There is a bar chart that appears on page 71 of the Fostering Stocktake (see above). It tells us broadly how long each of the foster placements that ended in 2016 actually lasted.
The chart is in itself an uncontroversial representation of some of the fostering data produced annually by the Department for Education.
What is slightly troubling is that this graph appears right at the start of a section on placement within the fostering stocktake’s chapter on matching and is preceded by this sentence:
“Placement stability is hugely important but stability over many years, stability which might reasonably compare with what we might term normal childhood, is troublingly rare, with too few placements lasting for longer than five years.”
And the graph appearing straight after seemingly to prove the point. The number of placements that ended in 2016 that lasted longer than five years, as depicted by this chart, is 4%.
The government’s statistics on looked after children are a banal representation of the lives and experiences of children in care. They tell us a lot of things, but nothing about what it actually feels to be in care – but then they don’t pretend to.
And, on its own, the chart below tells us nothing about placement stability.
The statistics alone cannot tell us the outcomes of the children whose placements ended after five years living with one carer. They don’t tell us which of those children placed in an emergency for a few weeks might have gone on to a long-term placement that is, to this day, meeting their needs.
A hefty 275-page evidence review of foster care in England came out in the middle of last year. Its intention was to inform the government stocktake by bringing together and summarising the not insubstantial research on fostering.
The evidence review itself lists eleven different types of care – some of which are by the nature of the fostering provided, inevitably short-term.
And in the case of actual “short-term placements” these tended to last for around a year, the document suggested – unsurprising considering the public law outline expects care proceedings to be concluded in little more than 26 weeks. That the highest number of placement endings occurred in the six to 12 month bracket appears to confirm that.
The stocktake also laments the number of “unplanned endings” of which 55% were at the behest of the foster carer. But, perhaps surprisingly, information on the reasons why children move placements was only collected by the Department for Education for the first time in 2016. It has been published for two consecutive years as ‘experimental statistics’ and, we are warned, should be read “with caution”.
These new figures suggest that the most common reason for a placement change for children in foster care is attached to the care plan, (32% in 2016). In the same year a further 11% of placement endings followed a request from a carer because of a child’s behaviour. A smaller percentage ended at the request of the child.
Bafflingly 32% of placements changed for ‘other reasons’ with no further explanation given. A year later there has been some improvement – with “other” given as the reason for a change in just over a quarter of placements. But if the local authority has no idea why a placement has ended in a particular year we should hardly be surprised to hear children in care recount how they have been moved from one placement to another without being told the reason.
The evidence review details a number of factors that affect stability that should come as no surprise- “Poorly matched placements are more likely to break down and this is often the result of a lack of placement options, and rushed decisions due to strict time restrictions on emergency placements.”
The opportunity for carers and children to meet has a positive impact although there is little evidence that this is happening, the evidence review notes. In fact, “Little is known about current matching practice in light of the reported shortage of placements and the turnover of social workers in children’s service departments.”
It is a relief that the Department for Education is trying to collect data on why placements end (and shocking that this has not been done before). The Children’s Commissioner’s last year launched a new stability index for children in care and as this develops it should combine with the DfE’s statistics to provide a better picture of foster placement stability.
But there is still much to do. Even if the data was accurate (and it is a long way from being so) the snapshot of one year tells us nothing about an individual child’s stability as they journey through care. Don’t just take my word for it. “Children in care told us that a single year does not fully capture stability,” the Children’s Commissioner said. “A better understanding of stability for children in care would involve looking at longer term periods of stability and instability.”
And our understanding of stability also needs to include those decisions that were made before a placement starts. It needs to make a connection between the matching process or the number of placements considered (both in-house and externally) before a child is placed with a particular carer. It needs to tell us what support helped a foster carer continue with a placement that they were struggling with and a child that they nearly gave up on. If we really want to be better at placement stability we need to get better at asking the right questions about the placements that worked as well as the ones that didn’t. And as the children themselves will tell you, those answers won’t be found in the data of a single year.
Source: The Fostering Stocktake 2018
By Anne Sayer, This Week in Fostering
Children’s Commissioner: Children in Care Stability Index
The Fostering System in England – A Review
Foster Care in England