Foster care review criticised for 'lacking ambition and vision'

Proposals to improve foster care following a major review of the system have received a mixed response from the sector, garnering support from some, but also attracting criticism for not being ambitious enough.

The foster care stocktake, led by government adviser Sir Martin Narey and children's social worker Mark Owers, makes a total of 36 recommendations to improve the system, including establishing a national register for foster carers and a shift to regional commissioning arrangements in order to get better value for money.

It also calls for more clarity about the ability of carers to take independent decisions about the children they are fostering, and for guidance not to discourage carers from being physically affectionate to the children in their care.

And it suggests there should be greater regional co-operation on marketing campaigns to recruit foster carers.

It also moots the establishment of similar arrangements to the existing Adoption Leadership Board and Residential Care Board for foster care - and for the creation of a "permanence board" to oversee them all, under the chairmanship of the director general for children's social care, the most senior official in the Department for Education responsible for the care system.

But The Fostering Network said it is particularly concerned that the review concluded that foster carers are not underpaid and that it contains no proposals to review the allowance they receive.

The charity also said the proposals do not recommend that the minimum fostering allowance is extended to carers looking after young people aged 18 to 21 through Staying Put arrangements.

"We are disappointed in the report's lack of vision and ambition for the future of fostering," Kevin Williams, chief executive of The Fostering Network said.

"While we are pleased with a number of the recommendations we are concerned that overall we will be left with a continuation of the existing status quo.

"We are shocked that the report states that foster carers are not routinely underpaid and are therefore disappointed that there is no move to ensure that foster carers are properly paid for the work that they do.

Williams added: "Overall we think this is an opportunity missed to create a foster care system fit for the 21st century."

Labour's shadow children's minister Emma Lewell-Buck was also critical of the proposals.

However, chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler, described them as "radical".

Among other recommendations made by Narey and Owers is to allow councils to ditch the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role. They conclude that there is little to recommend the role continuing and the money saved by axing IROs should be reinvested in frontline social work.

But children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield and the charity Action for Children have criticised the proposal, saying that IROs play a vital role in supporting looked-after children.

"I do not support the recommendations to remove IROs. We know from cases referred to our advice service Help at Hand that IROs often raise the alarm about a child's situation that needs help to resolve," said Longfield.

Action for Children director John Egan added: "The role of the IRO is vital in ensuring oversight of every child's care plan, and in independently challenging local authorities when things aren't happening as they should.

"To suggest ‘dispensing with' the role of the IRO - without any thought to a replacement - is concerning."

Meanwhile, children's rights organisation Article 39 suggested that the argument for ditching IROs had not been fully considered.

Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of the National Association of Fostering Providers, said that the stocktake's recommendation for a national register of carers could help local planning of places but fears that agencies may struggle to provide up-to-date information.

"A national register of foster carers with aim of understanding more about where carers are and who they are could be beneficial for planning and sufficiency," he said.

"But we struggle to see how this could be used as a tool for placement matching at the moment, given the fluid nature of foster care and the challenges of so many different agencies keeping this up to date."

Andy Elvin, chief executive of The Adolescent and Children's Trust, said the report's recommendation that ministers should set up a permanence board was particularly welcome.

"The focus of a joined-up body should be on supporting all family types so kinship carers and birth parents whose children return to them can access the same long-term assistance as foster carers and adopters," he said.

Alison Michalska, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said that while it supported the concept of a permanence board, it does not back a national register of foster carers.

"A shared language and holistic focus on permanence as a whole is long overdue and would be a helpful step away from the current siloed approach," she said.

"However, the ADCS would not support the creation of a national register for foster carers. Maintaining a national register would be a huge logistical task and require significant ongoing funding.

"It is also unclear how a register would improve the recruitment of foster carers who are willing to care for the cohort of children in care. This money would be better invested in services to support children and young people directly such as improving the support available to foster carers and developing a national foster care recruitment campaign to recruit more carers willing to care for older children, sibling groups and children with complex needs, for example."

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