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Put Children First In The Quest To Improve Foster Care

09/02/2017 11:15 GMT | Updated 09/02/2017 11:16 GMT
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Foster care is in the Westminster spotlight. If you thought that MPs only had time for Brexit, you were wrong. The Education Select Committee is holding an inquiry into fostering in England, and has been hearing evidence from carers, charities and academics. Meanwhile, the Department for Education is carrying out a foster care review, referred to as a 'stock take', as a step towards making recommendations to improve the system.

Government inquiries are like buses. You wait for ages, then two come along at once. Not that this attention is unwelcome. In fact, it is long overdue. The Fostering Network's latest State of the Nation's Foster Care paints an alarming picture. Based on a survey of more than 2,500 foster carers, the largest of its kind, it is clear that families who care for some of society's most vulnerable children are struggling to hold the system together. The support they receive is ebbing away, and they often reach into their pockets to cover the full cost of looking after foster children. In essence, frontline child protection now, more than ever, relies on goodwill.

So, it would be churlish not to welcome government interest in foster care, and we must take MPs and civil servants at their word when they say that the interests of looked-after children are a priority.

But can an inquiry, or inquiries, into foster care alone really provide the answers we need to address the failings that bedevil the care of children removed from their family homes? Can a committee of well-meaning MPs deliver a blueprint to repurpose foster care at the heart of an effective and compassionate system of child welfare?

The answer is, almost certainly, no. Although foster care is immensely important, it is simply one component of a complex web of inter-dependent agencies. It may seem obvious but there is no harm in restating it. When children come into care, they become the joint responsibility of a network of people that includes social workers, children's guardians, contact supervisors and the family court, to name but a few. In due course, they may return home, live with relatives, stay in long-term foster care, live in a children's home or be adopted. Each outcome is subject to different stresses and strains, and requires its own support system.

The quality of care we provide as foster carers will have an impact on, say, our foster children's adoptive family, and the level of support they will need. The length of time the children live with us is determined by a number of factors, not least how long it takes for the case to reach court, and how long the court takes to reach a decision on permanency. That might depend on the quality of information provided by social workers, or the children's legal guardian.

Let's say that these parallel inquiries conclude that foster carers' allowances should be increased (unlikely, I know...). The money will have to be found from children's services budgets, which have been substantially reduced in recent years. That might mean that savings have to be found elsewhere, which will have a knock-on effect. Perhaps MPs will recommend that foster carers need more training, to improve the quality of care. Money, and time, will have to be found for this. But maybe that would be better spent on early intervention schemes like Sure Start, to support families before they fail.

An inquiry that looks only at foster care, and makes recommendations that consider only the role of foster carers, can have, at best, a limited impact on the lives of looked-after children and is almost certainly doomed to fail. As a foster carer, there are many things I would like, including the chance to be heard when the futures of our foster children are decided. But, more importantly, I want the whole system to work for the benefit of children.

Here's a suggestion: have an inquiry, or a commission, or a review. But start with the child, not with foster carers, or adoptive families, or social workers, and take it from there. Seek evidence to understand why more children are being taken into care in the first place, and what we can do to help struggling families. Let's hear from children and young people what they want from social workers, foster carers and guardians. Let their experiences inform family contact arrangements. Take the inquiry into child and adolescent mental health services and demand answers. Find out why family courts are struggling under their workload.

Above all, be ambitious. Be as ambitious for children and young people in care as you would be for your own. Map the route from broken family home to high achievement in business, academia and the arts, and make recommendations that will bulldoze the road blocks along the way.

Now that would be an inquiry worth waiting for.