The Chair informed the scrutiny panel that unfortunately Her Honour Judge Matthews QC was unable to attend the meeting due to being listed in court. However, confirmation had been received that Her Honour would attend a future meeting to provide information on the evidence that informed placement decisions in respect of family and friends care.
The Local Authority's Head of Assessment and Care Planning and Family Placement Manager were in attendance to provide evidence in respect of:
The Local Authoritys assessment and care planning processes for family and friends care.
The information, advice, practical support and financial support that the Local Authority currently provided to family and friends carers.
The scrutiny panel heard that in 2010 the Government reviewed the guidance attached to the Children Act 1989 and as a result in 2011 produced a new set of guidance documents that covered Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (Volume 2) and Fostering Service Regulations (Volume 4). The scrutiny panel heard that within the updated guidance, the Government had introduced the concept of connected persons. A connected person was defined as an individual who was a relative, friend or other person connected with the child i.e. a family and friends carer. Guidance stipulated that if the child was a looked after child, the Local Authority had to approve the relative or friend as a Local Authority foster carer. Furthermore, revised regulations also imposed specific requirements that included provision enabling the temporary approval of a connected person so that a placement could be made before formal approval, as a Local Authority foster carer, had been granted.
The Local Authority did not have the duty to assess informal and family care arrangements unless it appeared that services could be necessary to safeguard or to promote the welfare of a child in need in the area.
As a result of the changes to legislation, the Local Authority was required, where possible, to place children within their own networks and had to clearly demonstrate that it had exhausted all options before it resorted to placing a child outside of their family. It was commented that most children benefited from living with relatives and friends or other connected people known to them because they were likely to provide more continuity than a placement with previously unknown carers. Such arrangements preserved a childs sense of belonging to a wider family network; a close attachment was more likely to exist already or to develop and there was also some evidence to suggest that relatives were less likely to reject a child if difficulties arose.
It was reported that parenting capacity and wider family and environmental factors had to be rigorously assessed before approval was granted. However, it was explained that not all family and friends carers wished to become foster carers or were able to safeguard and promote a childs welfare. Members heard that although the Local Authority could decide that a placement with family and friends carers was not in the best interests of the child, the decision could be overturned by a care order granted by the local judiciary. It was commented that, in such an event, the Local Authority would need to approve family and friends carers as a Local Authority foster carers. In essence, this would mean that the Local Authority would ultimately have responsibility for the care of the child, even if its view was that the placement was not providing suitable care. It was commented that it would be beneficial if regulations were specifically developed for family and friends carers.
Furthermore, in line with care planning and fostering regulations, the Local Authoritys expectation was that all foster carers had responsibilities and obligations, which had to be met. In contrast, the local judiciary recognised that the context of family and friends foster care differed from other types of foster care and expressed that there was a need for the Local Authority to take this into account to enable family and friends foster carers to work towards an amended set of standards.
The scrutiny panel was advised that the University of Bedfordshire had investigated the issues arising from conflicting legislation and regulations in respect of the application of care planning and fostering regulations for family and friends carers. Following the analysis of evidence received from Local Authorities throughout the UK, the university would publish its findings.
A Member commented that a change in the law and regulations had the potential to provide further clarification, flexibility and understanding. In response, it was agreed that from a fostering perspective, discrepancies could be resolved by the removal of the statement within care planning regulations that stated that children placed on a care order, with family and friends carers, had to be approved as Local Authority foster carers. If that aspect of the law was amended, the scope of the issues experienced would reduce significantly. It was agreed that it would be beneficial if the scrutiny panel was to write to the Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families to request a revision of current legislation and regulations. Furthermore, potential solutions could be explored with Her Honour Judge Matthews QC.
The Statutory Guidance for Fostering Services (2011) provided detailed information about the assessment and approval of foster carers and applied in relation to family and friends foster carers, as it did for other foster carers. These regulations had to be taken into consideration in assessing the suitability of a person to become a foster carer. When the family and friends carer was approved as a family and friends foster carer they were entitled to all the financial elements that mainstream foster carers were entitled to i.e. allowance for the child plus Christmas, birthday and holiday allowance. They were also entitled to progress through the banding structure, if they had the skillset to do so.
It was highlighted that if a family and friends carer was to become a foster carer, although this arrangement would guarantee financial support, it would also involve social worker intervention, reviews and visits, which could be quite intrusive.
In respect of the assessment process, initially there was a slow uptake from family and friends carers and this did not impact significantly on caseloads. However, since approximately 2013, the impact on workloads had increased with courts preferring a plan of placement with family.
It was commented that the assessment stage was a very time consuming process, with tight/strict deadlines. Due to demands on staff time, undertaking assessments for family and friends carers was causing a negative impact on the number of mainstream in-house foster carers that the Local Authority was able to assess and approve.
On 30 September 2016, Children's Services was undertaking 44 fostering assessments in respect of family and friends carers. On 29 November 2016, the Local Authority had 26 temporary approval assessments underway and 14 full assessments - 40 in total. In the last 12 months 12 family and friends carers had been approved as Local Authority foster carers. The assessment process had brought additional financial and workload pressures upon the department. Furthermore, as mentioned, there was also a requirement to temporarily approve family and friends carers as foster carers if it was suitable to do so, there was then a period of 16 weeks to fully assess them as carers and present the case to the Family Placement Panel for consideration.
In respect of the assessment and care planning process when a looked after child was placed with a family and friends carer, the child would already have a social worker from the Assessment and Care Planning Team. In addition, upon notification that a child had been placed with a family and friends carer, the carer would be allocated a fostering social worker. Together, both social workers would complete the temporary approval part of the assessment process.
