The position of children in care remains one of the most challenging tasks facing policy-makers at all levels. Children and young people themselves often tell me and colleagues that are worried about too many moves in care, educational under-achievement, ignored healthcare needs, poor planning for when they leave care and, overall, not being listened to.
The Associate Parliamentary Group on children in care and care leavers, which I have the privilege of chairing, is unusual. It doesn’t just bring together Parliamentarians but listens to children and young people from across the country – those in care in council, voluntary or private children’s homes, foster care and those who have left care for an often unwelcoming world.
I believe that the Children and Young Persons Bill before Parliament will be a step-change for them, with various positive changes. It rightly imposes a duty on Government to promote the well-being of care leavers over the age of 18 and others under the age of 25.
The Bill aims to attract more social workers and residential childcare workers. This should help prevent high turnover and lack of continuity of care. The Government’s approach was outlined in the Care Matters White Paper, which stresses the need for, “children in care to have kind, understanding and committed carers-whether foster carers or residential staff-and we want to encourage that element of ‘stickability’ which research has shown to be key to the successful continuation of relationships. The more engaged carers are in all aspects of the child’s life and the greater their role in decision-making, the more likely they are to develop that close bond which will lead to a successful outcome for the child”.
These children are often very powerless in their early lives within their families, so may well depend on their social worker as their best advocate.
The Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) is also becoming much more central and needs to be better equipped to challenge poor local authority practice. Clause 11, for example, provides that an IRO be identified for each child to strengthen continuity and maintain consistent oversight of the care plan. The IRO must ensure that any views of the child were ascertained and given due consideration.
Government amendments in the Lords more sharply define the duties on local authorities on placement of looked-after children. A new clause requires a local authority to arrange for looked after children to live with their parents or others with parental responsibility where consistent with the children’s welfare. This reflects the principle that state intervention in family life should be kept to the minimum necessary to protect children from harm.
A new clause consolidates into a single consistent test that any decision and consideration of all factors relating to it should lead to the most appropriate placement that safeguards and promotes the welfare of the child in question.
The placement options are unchanged. They include, first, placement with a relative, friend or other person connected with the child and then: a foster carer previously unconnected to the child; or placement in a registered children’s home; or other arrangements. Other arrangements could include hostel or foyer provision, supported lodgings, flats and independent living.
How should local authorities decide what is the most appropriate placement?
The local authority must ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, that the placement: allows the child to live near home; does not disrupt education; enables the child to live with a sibling also being looked after; and provides suitable accommodation for disabled children.
The Minister, Lord Adonis, suggested a requirement that children in long-term educational establishments should be visited at a minimum of six-monthly intervals.
The Bill strengthens current notification arrangements to notify the local authority concerned of the placement of a child in long-term residential accommodation. More significantly, it requires the local authority where the child is ordinarily resident to maintain contact with the child throughout the placement.
The Government is committed to reducing inappropriate out-of-authority placements. There are concerns about the quality of placement supervision, the co-ordination of services and poorer outcomes for this group.
Where a local authority is considering moving a child from a placement it must first undertake a full, statutory review of the child’s case, chaired by an IRO.
The Government is also considering whether there should be further explicit provision requiring local authorities effectively to plan a range of local accommodation.
Listening and responding
The Bill is rightly being modified to reflect the concerns of experienced practitioners and shows that the Government is flexible about means but consistent about principles. It’s right that ministers and MPs listen to children in care as well as those who look after them. Those who are given, through no fault of their own, a great disadvantage in their lives deserve the greatest possible efforts to devise a sound system that allows them to overcome this and make the most of their lives.
This article is based on a speech by David Kidney to the Independent Children’s Homes Association/Care and Health conference on the intelligent use of residential children’s care. David Kidney is Labour Member of Parliament for Stafford, and chairs the Associate Parliamentary Group on children in care and care leavers.