Social Work Research Findings No. 34Fostering Good Relations: A Study of Foster Care and Foster Carers in Scotland
John Triseliotis, Moira Borland and Malcolm Hil
|The findings reported here draw together findings from a two-stage study on foster care. The first stage focused on the characteristics and circumstances of foster carers and the second on the organisation and structure of fostering services. The study involved postal surveys, interviews and a census. It was carried out in 1996 and 1997.|
- The study found a low average annual loss of carers - 7% of the total number of carers in Scotland for the period 1 April 1996 to 31 March 1997.
- New carers recruited exceeded losses by 6% during the same period.
- A third of the children referred for fostering over a six-week period remained unplaced.
- As a result of overall carer shortages, matching was often supply led rather than needs led. Except for those children requiring long-term placement, the assessment and matching of children was piecemeal.
- The approach to recruitment of foster carers was largely unsystematic. It lacked a long-term strategy, informed targeting and a marketing approach.
- There was considerable dissatisfaction amongst carers about the levels of support to the children and themselves, including frequency of visits from, and availability of, social workers.
- The fostering service's profile was found to be generally low within local authorities, adversely affecting policy development and resourcing. Emerging fostering policy tended to be ad hoc and lacked long-term planning.
- The fostering service is generally divided between area childcare social work teams and teams of family placement workers. Agencies and foster carers reported that placement workers generally had more satisfactory fostering knowledge and skills than childcare social workers.
In recent years concern has often been expressed that there is a looming crisis in foster care as a result of difficulties in recruiting and retaining carers. Prompted by these concerns, a study was undertaken in 1996 and 1997 with the main aims of surveying current and past carers on a range of issues and identifying the policies and service delivery systems of the 32 unitary local authority agencies.
Fostering Good Relations: A Study of Foster Care and Foster Carers in Scotland: An Interim Report of a Survey of Foster Carers (Triseliotis, Borland and Hill, 1998) sets out the results of the first phase of the study. The report describes the carers' characteristics and circumstances, their experiences of fostering, their working relationships with the fostering services, and why some of them cease to foster.
Fostering Good Relations: A Study of Foster Care and Foster Carers in Scotland, (Triseliotis, Borland and Hill, 1999) draws together the interim findings with the findings from the second phase of the study. The second phase concentrated on the organisation and structure of the fostering services; policies; recruitment; the roles of key personnel; the assessment and matching of children; team work with carers; financial issues; and the setting up of quality assurance and quality control systems. It included a postal survey of all 32 local authority agencies; interviews with placement service and senior childcare managers in all authorities; a study of relevant policy documents; and a census of the supply and demand for placements over a six-week period. All fieldwork was conducted in 1997.
Structures and organisation
In 82% of the agencies the delivery of the fostering service was divided between area childcare social work teams and teams of placement or link workers. (Area childcare team social workers mainly carry case responsibility for the child and the child's family. Placement workers, who are also trained social workers, are appointed by agencies to act, among other things, as support workers to foster carers.) Three-quarters of the agencies maintained a clear division between the social work case responsibility for the child and the child's family, and foster carer support. These two parts of the service were often managed and located separately.
In three-fifths of the agencies the organisation of the fostering service was changing or under review, partly as a response to local authority re-organisation and the introduction of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
Fostering policy and strategy
According to many agency managers, the profile of fostering within many local authorities was low, adversely affecting policy development and resourcing. The researchers found few fostering policy and long-term strategy documents. Managers suggested that the absence of suitable management information systems was hampering strategic planning. Staff and carer manuals detailing guidelines and procedures were, in most authorities, still being prepared.
The general agency view was that serious resource limitations result in the maintenance of existing levels of service. Resource constraints did not allow shortcomings and gaps in services identified by carers and service managers to be addressed. Managers reported a tension between a concentration of resources on child protection and efforts to keep as many children as possible in foster care rather than residential care.
In the last six months of the study almost half the agencies had run a recruitment campaign with placement workers taking most of the responsibility for campaigns. In around half the agencies formal campaigns were reported to have been delayed by budgetary constraints and the non-availability of experienced staff. Managers had mixed views of the value of campaigns. Some of those who viewed them negatively did so because of their unfulfilled expectations of 'instant' results.
The study did not find a single blueprint for a successful recruitment campaign. However, several of the more successful agencies based their campaigns on:
- a good knowledge of their area and their agencies' fostering needs;
- working closely with experienced carers;
- having in place a well-organised system for responding to enquiries;
- involving children's social workers and their managers;
- using the local media;
- maintaining continuity of recruitment campaigns.
