Thanks, Iain (Anderson, Group Chief Executive, NFA). It’s a real pleasure to be here during foster care fortnight - and to be able to recognise the outstanding contribution made by foster carers and those, like you, who support both them and the children in their care.
Now, I suspect this is a slightly unique event for both you and me, as some may remember the keynote speech given at last year’s NFA conference - by my dad!
Unsurprisingly, I’ve sensibly attempted to track down precisely what he said, to discover he wowed you all with his now famous slideshow depicting many of the children our own family fostered.
It was my parent’s passion for the issues being discussed today that set our family off on an extraordinary journey over 30 years ago when the first of over 80 foster children - 2 of whom we went on to adopt - came to live with us.
As for many foster carers, it’s been a journey of great joys - and, at times, great challenges.
Many of the children had been damaged by chaotic, troubled backgrounds. Their behaviour could be extremely challenging, to put it mildly.
I’ve watched on as an abused and deeply angry little boy shattered every pane of glass in my dad’s prized greenhouse because he didn’t know how else to let his anger out.
And I became proficient in most swear words by the age of 10 thanks to the foster children who parroted back to me what they’d heard at home.
But, over time, I treasured seeing how love, stability and routine helped even the most troubled youngsters settle, develop and thrive.
And it was this first-hand experience of seeing how children can transcend disadvantage with the right support - and the vital role fostering has to play in this - that spurred me on to become a family barrister, often representing children in care.
And that, going into politics, has driven me to put the needs of vulnerable children right at the heart of Government’s agenda.
Reforms to the care system
That’s what our reforms to overhaul the care system; through the Children and Families Bill, through improvements to children’s homes and, crucially, to foster care, are all about.
Reducing the delays that so damage a disadvantaged child’s life chances and promoting the stability they so desperately need.
And challenging everyone involved in a vulnerable child’s life; teachers, social workers, foster carers, health professionals, councillors, to have the same high aspirations in education, work and wellbeing for children in care as they would for their own children.
Now, I know that our reforms to speed up and simplify adoption tend to grab the headlines.
The permanency of adoption can, indeed, provide vulnerable children with a strong foundation for a successful life. I know this all too well from having two adopted brothers. The Secretary of State has also spoken eloquently about his own experiences of adoption.
So it’s right that we remove the barriers and blockages that keep vulnerable children and prospective parents apart.
But adoption, clearly, isn’t always going to be the best option for every child.
My family’s experiences of all kinds of care; short and long-term fostering and kinship care, as well as adoption, are testament to that fact: that there is absolutely no hierarchy of care. Just the right placement at the right time for each individual child.
And for three quarters of children currently in care, that means foster care.
Again, I know from my personal experience, and from the children in care that I regularly meet, that foster care can provide an incredibly valuable opportunity for children to enjoy some much-needed stability and normal family life.
It’s the reason I wrote to foster carers a few months ago - the first time I believe a minister has decided to undertake such a task - letting them know how enormously grateful I am for all that they do.
Fostering – need to better understand the motivations and barriers to fostering
But, as with adoption, we still need to attract more foster carers from a wider range of backgrounds who can take on children with what appear to be ever more complex needs. And we must do more to support and hold on to existing carers.
As I said, there’s a significant programme of work underway to do just that.
You may know that we recently announced that there will be a clearer, fairer and more timely assessment process with more flexibility to amend foster carers terms of approval.
So, for example, we’re removing the requirement for two personal referees where a foster carer has a reference from another service they’ve fostered for within the last year. A sensible shift that recognises fostering experience without creating unnecessary bureaucracy and wasting foster carers’ time.
But fundamental to improving recruitment and retention, is the need for a better understanding of the needs of children awaiting placement. And a better understanding of what motivates - and puts off - new or existing foster carers who can meet those needs.
We know that some local areas are striving to meet that objective, but that others are struggling to get it right.
