Guide helps foster better awareness of pet benefits

Following uncertainty by children's services into whether looked-after children should be cared for in homes where pets are kept, a fostering expert has put together a guide to help councils develop more animal-friendly policies.

Name: Dogs and pets in fostering and adoption

Provider: The British Association for Adoption and Fostering

Since the publication of a 2014 report by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) that found a six per cent rise in the number of dog attacks in England, there has been a move by local authorities to develop more risk-averse policies on placing looked-after children with foster carers and adopters who own pets.

It highlighted an issue that has been a concern to Paul Adams, foster care consultant at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), for a number of years. When an adviser to a fostering panel, he noticed there was little recognition of the benefits of placing looked-after children with foster carers and adopters who had pets.

Adams, a social worker with experience of managing council childcare and fostering teams, said children's professionals would often seek advice as they grappled with confusing policies some local authorities had on the issue. "It was clear that the dominant panel members considered dogs a nuisance and saw them only as a risk in fostering settings," he said. "There was no evidence of recognising the benefits they might bring."

Adams says this was made apparent by panel members' comments on animal hygiene, especially that of big dogs, with assumptions the applicant would be willing to give their dogs up if circumstances made it necessary.

The HSCIC report led some local authorities to blacklist certain dog breeds from households where a looked-after child lives, and convinced Adams of the need for better guidance on best practice in assessing the compatibility of pets and children.

Adams has now developed Dogs and Pets in Fostering and Adoption, a good practice guide to help carers and local authority staff develop proportionate policies in relation to dogs and other pets.

He designed the guide after reflecting on his 22 years of experience in the fostering system, as well as seeking the opinions and experiences of carers, children's professionals and experts.

The guide aims to provide advice to local authorities that are implementing risk-averse policies and are unsure of best practice.

Social workers and carers can also assess the compatibility between a child and pets through the use of BAAF guidance and assessment forms without the need to be an animal expert.

"Nowadays, one in four families own a pet dog, and given the emotional and physical benefits such pets can bring to fostered and adopted children, it would be a shame to deny them this opportunity," Adams said. "We believe that with the right policies in place, local authorities can help children make the most of their pets, and improve their emotional, educational and physical outcomes too."

The guidance details the advantages and disadvantages of keeping dogs, what breeds make good pets and the laws associated with dangerous dogs such as the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991.

It highlights examples of poor fostering service policies, such as one local authority's decision to restrict children aged under 11 being placed with carers who own certain breeds of non-dangerous dogs. It also provides guidance for assessments involving a range of different animals such as cats, reptiles, rodents and farm animals.

"Dogs and other pets can provide a loyal, non-judgmental and constant companion for fostered and adopted children, and help to promote attachment between humans," Adams explained.

"It is important that local authorities develop measured policies to help foster carers, social workers, adopters and special guardians to manage their pets in adoption and fostering contexts."

BAAF sample forms used by social workers and foster carers to assess dogs and pets are also included in the guidance.

Once all sections of the form have been completed, social workers and carers should have a clear idea as to whether they need to seek advice from an expert in animal behaviour and psychology to make a decision as to whether a carer's pet is suitable.

Case studies and experiences of carers and social workers in the guide explain situations where compatibility between child and animal was and was not possible, going on to explain why. In the guide, Barbara, a foster carer says: "We have had a dog all the time we have been fostering, and I have noticed how children can often talk through the dog to me, and seen how they have all enjoyed loving and walking the dog."

Tracy Genever, education manager at Blue Cross, a pet charity that advised on the guide, said she was pleased help was now available to enable more pet owners to adopt and foster children. "There are so many benefits to having a pet in the family and many children grow up considering their pet to be their best friend and close confidante," she said.

The guidelines cost £9.95 from the BAAF website.

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