Thank you Gillian. [Professor Gillian Schofield, Head of the School of Social Work, Centre for Research on Children and Families, University of East Anglia]
It’s a real pleasure to be here to have the opportunity to talk to you about the work we’re doing to improve permanence for all children in care, and ensure those returning home to their families do so safely and successfully.
Now, as some of you are aware my family has fostered for many years, 30 years in fact.
And so I feel sufficiently qualified, almost as qualified as Gillian, to say that I understand the vital role foster families play in offering much-needed stability to some of our most vulnerable children.
That’s why today, I want to talk to you about our response to the improving permanence consultation, an important, detailed and multi-faceted piece of work that many of you here have made a valuable contribution.
Firstly, we’re announcing changes to the law to include a legal definition of long-term foster care.
And we expect this to yield big results.
I want to see local authorities make a proactive choice that where it is absolutely right for the child; they should go into long-term foster care and be provided with support.
And if we do get this right, those children will experience a loving, stable family, where they can develop a sense of identity and thrive.
Take David, for example, who came to live with us when I was 6.
Unlike my adopted brothers, Oliver and Henry, adoption just wasn’t the right course for David. But he was as big a part of our family as anyone. He knew his mother was involved in dangerous drug taking and domestic violence and it was important for him to know she was safe and stable. He also had a half-brother who lived with us for a year or so, but who then went to live with his nan and granddad. David needed regular contact with his half-brother and mother to help meet his emotional needs and remove any sense of abandonment.
David stayed with us until he was 19 and still visits regularly with his own children.
And he‘s just one example of where long-term foster care met his specific needs and provided that all important stability - and we know there are other children like him.
The stability of long-term foster care
The latest figures show that more than 6,000 children aged between 5 and 18 had been in the same foster placement for more than 5 years.
That is 17% of all fostered children in that age range.
And I’m confident that with a new legal definition for long-term foster care, more local authorities will be encouraged to do what the best do already, and develop robust assessment, planning, support and review processes that reflect the long-term commitment families have made to these children.
I already expect foster carers to be able to make day-to-day decisions about the children they look after.
They should be able to decide on whether their child goes on a school trip or to a sleepover. Those ordinary decisions all parents make.
But there’s still a way to go before we see the culture shift we need to see.
And so last year, we introduced the requirement for all councils to clearly set out the way they approach delegated authority.
Over the summer, we contacted 51 councils to ask about progress on these policies.
Almost half responded, but only 18 already had a policy in place, and I understand 2 others were getting ready to publish one.
I’m afraid this simply isn’t good enough. We can and must do better. So I urge local authorities that haven’t responded to do so as soon as possible.
We really must work on bringing in that culture shift if we’re going to make a difference in the lives of these children. It’s what children in care tell me all the time - they just want a normal family life, and properly setting out delegated authority to foster carers helps make that happen.
I want to see long-term foster carers much more involved in making the important decisions - where their child goes to school, for example.
That’s why we’re making sure delegated authority is addressed at every review, and that children, their carers, parents and social workers are part of the ongoing discussion.
But that’s not all.
We want to go even further by reducing the minimum requirement for social work visits to children in settled, long-term arrangements.
As I’ve said, we know that some children want to get on with family life - within their foster family - without unnecessary interruptions.
So, we’re proposing that when a child is in long-term foster care, social workers need to look more carefully at how many visits are needed.
Decisions about these visits should, of course, meet the child’s particular needs as part of the care planning and safeguarding process.
But while long-term fostering is the right route for some children, we need to get permanence right for all children in the care system.
That means making sure there’s a range of high-quality placements available.
It means robust assessments of a child’s needs early on, so they get the best placement for them and the best possible chance of permanence, whether that’s through adoption, care within the wider family, or returning home to their birth parents.
And the measures I’m announcing today and set out in our government response on long-term foster care, and return home from care, aim to do just that - promoting permanence, security, stability and support lasting relationships.
Other routes to permanence
Over the last 3 years, we’ve driven forward significant reforms for adoption. And it’s right that we do that, so more children find a loving home for good.
But children returning home to their families are the biggest group leaving care - almost 30,000 children every year.
Yet these children are also the most likely to re-enter care, because they have had bad experiences, or worse, experienced further abuse or neglect.
And so we should have a sharper focus on improving outcomes for this particular group of children.
Too often, we hear people talk about the ‘revolving door of care,’ where children bounce between care and home without ever having their needs properly assessed, and without the opportunity to experience a stable, loving family - something many of us take for granted.
I know that this is as unacceptable to you as it is to me.
And it’s why we are working hard to get behind the statistics and address the fundamental issues affecting these children.
Last year we published detailed data on children returning home to allow local authorities to look at how well they are supporting them.
But this is a large and complex group - many of whom return home as a result of a decision by the child or their family.
So we need to get behind the numbers. We need a better understanding of how and why these children are returning home from care.
That’s why since April we’ve been asking local authorities to record additional data, so we can see where a child’s return home was planned by the local authority.
This will help us understand what really needs to change.
But data is only part of the picture.
As part of our consultation response, we will also strengthen the legislation and guidance for this group of children and their families.
We know that robust assessment is key to good decision making and so we will be requiring local authorities to properly assess cases before deciding whether a child should return home.
This will challenge them to make sure every rigour and effort is made to ensure that it is the right decision for that child.
It’s vital we get this right.
That’s why we’re also announcing that if a child has been looked after long enough to trigger a review of their care plan, then a nominated officer must sign off a decision to return that child home.
We’re also making it even clearer what is expected for children when they return home.
And by changing practice on the front line we can further help bring about real change.
Supporting social workers in making their professional judgement will make a real difference to these children and their families.
And so we are also supporting the development and sharing of good practice for social workers when it comes to returning children home to their families.
At the end of last year, we commissioned the National Children’s Bureau and the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University, to deliver a research project working with social workers in 8 areas across England.
We want to better understand what works and what barriers need to be overcome when it comes to returns home from care.
This is complemented by research being carried out by the NSPCC and the University of Bristol - looking at how well a particular model of support is working for children returning to their families.
And I look forward to telling you more about their findings next year.
We’ve also been looking at how multisystemic therapy can support young people when they move on from care, and help them find their feet.
We can see, for example, an adaptation of this therapy being used in America for teenagers in custody, who then move on, either to home or to a stable care placement.
We’ve been working closely with Dr Eric Trupin at Washington State University on how this adaptation - MST family integrated transitions - might translate to children leaving care in England.
It’s early days, but we’ll soon be working with a group of local authorities across England to look into this encouraging approach.
And so, we must all work together to improve outcomes for these children. Our response to the improving permanence consultation is an important milestone, but it is by no means the end of the work that needs to be done.
We’re looking at the data provided by local councils - and also looking at the story behind those figures.
We’re changing frameworks and promoting best practice.
We will continue to work with our expert group, Ofsted and others who have a role to play.
And I’m confident that our work will lead to better practice and better results for children.
But the proof will be in the changes these make on the ground.
And like you, I will not stop until we get this right.
As I’m sure you’ll agree, our focus must be on achieving the right placement for every child - better stability early on, and better outcomes for life.
In my own family, for Oliver and Henry, it was achieved through adoption, for David it was in a long-term foster care placement, and for other children, it will be a planned, supported return home or to their wider family.
Whatever the right placement is, we know better than ever what we need to do to make it work, so let’s use this collective commitment to improving permanence for children in care, together with the clearer, stronger law, guidance and practice I’m announcing today, to do just that.