Fostering A Future For Our Children

Care Appointments Scotland talks Fostering with Bryan Ritchie, Director of The Fostering Network Scotland…

Bryan, what do you consider to be the principle challenges facing the fostering sector within Scotland right now?

“The Fostering Network in Scotland has, as part of our operations, two projects whose task is to collect, prioritise, and action plan the major challenges that face the service, via consultation with all stakeholders across every Local Authority, Voluntary Agency, and Independent Provider. This allows us to speak with confidence about the issues facing the service in this country, and enables us to articulate the views of those in the frontline.

“In Scotland, 3 out of 4 children accommodated by Local Authorities live in foster homes and yet few realise the vital part played by carers whose role remains ambiguous in that they are not employed with all the rights that go with this, are not subject to registration with the Scottish Social Services Council, and work 24/7, with some very vulnerable and challenging children.

“We carried out a survey earlier this year which showed that in Scotland we are at least 1700 foster homes short out of a total of 2500 homes, in addition the survey showed that carers in Scotland were well above the rest of the UK when it came to taking in children over their approved numbers or outwith their approval status.

“Placement shortages in Scotland are to some extent hidden by us not observing the ‘usual placement limit’ which the rest of the UK has had in place for a number of years. This limits the number of children in any one foster home to three, recognising the fact that these children demand high levels of care. Many foster carers are caring for more than three children and I am sure are doing a great job and are well able to meet the demands of the children they look after on our behalf, but we have asked the Government to look at transitioning towards such a limit, as a way of safeguarding these children’s best interests over the longer term. {mospagebreak}

“As a result of the dire shortages in foster placements, children in Scotland move placement twice as often as children in the rest of the UK.

“From our work with them throughout Scotland, they find this particularly problematic. These children have been through enough without us moving them because of logistical imperatives.

“We also need to bring the Foster Care Service into the raft of initiatives surrounding workforce skills, as they seem to have been completely overlooked – here we have the major service for accommodated children undertaken by a largely unaccredited workforce. The same argument applies to the Family Placement Social Workers who support the service – they have very little, if anything, in terms of career development, unlike their colleagues in other parts of the social service workforce.

“These are just some of the challenges we face in Scotland, the majority of which have been the subject of our most recent research undertaken on behalf of the Scottish Executive over the last 16 months entitled ‘Caring for our Children’. This indepth analysis of where the service is in Scotland is due to be published in October, and will, I am sure, be the object of some interest from both practitioners, carers and politicians.”

BAAF and Fostering Network last year launched a publication at Westminster calling for a massive financial investment in fostering services. Clearly, the Scottish elements of the two organisations are heavily involved in the implementation of the report north of the border. We asked Bryan to expand on the key elements of this:

“The report examines in detail the true costs associated with running a qualitative foster service across the UK, and estimates that we need to spend an additional £750 million a year across the UK to provide an adequate level of service. In particular it looks at the level of allowances paid to carers for the needs of the children they are looking after which requires substantial updating, it also examines the need to pay carers an adequate fee for the work they undertake, respite to enable them to have quality time with their own children, and training to ensure they have the skills to look after the children in their care.

“In Scotland for example the overall expenditure on foster care in 2002/03 was 11.3% of the total budget allocation for children’s services – the allocation for residential childcare services was nearly 34%, indeed in 2004 the Scottish Executive estimated that on average the cost per week for a child in a Residential School was £1,445, in a Care Home £1.337, and in a Foster Home £245. {mospagebreak}

“The Cost of Foster Care Report reminds us that whilst we would all wish to see children afforded a choice in the type of care they experience much greater investment is needed in order to ensure the very best placements for our children.

The Fostering Network have done much work on behalf of the Sons and Daughters of Foster Carers and other related groups. What recent developments have their been in this area?

“We have worked with Children and Young People in Foster Care, and the Sons and Daughters of Foster Carers for many years in Scotland attempting to get their voice heard when Government Policies are being shaped.

“Last year we were particularly pleased when one of the young people we had worked with gave an emotionally charged speech about the impact that ‘police checks’ had on the lives of children in care. This issue had long been one that we had campaigned on as it meant that children could not form normal friendships, as police checks were being routinely carried out on their friends and their families prior to substantial contact being allowed. The Scottish Executive were so impressed with this speech that they are now in the process of issuing new guidance on this issue.

