Using Part-Time Fostering as a Family Support Service: Advantages, Challenges and Contradictions

This research examined how support care is provided and the advantages and contradictions in this form of family support. Implications for commissioning and practice are discussed.

  • Author Louise Roberts
  • British Journal of Social Work 46 (2016)

Support care is an intervention for families at risk of breakdown and long-term separation. The service aims to forge positive relationships with parents and provide short breaks for children and young people.

Support care

Support care (also known as short breaks, support foster-care and respite care) is a time-limited intervention of between six to 12 months designed to help families who are experiencing crisis and are at risk of becoming separated. It generally involves one or two overnight stays per month, during which time support carers may work with children and young people to address behavioural or developmental issues, as well as engage them in a range of activities. Carers also provide support to parents.

There is some evidence that support care is cost-effective in comparison with foster-care (The Fostering Network, 2013) and is effective in easing family difficulties (Aldgate and Bradley, 1999). However, little is known about how the service is delivered and experienced by children and parents.

The study

This qualitative case study explored the "doing" of support care. It comprised 82 individual interviews (with children, parents, support carers and social workers) and observations from 22 participant sessions. It aimed to gain an understanding of how relationships were developed, how the service attempted to improve family difficulties and how the service was perceived and experienced over the course of the intervention.

Study findings

  • The families were all experiencing social and economic disadvantage, including family conflict, drug/alcohol dependency, inadequate support networks, unstable and volatile relationships and mental and physical ill health. The ages of the children and young people ranged from a few months old to 15 at the onset of the intervention. Nine of the children were deemed to be "in need" by social workers, four were the subject of a child protection plan and one a supervision order.
  • Purpose of support
    Although the overarching goal was to prevent family breakdown, other objectives of the intervention included: temporary relief from material/social hardship; supporting children's development/behaviour; supporting parents and/or improving parenting; monitoring family functioning/wellbeing of children.
  • Service approach
    Parents experienced a variety of emotions at the start of the intervention. Some were mistrustful of social services and/or had negative associations with foster care. For others, there was a sense of happiness or relief at being referred. Children also had mixed feelings and tended to be apprehensive and/or nervous about the service.
  • Change through relationships
    The positive relationships forged with support carers meant that parents entrusted them with their children. These positive relationships also ensured children felt comfortable and happy to attend the short breaks. Carers were also key in encouraging reconciled relationships and positive communication between family members.
  • Outcomes
    Positive outcomes identified by participants included improvements in the family situation (e.g. resolving overcrowding issues, reduced substance misuse) and improved developmental outcomes for some children. However, it is unclear whether these changes arose as a result of the intervention or through other factors.

Implications for practice

  • Support care is a useful early intervention and can provide help to families in crisis and at risk of breakdown. Councils may wish to consider it as a potential means of averting the need for costlier statutory services at a later stage.
  • It engages supportively and respectfully with families and provides a flexible approach and practical support for a range of needs and situations.
  • There are some tensions in the approach, in relation to supporting parents and children, while at the same time monitoring family functioning and/or the wellbeing of children. This can cause some tensions in the relationship between support carers and parents.
  • The time-limited nature of support care is advantageous in relation to discouraging service dependency. However, it can also be a source of frustration for some families with chronic and long-term needs. It is important to be realistic about positive changes in the family situation after intervention and to consider whether support over the longer-term may be needed.


Related resources

  • Foster care in England, DfE, February 2018
  • Residential child care commissioning, ICHA, November 2017
  • Supporting long-term foster placements in the independent sector, DfE, October 2016
  • Consortia Commissioning of Looked After Children's Services, Institute of Public Care, Oxford Brookes University, July 2015
  • Good commissioning, principles and practice, Commissioning support programme, Sept 2010

Related resources by Research in Practice

  • Building a quality culture in child and family services: Strategic briefing, Susannah Bowyer, Carole Brooks and Jane Shuttleworth, April 2018
  • Care leaver transitions: Strategic briefing, Claire Baker, April 2017
  • Getting children's needs onto the public health agenda: Leaders briefing, Eugenia Cronin, July 2015
  • Commissioning early help: Strategic briefing, Rebecca Godar, 2013

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