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Permanent Possibilities: Is one kind of permanence better than another?

By Harvey Gallagher, Chief Executive, Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers

'Permanence' is the rather clunky jargon that us folk working with children use to describe what we want for a child who can't live with their birth family (more jargon). Adoption is perhaps the ‘most well’ way of achieving permanence for a child but, in fact, there are a range of options that can offer positive outcomes for children, all depending on what's best for them. Adoption is not possible and/or desirable for most children in care, yet many still need a family to care for them long term. Children who grow up in stable long-term foster care can do as well as adopted children. A number of years ago, government also opened up another option through a 'Special Guardianship Order' (SGO) and this is proving in increasingly popular, especially where extended family members will care for a child until they're 18. However, there is some evidence that foster carers can be pressurised into moving to an SGO, even if they will receive less support and income, because they are fearful that a child with whom they have a strong bond will be moved from them. The Local Government Ombudsman recently ruled in favour of a child staying with their foster carer in such a case. And, in fact, most children in care find permanence by returning home.

However, a hierarchy of routes to permanence has developed over the years and this has been embedded even further by the current government's emphasis on adoption. Don't get me wrong, many of the reforms that have taken place in adoption are good for children and the investment is welcome. But, government, and others, don't seem to take other options as seriously, when, in fact, many more children find themselves in foster care than will ever be adopted. So, for me, there is a hierarchy of placements that is adult-led and not child-focused. Don't forget that the Children Act states that we should be finding the 'most appropriate placement' for a child.

We can speculate as to why this government focus on adoption might be the case, but it seems to me that government has an ideal in its mind of a nuclear family that will take a child out of the care system and then everything will be okay. However, I don't really think that is how is how it works, by and large.

Even within foster care itself, there is a hierarchy of placements that has nothing to do with what children need. Local authority in-house fostering services have become the default preferred provider in almost every case. This is for a mixture of reasons - culture, poor understanding of costs, some chaos in local services. In particular, it has meant that too many local authorities are reluctant to use independent and voluntary sector fostering providers (IFPs) for long term placements. Permanence planning for children is sometimes undermined when placements with IFPs are made on a short term, renewable basis. Bewilderingly, even though we know the harm that placements moves can cause, a move can often be built-in to care planning just to get a child back 'in-house'! Despite greater delegated authority, where foster carers make day-to-day decisions for children, carers are often not consulted in a meaningful way when making plans for child’s future. And they're often the person who knows that child best.

So what should be happening? This doesn't need new laws, just a renewed commitment to sticking with what we already know about how to give children what they need. In particular:

  • Any changes in status or placement moves should be in the current and long-term best interests of the child (not of the agency making the decision)

  • The views of the child or young person regarding placement moves or changes in status are genuinely listened to

  • Decisions are made within the care planning process (I know, hard to believe they aren't now!)

  • Foster carers not required to change their agency in order to secure agreement to a long-term plan for a child

  • Foster carers should not be approached about transferring or moving to an SGO without the knowledge of their fostering provider

  • Decisions about placements should be based upon the quality of relationships and best possible long-term outcomes for children, on a level playing field of understanding of quality and value for money

Let's not forget about all of the children who need permanence.

If you've enjoyed this read - why not listen to our podcast when Harvey talks more about fostering on our podcast page.

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