BASW England had high hopes of Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers' long-awaited Independent review of the Fostering System in England and shared many of its aims, mostly in identifying what is working well alongside seeking improvements where necessary to achieve better outcomes for children.
It is pleasing that the report begins by acknowledging that fostering is indeed a success story and that this is backed up by sound evidence.
However, there are many areas of the report that are of great concern to BASW members and it is disappointing that some opportunities to bring about much needed change to the current system seem to be missed.
In many respects, the report has gone far beyond its brief by attempting to re-introduce Government proposals contained in the innovation clauses of the Children and Social Work Act (2017) during its passage through Parliament, which called for the role of the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) to be substantially reduced, Fostering Panels to be dispensed with and to allow Independent Fostering Agencies to replace the role of the child’s social worker.
These innovation clauses were successfully challenged and defeated in March 2017 notably, thanks to a coalition of individuals and over 50 organisations called Together for Children (of which BASW England was a member) on the basis that they could fundamentally undermine the rights of children.
It seems folly that the sector, once again, finds itself in a position of having to defend the introduction of important checks and balances for children in the care system.
It is vital that children’s care plans are reviewed by individuals who are not directly involved in providing support to either the child or the foster carer. IROs need to be objective and able to scrutinise and hold to account the individuals and agencies who are charged with meeting the educational, health and day-to-day care needs of the child.
Rather than see the role of IROs removed or diluted, BASW England feels this role needs to be strengthened in increasingly challenging resource-led environments.
BASW England is disappointed that the report seems to advocate for long term fostering to be converted into Special Guardianship Orders or adoptive placements rather than establishing Staying Put as the means to achieving permanency for young people.
Whilst some long term fostering placements may result in carers applying for an SGO or becoming adoptive parents this should not be the default position and defeats the argument that long-term fostering is a success story for many young people.
BASW England is concerned that the section on contact in the report is both erroneous and misleading. It suggests that the presumption of contact was removed by the Children and Families Act 2014 and should only take place if it is in the child’s interest, but that is not the case and it is important that this part of the report is corrected.
In-fact, legislation requires contact to take place between children and their birth families unless the local authority has evidence that contact is not in the interests of the child’s welfare.
Similarly, the section on Sibling Separation infers that placing siblings together is just a matter of social work convention, when it is in fact a legal requirement for local authorities to ensure that a placement enables siblings who are in the care system to be accommodated together as far as it is reasonably practicable.
It is very disappointing that both these sections of the report unfairly criticise social work practice.
Finally, we commend attempts by the report to promote physical affection between foster carers and children, the increased use of delegated authority and the right of a child to an independent advocate – these are all areas that have been the subject of debate for many years and should by now be embedded in the care system but clearly, more work needs to be done here.