“In addition the impact that fostering has on the birth children of carers has been one that we have tried to highlight. The emotional impact on them is quite frankly enormous and yet completely overlooked by most agencies.

“In 2003 we launched a report ‘Voices from Care’ which drew on the experiences of both these sets of young people.

“In addition this year we helped a group of both Young People in Care, and Sons and Daughters put together a video of their experiences in conjunction with Scottish Youth Theatre this along with their list of demands will be launched in January 2006.” {mospagebreak}

What is Fostering Network Scotland’s current position on the issue of fostering allowances?

“Over the past 18 months, The Fostering Network has been involved with the Adoption Policy Review Group in compiling their ‘Better Choices for Our Children’ report. This is intended to modernise, extend and improve the adoption and permanence system to provide greater stability and flexibility for the people who use the system, particularly children.

“The Fostering Network is greatly encouraged by the Scottish Executive’s response, ‘Safe and Secure Homes for Our Most Vulnerable Children’, and sees the response as the Government prioritising the need to update and improve the way in which Scotland’s most needy children are cared for.

“We are encouraged by recommendation 76 ‘A nationally agreed scheme of allowances should be introduced for foster carers. (10.14).’ The acceptance of the need for a uniform allowance for fostered children, will help sustain vulnerable youngsters in placements across Scotland. The Scottish Executive supports this recommendation in principle and is seeking views on how best to achieve this:

“The Executive annually sets mandatory scales of fostering allowances and legislation requires local authorities to publish their fostering allowances and explain any variations from national scales.

“Allowances are payments made by local authorities for the living costs of fostered children. These are not fees, i.e. payments to foster carers for the job they do, but are payments to cover, for example, food and clothing for each fostered child. Levels of fostering allowances are currently set by local authorities to meet local conditions and needs. Currently across Scotland, the levels of fostering allowances vary, and are not adequate in some areas. We are encouraging a debate about this issue and are currently seeking views across all stakeholders.” {mospagebreak}

Is this a time when new legislation, if properly resourced, can make a real difference to the lives of children in public care?

“There is no indication at this time that the Government is considering primary legislation within this field, moreover many of the changes and developments suggested within ‘Caring for Our Children’ would not require this level of statutory intervention.

“However we remain convinced that the Regulatory developments that will be undertaken as part of the ‘Safe and Secure Homes for our most Vulnerable Children’ Report will be an opportunity to, in particular, amend the lack of placement limits situation. Our Scottish Committee hope to take this issue forward in a meeting with the new Minister as soon as possible.

“In terms of proper resourcing this has a cultural element to it as Foster care is traditionally seen as a voluntary or altruistic undertaking, and while this is certainly a factor in people’s choice to put themselves forward, we are now meeting individuals on a regular basis who simply are unable to ‘afford’ to foster, in that they would be worse off financially.

“In addition local authorities need to look at the impact of commissioning provision from outwith the authority, an issue further advanced in England where budget allocation, however overstretched it may already be, is being put under greater pressure by external commissioning.” {mospagebreak}

What do you see as being the primary benefits for social workers and other relevant sector workers coming to yourselves for training in specialist areas of the field of foster care?

“We train about 1000 carers and social workers every year in Scotland and concentrating on foster care gives us an insight into the demands of the task – all our Trainers are either social workers, or carers.

“Training for both offers them skills development and preparers them in terms of carers for undertaking further development in terms of Vocational Training.

“We are moving towards acquiring accreditation in terms of Individual Learning Accounts to enable carers to ‘buy’ their own training.”

Realistically, what positive developments do you believe can be brought about within the sector in the next five years?

“The above is only a glimpse of the challenges facing the service – many if not all require to be addresses in order to ensure that Scottish children get the very best care that we can deliver.

“Foster Carers and Family Placement Social Workers, are the most dedicated practitioners in the land – without them the child care system in Scotland would fall apart. Sam Galbraith once called them ‘Scotland’s Forgotten Heroes’ and I would like to see the role they play recognised by the investment of both time and energy from the Scottish Executive, politicians both local and national, and the people of Scotland. Let us be judged as a nation not by what we do on a football field, but by how we care for our most disadvantaged children.

“By its very nature foster care involves children whose lives are led in houses, probably next door to many of your readers, in villages and towns across the country. Around breakfast tables, in quiet moments, in the hurly burly of the local McDonalds, their lives are forever changed.

“Perhaps we should recognise this undertaking a bit more and invest in its continued future, so that it can continue to help children to thrive.”