthermore it highlights how the fostering stocktake was not designed to review the role of IROs in safeguarding and promoting the rights and welfare of children in foster care, let alone across the care system. There was no call for evidence about the IRO role, and the authors of the stocktake report have no professional background or expertise in this policy area, it adds.

Recommendation 8 in the stocktake asks for an assessment and consultation on the effectiveness, cost and value for money of fostering panels. However, the importance of fostering panels was debated by parliamentarians and the children’s sector during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017. The government’s proposal that local authorities should be able to opt-out of having fostering and adoption panels was widely rejected – including, eventually, by Ministers, the letter outlines.

The final recommendation of concern is 33 which recommends that local authorities should not presume that brothers and sisters in care should live together.

“This is a radical proposal that flies in the face of established childcare practice and law. It implicitly dismisses decades of testimony from children in care and care leavers. It would require a change to the Children Act 1989, which we do not believe would be compatible with Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights,” said the letter adding that wherever it is in the best interests of each individual child, siblings should be placed together.

Three of the recommendations (6, 7 and 8) were subject to detailed scrutiny and opposition during the passage of the 2017 Act. When the former Secretary of State for Education Justine Greening abandoned plans to permit local authorities to opt-out of their statutory duties in children’s social care, the Department issued a statement saying it had “listened to concerns”.

“Our grave concerns were based on a sound understanding of the evolution of children’s law and safeguards and the UK’s human rights obligations. The policy goals communicated by the Department, during parliamentary debate and through written communications, including from the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, pointed to a dangerous relaxation of legal protections for vulnerable children and young people.

“We were very relieved when the Department cancelled its plans to ‘test’ deregulation of key legal safeguards and accepted our arguments about the intolerable risks to children’s welfare. That similar proposals have reappeared so quickly within a review that was supposedly about “the question of what different foster carers need – skills, expertise, support – in order to meet the diverse needs of today’s looked after children” appears dishonourable. We hope you will reject recommendations 4, 6, 7, 8 and 33 for the reasons we have outlined,” the coalition concludes.

 

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