The General Election 2017 is an opportunity for politicians to show their commitment to improving the lives of children in care. We believe that a number of key changes could ensure that the care system truly becomes fit for purpose:
- Every child in care goes to the most appropriate placement for them as an individual - we believe that children in care do best when we do our best to meet their needs. This includes making use of all possible placement options and choosing the placement that is best for that child. We would like to rid placement practice of 'in-house first' and commissioning of external placements that prioritises cheapest first, regardless of the needs of individual children. We would like to see a strengthening of legal guidance that means the most appropriate placement, as defined in the Children Act 1989, is not just a category of care, but the placement that most meets the needs of every individual child.
- An end to overblown and inefficient commissioning of children's services - commissioning of foster care is hugely inefficient and ineffective. It is not designed primarily to meet the needs of children and encourages poorly informed, short term spending decisions. Where commissioning is treated as procurement and the cheapest is seen as best, we store up problems for the future. We believe that public money is best spent on primarily meeting the current needs of individual children, to not do so costs everyone in the medium and longer term – through placement instability and moves for children, carers needing more support/more respite and being burnt out from their caring responsibilities, children who then become high cost adult members of society. A re-instatement of the commissioning support programme would go some way to repairing the wide-spread ineffectiveness and inconsistency in the current commissioning landscape. Children need the best to thrive, and that may well not be the cheapest.
- New ways of managing a mixed economy of fostering services - over the last five years the impact of budget constraints on local authorities has had consequential impact beyond the front line delivery of services. The extensive changes in structure and staffing levels have typically and unfortunately meant the loss of historic experience and local knowledge. This has resulted in a continuous focus on cost and a consequential 'us and them' culture in relations with independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs). Government should endorse a fully functioning mixed fostering provider economy. Local and national government should study and understand the real cost of services where like-for-like comparisons can be made, and to develop ways of comparing different forms of care that do not currently exist. New delivery models should be encouraged in ways that have yet to occur, such as local authorities primarily offering only emergency placements and utilising IFP carers for planned placements. Better local (as opposed to national) coordination of existing foster care placements in needed to ensure better use of vacancies, the most appropriative placement and an end to local authorities competing with each other for IFP placements.
- A national minimum allowance for Staying Put - enabling young people to continue to live with their foster carers after 18 is a wonderful policy and something many carers have done informally for many years. But government have under-funded the Staying Put policy and, as a result, too many carers are unable to afford to pay basic bills and continue to care for young people. The impact of Staying Put should be reviewed to consider the true cost, lost costs, capacity costs and timelines in order a better ordered approach could be taken. The funding trail be considered in terms of recoup from post-18 funding sources. Akin to the national minimum fostering allowance, an allowance for Staying Put would bring up the lowest levels of support to something more manageable.
- Greater autonomy for independent reviewing officers (IRO) - some IROs feel under pressure to go along with decisions that are not always in the best interests of children. They need greater autonomy in regulations to ensure better child-centred decision-making takes place. This includes being able to veto plans to move children from settled, stable placements where the child would wish to stay. IROs may continue to be embedded into local authorities but should come under the full jurisdiction of the Children's Commissioner in order to be truly independent.