It was also commented that a number of assessments, for family and friends carers, were not progressed to the final stage of the approval process. This was mainly due to the Local Authority concluding that the family and friends carer was not able to provide a suitable level of care for the child, there had been a change in circumstances or the child had returned home. The assessments were extremely resource heavy but were required through legislation and care planning regulations.
A Member asked whether records were kept of those assessments that were not necessarily progressed through to that final stage of the approval process. In response, it was confirmed that the files were kept on the Liquidlogic Childrens System (LCS). The system provided the ability to manage cases and keep records.
In respect of support from the Local Authority, it was advised that the level and nature of support provided would depend on the assessed needs of the child and the involvement of the Local Authority in making the arrangement.
With regard to the provision of support to family and friends carers, the scrutiny panel was informed that processes and paperwork had recently been updated and did require some final adjustments and testing. The updated documentation had been provided to Members prior to the meeting and included a copy of the Family and Friends Care Policy, good practice guidance, a process map for assessments, a report template for the temporary approval of immediate placements, regulations to extend assessment timescales and guidelines for requesting an 8 week extension. The new way of working was yet to be rolled out across the service as final legal advice was awaited, but it was hoped that over the coming months the process would be amended. It had been necessary to review the Local Authority's current way of working to ensure it was practicing within current guidelines and to provide a clearer process.
The Local Authoritys Family and Friends Care Policy had recently been reviewed and was currently being overseen by a barrister to ensure that it was legally compliant. It was advised that the Local Authoritys Family and Friends care Policy set out a framework for the provision of support to family and friends. The document also included the policy context and definitions that apply to family and friends carers.
The scrutiny panel heard that a leaflet was also available and provided basic advice and information on Family and Friends Foster Care. The document contained information on the assessment process, placements and the practical and financial support that was available. It was explained that advice was given to the family and friends carers upon placement of the child in their care and upon notification to the Fostering Team. Once notification was received, the Fostering Team made an immediate home visit to advise and support the carer and explain the requirements of the assessment process.
The Local Authority produced several leaflets and an advice pack that it shared with family and friends foster carers. It was explained that this information was only provided to family and friends carers whereby the Local Authority had been involved with making arrangements for the child. The information was distributed by social workers.
A Member commented that it would be beneficial if information was made available to all family and friends carers and distributed to community hubs, libraries, GP Surgeries etc. It was commented that it was important that family and friends carers had an awareness of the law in England, their rights and responsibilities and support that was available.
A Member queried what training was provided to foster carers. It was conveyed that family and friends carers, who were approved as foster carers, would be expected to complete the Training, Support and Development (TSD) Standards for foster care. It was explained that family and friends foster carers gained support for their caring role by accessing specific training and meeting with other foster carers to share experiences. Where it was assessed that a family and friends carer could meet the needs of the child, but would require some assistance or services to be able to do so, packages of support were developed.
The scrutiny panel heard that where a relative, friend or other connected person proposed to make a long-term commitment to caring for a child, they could apply for a child arrangement order or a special guardianship order. These arrangements did not require the approval of those carers as Local Authority foster carers. In respect of these arrangements, family and friends carers had a right to receive an assessment by the Local Authority for support services, which could include financial support. It was commented that there was a need to think innovatively in respect of providing financial support to family and friends carers. Financial assessments were considered by the Family Placement Panel.
A Member provided those in attendance with an outline of the evidence that was previously received from Kinship Carers Middlesbrough and the Association of Kinship Carers Tees Valley. The challenges and difficulties faced by family and friends carers were explained.
A Member queried how information, in respect of family and friends carers, was accessed and understood by those who had differing levels of ability. Members heard that social workers explained the detail to family and friends carers to ensure awareness. Furthermore, for those who spoke different languages, Google Translate was used to translate documents into many different languages.
A Member had attended the Relative Experience Project Conference on 29 November 2016. The conference explored best practice and successful and sustainable approaches to supporting family and friends carers.
At the conference, information was provided on the early findings from a research study undertaken by Grandparents Plus and funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation - Young People Growing Up in Kinship Care: Adolescent Transitions and Outcomes in Young Adulthood. It was commented that around 200,000 children were growing up with family and friends carers in the UK. Preliminary findings were in line with other studies, which showed that family and friends care delivered stability and had beneficial effects on school progress and transitions into adulthood.
Furthermore, the conference had outlined the positive work of the Pause project. The project worked with women who had experienced, or were at risk of, repeat removals of children from their care. It aimed to break this cycle and give women the opportunity to develop new skills and responses that could help them create a more positive future. It was commented that every Local Authority within the UK had women with complex and challenging needs to whom multiple children were born and subsequently removed into the care system under child protection proceedings. These women were typically young, disadvantaged and living with intersecting and numerous social, emotional, environmental and health related challenges. It was agreed that it would be beneficial for the Local Authority to engage with the work of the project.
At the scrutiny panels next meeting, representatives from Leeds City Council would be in attendance to outline the principles of good practice for Local Authority work with family and friends carers. Leeds City Council demonstrated good practice in respect having clear policies and systems in place to ensure family and friends care arrangements were appropriately assessed and supported.
AGREED as follows:
That the information presented at the meeting be considered in the context of the scrutiny panels investigation.
That the following recommendation be included in the scrutiny panel's final report: That a letter be sent, on behalf of the Children and Learning Scrutiny Panel, requesting that the Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families revised the current care planning and fostering regulations pertaining to family and friends carers.
That Her Honour Judge Matthews QC be invited to attend a future meeting of the scrutiny panel.