The study concluded that much effort went into recruitment but that the approach was often unsystematic. Recruitment lacked long-term policy direction, clear targeting and a marketing approach. In particular there was some uncertainty about how to recruit for an ethnically diverse service.
The study found that most current carers were positive about the response they had received to their initial enquiries and about the assessment and preparation process. Their major criticisms were of delays and of not enough use being made of experienced carers in the various recruitment and support processes. Agreement was found among managers that some agencies' campaigns were not always well co-ordinated.
Supply and demand
The survey found a low average annual loss of carers -
7% of the total number of carers in Scotland for the period 1 April 1996 to 31 March 1997. New carers recruited exceeded losses by 6% during the same period.
The survey found that on average, one in 938 households in Scotland foster children. However, wide variations were found to exist between agencies in the proportion of carers they recruit relative to all the households in their area. Variations were also found in the proportion of children they have in foster care relative to all looked after children in their area.
Areas with the highest levels of childcare needs experienced the most serious shortages of carers. Nationally, almost 1000 children were referred for placement during the six-week census period in September and October 1997, with 55% referred as emergencies. Two-fifths were members of sibling groups. No placements could be found for almost a third of all referrals. Children most likely to remain unplaced or go to placements which were not first choice included: ethnic minority children; children requiring long-term placements; children who offend; children with disabilities; those displaying behavioural and emotional problems; older children.
Children's social workers and placement workers
There was considerable dissatisfaction amongst carers about the levels of support for the children and themselves, including frequency of visits from, and availability of, social workers. Most carers said they required support and consultation on how to manage the following key areas:
- the integration of the children in their families;
- the children's behaviours;
- contact between the children and their families;
- the children's activities;
- outside agencies;
- and the conditions of their service.
However, managers reported a lack of clarity about who supports carers in these areas, who carries overall responsibility for the placement, and line manager and supervisors. There was also uncertainty about the nature of the supervisory role.
Over one-third of managers noted tensions and gaps in co-ordination and communication between area childcare teams and the placement service, and between carers' and children's social workers. Both managers and carers commented on a lack of fostering expertise on the part of many social workers. Generally, placement workers were viewed as having more satisfactory fostering knowledge and skills than childcare social workers. Managers reported a higher turnover of childcare social workers compared to placement workers.
Assessment and matching
On the whole, agencies lacked clear standards, guidelines and procedures for the assessment and matching of children. Placements were mostly determined by the supply of carers rather than the needs of the children. Matching was also hampered by poor quality reports and poor communication between placement workers and childcare teams. Only half the managers were satisfied with the quality of assessment reports. More attention was paid to matching for children requiring long-term placement than other children.
Seven out of 10 agencies had no guidance for staff on the preparation of children for placement or on the preparation of carers before a child arrived. There was no clear policy or agreement on how much information agencies should share with carers on the children's background and circumstances.
The agencies' financial arrangements received least approval relative to other aspects of the fostering service from both carers and many managers. Whilst almost all the agencies paid the basic fostering allowance based on the NFCA's recommended figures, serious problems remain in relation to:
- levels and uniformity of payments for the services provided by carers;
- policies and practices about individual grants, including insurance;
- clarity about entitlements;
- efficiency with payments.
Carers paid a fee were more likely than the other carers to support a salaried service; be satisfied with the operation of the fostering service; see benefits for children to have contact with their parents; and attend training and support groups.
Little evidence was found to suggest that agencies were moving towards responding to the financial expectations and aspirations of their carers.
Carer reviews and monitoring systems
The majority of agencies were still in the process of setting up quality assurance and quality control systems in line with new legislation. So far there has been no systematic approach to:
- setting up specific agreements with carers;
- reviewing carers and the ending of placements;
- eliciting the stakeholders' views of the service.
Managers commented that the absence of suitable information technology systems was hampering the formal monitoring and evaluation of the service.
The study did not find any significant differences between the views of agencies and foster carers involved concerning the strengths and limitations of the service. The delivery of fostering services was found to be fairly consistent across all local authorities in Scotland. The main strengths of the service were found in the commitment of its carers, the low annual loss of carers, and its placement worker system. The limitations of the service were found to include resource constraints, low profile of the service within local authorities, a lack of policy direction, split and weak management and service delivery, and unsatisfactory financial arrangements for carers.
The study points towards the need for the integration of all fostering activities and placement services under a single management and delivery structure with built-in monitoring systems. It also suggests the need for a review of the level of support provided to children and their carers, and the financial arrangements for carers.
The study was conducted by Professor John Triseliotis of the University of Strathclyde, Moira Borland, Senior Research Fellow and Professor Malcolm Hill from the Centre for the Child and Society at the University of Glasgow. It was funded by the Scottish Executive
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