There is a lot of focus on fostering at the moment with a range of reviews and inquiries taking place across the UK and the recent tribunal in Scotland raising the issue of foster carers' rights. It's fantastic that fostering and foster carers are finally starting to get the attention that they deserve, but there are times when I feel concerned that the very people for whom fostering exists - children and young people - are getting forgotten in the conversation.
At The Fostering Network we strive to keep children at the heart of everything we do, whether this is directly through innovative projects, or through supporting foster carers and informing policy and practice. Our unique position within the fostering sector allows us to bring together everyone involved in fostering, including (and especially) care experienced children and young people.
Not a loud enough voice
Despite good intentions, children and young people within the fostering system do not have a loud enough voice about their own care. There are some examples of good practice across the UK - for example some excellent children in care councils in England - that empower looked after children to influence the care they receive, but much more could be done to increase the number of the groups, stimulate participation and put the suggestions raised by them into practice.
As part of The Fostering Network's Inspiring Voices project in England last year, we discovered a direct link between children in care councils being properly resourced and supported, and young people being able to influence the design and delivery of the services that impacted them. If fostering services and others are truly going to hear from fostered children and young people then this resourcing and support must be offered as a matter of course.
And of course, The Fostering Network needs to look at our own practice to see how we can ensure that young people have a greater voice in how we do our work, including the sort of projects we establish and the issues that we campaign about. We have some areas of good practice in this already, such as our established young champions in Scotland and newer young ambassadors in Wales, but our strategic plan for the next few years has increasing engagement of young people as one of its objectives.
Putting improving outcomes at the centre
Having a child-centred approach to fostering is not just about hearing from young people. It's also about ensuring that improving the outcomes of fostered children and young people is at the heart of the fostering system. Too often this is not the case, with, for example, money frequently being the driving factor for placement decisions as opposed to what is in the best interest of the child. Price has become a focus of commissioning foster care placements. Decisions are being made based on short-term affordability rather than what is in the long-term best interests of the child.
We need an outcomes-based framework that decides what good foster care looks like and then measures the cost of a placement against that. This will mean getting a better hold of how we measure outcomes for children and young people in care so we can begin to relate them back to successful practices and more effective commissioning of placements. What is important is that those who are making the decisions about commissioning are doing so on the basis of what is best for looked after children rather than their financial bottom line. For example, in England, The Fostering Network would like to see foster care commissioning moved out of the finance or business divisions of many local authorities and into children's services. This move would re-focus commissioning on children rather than budgets and bring the decisions closer to practice and those who hold a detailed knowledge of fostering.
A flexible mindset
The sector also needs to develop a mindset will allows flexibility to make decisions based on what will best meet the needs of fostered children and young people rather than what a particular (non-statutory) policy might suggest. Rather than making decisions based on 'what has always been done' or following a rigid checklist, local authorities and fostering services should think outside the box and look at what is right for each individual child and young person, and make that happen wherever possible.
Hearing from children and young people and placing their outcomes at the centre of foster carer commissioning are hardly revolutionary ideas - but implementing these two things consistently could make a significant difference to the lives of generations of children. The various fostering and care reviews are the perfect opportunities to focus on this, giving us the potential as a sector to look at stripping back any over-complicated practices and putting the child's needs first. Given that the reviews are all about best meeting the needs of fostered children and young people, what is there to stop this happening?