DfE suggests 'exemption' from foster carer assessments

By Neil Puffett

| 17 October 2016

Councils could use controversial new powers allowing them to be exempted from children's social care legislation in order to streamline checks on potential foster carers, the Department for Education has suggested.

The Department for Education has suggested that councils could use proposed legislation in order to streamline the way they assess potential foster carers. Picture: Morguefile

A briefing note on proposed legislation contained in the Children and Social Work Bill, which is due to be discussed in the House of Lords tomorrow (18 October), outlines details of areas where the "power to innovate" could "potentially be used".

It states that councils involved in the Partners in Practice programme, local authorities deemed to be performing at an exceptional level that other councils can learn from, are interested in testing flexibilities around the approval and review requirements for foster carers.

"The timescales and processes for considering, approving and reviewing foster care placements are set out in detail in various pieces of legislation including the Children Act 1989 and the Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011," the briefing note states.

"Our Partners in Practice tell us that these regulations, whilst important, are not always proportionate and can slow down approvals and provide barriers to people becoming foster carers."

The note adds that, in considering this kind of exemption, the DfE would want assurances that there will still be a robust process in place for ensuring that children are placed with the best possible carers and safeguarding is observed.

The briefing note also outlines care planning as another possible area where councils could be granted an exemption from legislation.

"Care planning is an area where children and young people consistently tell local authorities that the process doesn't work for them," the note states.

The note adds that a number of the Partners in Practice councils are interested in testing flexibilities in relation to the timescales around reviews, their frequency, and the processes associated with them, "as they feel the standardised approach does not always fit the specific needs of children".

"In looking at applications for flexibilities in this area we will look for safeguards that ensure that children's needs and wishes are put first, and that there is always a mechanism to bring children back into the full review process if needed," the note states.

"DfE will carefully monitor any pilots in this area, for example monitoring numbers of cases that are not subject to full review and undertaking random case audits."

The briefing note also features comments from Steve Crocker, director of children's services at Hampshire County Council, who said his authority is considering using independent reviewing officers, who scrutinise local authority care plans for looked-after children, in a "more targeted way".

"Children and young people in stable placements consistently tell us they don't want to have someone they don't know at their review and that they are happy for their social worker to chair it or they want to chair it themselves," Crocker said.

"This means in many cases IROs, who are highly skilled professionals, are attending reviews when they are neither wanted nor needed by the young person.

"At the same time, there are other cases where there are young people who would benefit much more significantly from additional scrutiny and oversight. We want to revise the function of our IRO service to ensure the wishes of children are at its core."

Crocker said the council is also considering applying to change the planning process for disabled children receiving intensive short break provision.

He said that currently, if a child uses short-break provision for more than 17 days at a time or the short breaks account for more than 75 days of the year, then by law the child must have the full care planning and review process for looked-after children.

"This can be difficult for parents, who want to make use of short breaks, but do not want their child to considered looked after and find the statutory reviewing process quite intrusive," he said.

The proposed legislation is being opposed by a number of organisations and prominent individuals in the children's services sector because of concerns it could water down vulnerable children's rights.

In an effort to allay fears, the government will table an amendment to the bill in the Lords proposing that an independent board be created to review and approve exemption applications.

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