FosterWiki Opinion Piece

The FosterWiki response to the Government’s Care Review Implementation Strategy

By Sarah Anderson, Founder
February 2023

Care Review response

I took a couple of days to digest the government’s care review response to this latest review of children’s social care in an attempt to ensure a measured response and look for the positives. I’m not sure I’ve succeeded.

I don’t know enough about early interventions, kinship care or social work to know if this is going to be ‘transformational’ or will ‘lay the groundwork for long-term future reform’ for them, naturally, I hope so, but given this response has been substantially watered down from Josh MacAlister’s original tome, only time will tell.

In terms of government investment, they announced this strategy is being ‘backed by £200 million over the next two years’ I think we can all agree this is a tad short of the £2.4 billion MacAlister proposed over five years and question how they expect this to be a ‘new, ambitious and wide-ranging strategy that will transform the current care system’ on a tiny fraction of the investment needed.

My focus is on foster carers, 70% of looked after children are in foster care, and in actual reality, it’s unlikely that this figure will change much. So to find such a searing lack of ambition to transform and reform the workforce that actually underpins the whole of foster care, a sector that is currently dying on its feet, is yet another appalling missed opportunity.

The £25million ‘investment’ in the foster carer sector is a very small amount in today’s money, they should be embarrassed at the claim this is their ‘largest investment in foster carers in recent history’ as it exposes how very little has been invested in this critical workforce in previous years. I am also doubtful this funding will have any impact on the mainstream fostering family given how they are intending to spend it.

If I’m honest it all feels a bit like the corporate parent has left the building. They’ve announced with some fanfare that foster carers are getting a once-in-a-generation increase and they’re investing in retention, recruitment and support.

On the surface of it, with bold claims and encouraging videos from the Children’s Minister, and claims they are making the largest investment in foster carers in recent history, you’d not be to blame for feeling optimistic, however, dig a little deeper and once unpacked it bears little scrutiny.

The government claim “Foster carers will see an above-inflation increase in their allowance…in recognition of the brilliant care they provide to children.”

Sounds simple enough? Well sadly not. What this actually means is they are going to go change the numbers in the minimum allowances boxes on the government website. Let’s be very clear, they are not funding this, let me say that again, they are not funding this, at a time when every local authority is pretty much broke.

Neither is it enforceable, no fostering provider will have to pass this on, and sadly, foster carers, who are left vulnerable impotent and powerless from having a misclassified working status which traps them in a worker/employer relationship with no rights, do not feel brave enough to demand it. It also represents very little to a large majority in this sector who have been severely underfunded for years.

They go on to say “This is alongside £25 million over the next two years on a recruitment and retention programme, which is the largest investment in recent history… focus on areas where there is a particular shortage of placements for children such as sibling groups, teenagers, unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC), those that have suffered complex trauma or parent and child foster homes.”

Again this looked encouraging until you look at what they are investing in, the Fostering Network’s Mockingbird programme, which they are rolling out in a couple of additional local authorities. I have nothing against Mockingbird and indeed it’s great for some carers, but that’s just it – ‘some carers’ so this ‘support’ is only applicable to a tiny percentage of the workforce.

Mockingbird, whilst good for this minority, is not the be-all and end-all support panacea that the Fostering Network has sold to the government (on ‘our’ behalf) but I guess it’s certainly much cheaper than truly fixing things.

The question needs to be asked, where was the genuine voice of the thousands of mainstream foster carers? Apparently, Coutinho recently met with a group of foster carers from around the UK to listen to their ‘views’, except they were all chosen by the Fostering Network and running Mockingbird hubs which was hardly a true representation of mainstream carers, the majority of which are not in Mockingbird hubs, nor want to be, where does that leave them?

Coutinho also talks about a visit to a children’s home where the children she met were ‘full of excitement and enthusiasm for the opportunities ahead’ which was insulting given the thousands of care leavers that are having a terrible time and the hundreds that were brutally excluded from the review consultations. I’m quite sure they are not feeling ‘full of excitement and enthusiasm for their opportunities’.

I am also concerned about what this investment in foster carer recruitment will look like given the current outdated tired and ineffective fostering narrative they still cling to, one that is not working in today’s modern socio-economic landscape where the recruitment market lies dormant. Are they going to reimagine the ‘all you need is a spare room’ marketing strategy which is no longer effective, does not reflect our role, attracts no one and does our traumatised children a disservice?

Are they going to change up the marketing strategies to widen the recruitment net? We don’t know the answer, there seems to be no plan.

They talk about focusing on areas where there is a particular shortage, such as sibling groups, teenagers, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, children with complex trauma (all our children have that) and parent and child placements. This is nothing new, the focus has been on these groups for years, the question is are they going to be bringing new thinking to this, or relying on the old thinking that created these problems in the first place?

There’s a deafening silence on the real issues foster carers are facing and the reform needed to have any meaningful impact on retention, with no mention of the ‘support’ foster carers actually need, the team around the child is enabled to fully carry out their roles, accessing and embedding the right services, working in a relational and multidisciplinary way, fully supporting them in their role and putting the child and the foster carer at the centre.

No mention of the need for rights, status, protection and security, no mention of the improved professional respect and acknowledgement needed for those caring for looked after children 24/7 and the importance of their input.

Lying neglected is the foster carer’s education and the need for it to be more robust from the start, the urgent need to raise standards of care nationally and prevent children who have experienced acute trauma from being re-traumatised. Many foster carers have no meaningful education or qualifications, understanding of trauma, therapeutic care, their role or the task ahead, which results in children bouncing around the system and 30% of the scarce new recruits leaving within 2yrs. It’s alarming that everyone in children’s services has to be robustly qualified, except foster carers who are the ones working with them 24/7, not just for an hour every 6 weeks, they apparently need no proper qualifications or education at all.

Also completely ignored is the current controversy over the allegations system and its misuse, with nothing on the importance of a forensic look at the current delivery and failings of this procedure, and a review of the effect on retention and recruitment.

Without a doubt, I welcome the government’s recommendation that the Staying Put age is extended to 23yrs, but again it’s pointless if they continue not to fund it properly, with most carers unable to financially provide staying put past 18yrs let alone to 23yrs.

I have one more uneasy issue with this review, this whole thing about ‘putting love at the centre of it’ and ‘stable homes built on love’ and ‘love love love’. With my cynical hat on I have a feeling they all sat around a table at the beginning wondering what they could put in the review to soften the blow, yes, let’s put love all over the place, makes us look like we care.

“The children have told us, all they want is to be loved” they exclaim, well yes of course they do they are children, and that is the most fundamental requirement of their very existence and children have no concept of what goes on behind the adult scene to turn their world.

You can’t buy in love, you can’t order it, you can’t recommend it or demand it in a care plan. Love is not tangible, it is as a result of, and can only be a result of, if those caring for and nurturing our children feel secure, happy and protected, where they feel supported by the team around them, respectfully remunerated, enabled to fully care, to work in a positive environment, with reform, improvement and learning embedded into the heart of those they work for.

If I’m honest the whole thing feels positively underwhelming and falls very short of being a ‘brilliant’ ‘once in a generation opportunity’ ‘ambitious’ or ‘transformational’. However these reviews and enquiries come and go, I’ve certainly seen enough of them in my time and none ever live up to the hype, and most of their recommendations lay waste in the annals of history.

One thing they are absolutely right about though is every child deserves to grow up in a safe, stable and loving home so for us it’s onward and upward, we are making such great progress in so many ways and I for one will continue to work closely with government, providers and foster carers to ensure we all work towards the delivery of a world-class fostering service and better more aspirational outcomes for our looked after children.

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