Which is why we’re putting up to three quarter of a million pounds into supporting councils over the next 2 years to do better and boost fostering locally.
This includes a contract we recently awarded to the Fostering Network to help 25 councils to drive up local recruitment and retention of foster carers and help them identify opportunities to share good practice nationally.
And I can announce today that we’ll also be giving money to 3 consortia of local authorities and independent fostering services to develop new ways of recruiting and retaining more diverse foster carers - such as working professionals and those who can foster those often difficult to place sibling groups.
Naturally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what comes of this innovation - because one thing we do know is that we’re missing out on an untapped groundswell of interest and goodwill.
Hot off the press research, commissioned by my department, suggests that over a half a million people think they’re ‘very likely’ or ‘certain’ to consider fostering in the future.
That is a hugely welcome level of interest, as well as public recognition of the value fostering brings and could bring to many needy children.
But the research also reveals widespread concern about getting bogged down in bureaucracy when becoming a foster carer and misconceptions about the type of person who’d be deemed acceptable - confirming what we suspected: that fostering just isn’t seen as a viable option for modern, working families.
So, we’re determined to change this; sweeping away the barriers holding back people with so much to give and making fostering be, and be seen as, for the many not just the few.
And we’re doing this by, amongst other things, encouraging employers to adopt flexible working policies specifically for foster carers.
Companies like Tesco and the O2 have already seen the wisdom in doing this. We want many others to follow in their footsteps. And in an effort to lead by example, my department is itself introducing flexible working for its own employees - including those who are family and friends carers - and urging other government departments to do the same.
But this issue goes further than the world of work. It touches on one of the chief frustrations with the current arrangements for foster care – that rather than supporting the rhythm of normal family life, they are, in many ways, the biggest obstacle to it.
As a matter of course, I want to see foster carers going to parents’ evenings at school, signing off permission for their foster children to go on school trips and being able to say yes to sleepovers with friends - just as any parent would.
This should be the norm, with foster carers recognised as a key part of the core team around the child.
Instead, these essential childhood experiences, that matter so much to children, are still too often the subject of bureaucratic wrangling – wrangling that stops carers getting on with everyday parenting and deprives already disadvantaged children of any sense of normality.
This isn’t just annoying. It’s potentially damaging.
Now, staff, understandably, worry something could go wrong, but, arguably, far more harm is caused by painful risk aversion – disadvantaged deepened because foster children are denied the chance to grow and learn as other children do.
To have real life experiences that make them feel like everyone else, not always a step away or a world apart.
It’s for this reason that, following a consultation - that was overwhelmingly supportive of this approach - we’ve decided to strengthen the statutory framework on delegation of authority; so there’s a much greater expectation that day-to-day decision-making will be left to foster carers.
In future, local authorities will be required to publish a policy on delegation of authority. Placement plans will also need to state who has been authorised to make which decisions about various aspects of a child’s life.
Now, it would seem logical that the longer the placement, the greater the delegation.
This very much makes sense when, as in my family’s case, foster carers can look after children for many, many years.
We looked after one boy, now man, David, from the age of 6 to 18. In that time, he very much became part of the family. For him to have been treated differently from the rest of us children, when it came to school trips, family holidays and visits to friends’ houses, would have been not just hurtful but absurd.
Yet, we know that long-term foster carers can still struggle with a lack of recognition, stability and backing.
I’m keen to remedy this and so, later this year, we will be consulting on what more we can do to support these hugely dedicated carers, including on whether they should be able to request formal local authority recognition of their status as a long-term foster carer.
Social workers, of course, have an especially important role to play in ensuring that any long-term arrangement is working well - mindful that moments of crisis can rear up at any stage.
I remember foster children that we’d been looking after for many months, often years, running away from home; their behaviour suddenly degenerating after a bad contact visit with their birth family or sibling, following a difficult therapy session or because they were being bullied at school.
Much as we would want, theses crises can’t be entirely avoided. But social workers can make sure real progress is being made by recognising the foster carer’s role as part of the team around the child and building strong relationships with them and the child - especially when it comes to contact.
Having been with the child before and after the contact visit, the foster carer will have valuable insights into whether the child is responding positively or otherwise - and so I would urge for this knowledge to be tapped into wherever and whenever possible.
And we’ll be supporting you to do this, and other aspects of your job, more confidently and effectively by developing training modules on fostering and adoption for children’s social workers, supervising social workers, team managers and independent reviewing officers (IROs).
It’s also right that we do more to more to help foster carers build their skills and confidence, especially when children with particularly challenging needs are involved.
So I’m pleased to be announcing the latest round of grant awards today for the evidence based intervention programmes.
This money, a total of £3.7 million over the next 2 years, will help another 22 local authority partnerships - on top of the 35 we’re already backing - to develop a range of programmes that support all kinds of care; offering training and support to birth parents, adopters, residential staff, kinship as well as foster carers.
It’s encouraging to see the really positive feedback from families helped by these schemes, which includes multi-dimensional treatment foster care - an intensive treatment programme delivered by foster carers with the support of a skilled clinical team.
In one case, the consistency and structure of the programme helped a deeply damaged 9-year-old boy calm his aggression and avoid residential care after the breakdown of 3 foster placements. His latest foster carer had been on the verge of giving up, but the boy’s behaviour improved so dramatically that she felt she could commit to fostering him long term - a fantastic effort.
And there’s also the KEEP programme, that we’ve funded since 2008, that’s helping foster carers and family and friends carers enhance their own parenting skills.
The most recent data shows that KEEP is significantly driving down levels of stress among carers and the number of child behaviours contributing to this stress.
We want many more children and carers to benefit from this kind of help - which is why our aim is for over half of local authorities to have embedded such specialist programmes for children in care and those on the edge of care or custody into their core services by 2015.
But as important as these initiatives can be, we all know there’s also a remarkable wealth of expertise out there, more widely, in the sector. We want to make it easier for you to share this and spread good practice.
Which is what we had in mind when we set up the fostering information exchange (FIE) last November. A secure, online platform where those in the field can make contact and exchange ideas.
The good news is that the exchange has really taken off, with almost 400 members now from all parts of the fostering sector; foster carers, social workers, team managers, IROs, academics, virtual school heads - and from not just England, but also Scotland and Wales and even as far afield as France and Australia.
And as a tool developed with the sector in response to demand from the sector - and now led by sector - this is very much in the spirit of our reforms.
Because, as the mantra goes, it’s only by working together in this way that we can really make a difference to our most vulnerable children.
I know, from living with foster children for almost all of my childhood and beyond, what a critical job all of you in this room do to support carers and make sure placements succeed. So I want to say now how much I appreciate your tireless efforts.
This work and the significant work I’ve just talked about that’s under way to improve fostering, is absolutely fundamental to our transformation of the care system.
It’s key to ensuring that the majority of disadvantaged children and young people who come into care have the chance to experience stable, loving family life and go on to have brighter futures.
And wherever we work in the care system, this, surely, is the central mission that unites us all.
Looking at the levels of interest in fostering out there, there are, clearly, many more people ready, willing and able to join us. Loving, committed, but, otherwise, ordinary individuals. People like my mum and dad.
There have been many times when I’ve been chatting to someone at the school gate, in the pub or even in the division lobby and, on discovering my parents foster, they’ve said: ‘Oh, they must be very special people to do that.’
I’m very proud and thankful for what they – and foster carers across the country – are doing and have done. But I’m sure my parents won’t mind me saying this – of course I think they’re special , but there are many people who could do what they’ve done.
So, let’s make it easier for them to do it.
To open their hearts and homes and make sure we’re there, every step of the way to support them so they can give these children the opportunities we offer to other children, the childhood we want for our own children. The chance to be the person they can and deserve to be.
We owe them nothing less.