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Guidance on Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulations 2009 and the Adoption and Children (Scotland) Act 2007

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PART VI FOSTERING PANELS, REGULATIONS 17 TO 20

References to local authorities and their duties in the guidance for Parts VI, VII and VIII include references to registered fostering providers, unless the reference relates directly to those local authorities' looked after duties which cannot be delegated. Regulation 48(2) lists the functions which local authorities may delegate to registered fostering services and fostering panels under Part VI are included in these.

Establishing the panel

Regulation 17 requires each local authority to appoint a panel, to be known as the "fostering panel", to carry out the functions listed in regulation 20. In large authorities, it may be necessary to appoint sufficient people to the fostering panel to have a suitable pool of members to service more than one sub-panel, each of which should conform to the requirements about meetings in regulation 18.

Regulation 17 requires each fostering panel to consist of at least six members, while regulation 18 sets the quorum for individual meetings of the panel at three people at least. Where the amount of business being referred to the panel means that more than one sub-group of panel members is needed, the overall group should be sufficient to cover this, and also provide some stability of membership within different individual panels. It is good practice for all panels to have regular planned business meetings to review their overall functioning. This will be particularly important in larger authorities, to ensure consistency across different sub-panels. The setting of the quorum for individual meetings of the panel at three is a minimum, and it is expected that authorities will monitor the functioning of their panels to ensure they include enough people with experience and a range of backgrounds to provide robust and independent scrutiny of the business presented.

For very small authorities, there is an option provided in regulation 17(3) for any two or more local authorities to establish a panel jointly, to be known as a "joint foster panel". Where this may be under consideration, careful planning and monitoring will be required to ensure that the authorities involved have a clear shared understanding of all the statutory requirements and have compatible approaches to the matters listed in the paragraph below.

All local authorities should consider the following matters in the establishment and maintenance of their fostering panels:

  • professional support to the panel;
  • monitoring the quality of reports and presentations to the panel;
  • independence and objectivity of the panel;
  • procedures underpinning the functioning of the panel, including administrative support;
  • recruitment, appointment, induction and training for panel members;
  • decision making processes following panel recommendations;
  • dealing with complaints and appeals.

It is a duty on local authorities in regulation 17(5) to satisfy itself about the numbers, qualifications and experience of individual panel members. Attention should be paid to potential sources of fostering panel members, to ensure:

  • their understanding of the fostering task;
  • the range of different experience that would provide an informed, objective and independent group and reflect the diversity of the community within which the service is delivered;
  • the different consumers of the service; and
  • the aims and aspirations of the fostering service.

The panel should have a gender balance and individual panel members should be aware of equality and diversity issues. Issues of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, family structure and disability may all emerge in relation to both those who wish to foster and to the children and families using the fostering service.

The panel may be drawn from: staff within the social work service especially from those with relevant experience of foster care and children who be fostered; other parts of the local authority such as education and housing; existing experienced carers; adults who have experienced the care system, especially through foster care; other outside organisations relevant to the task; councillors or other community representatives; and independent individuals with relevant professional or specialist experience or knowledge.

Some authorities choose to have some or all of the membership of their adoption and fostering panels in common. This is acceptable, provided that their roles and functions are distinguished and that the recommendations of each panel are minuted separately.

The person within the local authority with responsibility for managing the foster panel should consider:

  • procedures for recruiting and appointing panel members;
  • information for potential panel members;
  • job descriptions and person specifications;
  • expectations of members, including attendance and confidentiality;
  • appropriate contracts and length of service;
  • review and appraisal of panel members;
  • induction and training;
  • monitoring panel performance, including complaints;
  • provision for remuneration of panel members.

Limited advertising to voluntary and community groups, followed by an interview and induction process, can bring forward effective panel members who were not previously known to the fostering service. This will reduce the possibility of the panel becoming unrepresentative and also underline its independence.

The terms of appointment should be provided in writing to panel members, including the duty of confidentiality, and they should sign their agreement. Time-limited appointment, for say two or three years, can be helpful, although the option of renewing the appointment of panel members should be retained. Not all panel members should rotate off the panel at once, because there is a need for consistency and continuity of expertise. The local authority should decide by whom the panel members are formally recruited, appointed and re-appointed. Fostering panel members should have induction, briefing and in-service training.

Particular roles

Chairperson

Each Fostering Panel should have a chairperson with considerable child placement knowledge and experience in chairing meetings. This person should be independent of any management responsibility for cases presented to the panel. This may be through the appointment of a chairperson external to the local authority or someone from another part of the local authority with relevant experience. Where an external appointment is made, there should be a written contract in place detailing the expectations both of the chairperson and the local authority, and terms and conditions. This should include length of appointment, remuneration and means of handling any difficulties that may arise. Provision should be made for a depute chairperson.

Medical Advisers

Regulation 19 requires the local authority to appoint "such number" of registered medical practitioners as they consider necessary to provide them with medical advice in connection with the exercise of their functions. A similar requirement relates to medical advice to adoption panels. In addition, the local authority will have a range of responsibilities in relation to the health of looked after children. The role of medical adviser to the panel is therefore one part of a wider contracting with colleagues within the Health Service. Such arrangements should be based on a clear understanding of the local authority's expectations of this role, and the time commitment involved.

The medical advisers' principal role in relation to the fostering panel is to look at the completed medical information received from the general practitioner for each applicant to foster, to interpret any relevant issues for the panel and to provide advice on these. Complex situations may need significant follow-up prior to the panel meeting, with the GP, any consultants involved and also involve research into the latest information on a wide range of medical issues. Large authorities with more than one medical adviser may wish to have medical advisers who, between them, cover a spread of experience of paediatric and adult medicine. Some of the medical concerns that arise in applications may be controversial and sometimes may lead to appeal if the acceptance of an application is not recommended by the panel. Examples of these include lifestyle issues such as obesity or smoking, and attitudes towards mental health episodes in an applicant's background.

Legal Advisers

Regulation 19 also makes provision for the appointment of legal advisers, but this is not mandatory. Local authorities have legal services and they may provide legal advice on fostering issues with or without there being a specific legal adviser to the panel. Registered fostering services which do not have a dedicated legal service need to decide whether they appoint a legal adviser to their panel.

The extent of the need for a legal adviser to the fostering panel will depend on the use the local authority are likely to make of the panel in questions of planning for children, and possibly in relation to kinship care situations, if the fostering panel is to be involved in these. The most direct role for the legal adviser is in the plans for children. Where adoption or permanence is planned for children, these matters will be dealt with by the panel appointed under Adoption Agencies (Scotland) Regulations 2009.

Where applicants to adopt or foster are not approved there will be similar issues about rights to a review of the decision. The fostering panel should be able to draw on legal advice in such circumstances.

Any legal adviser appointed must be a qualified solicitor who is a member of, and has a current practising certificate, from the Law Society of Scotland, or a practising member of the Faculty of Advocates (regulation 19(4) and (5)).

Administrative support

Each panel must make a written record of its proceedings and the reasons for its recommendations. This is a skilled administrative task and the minute taker should be an additional person attending the panel for that purpose. The minutes are crucial for the local authority's decisions after panel recommendations. In the event of an appeal, the minute will form part of the evidence of the process.

The ability to take minutes should be included in the job specification of any administrative personnel who may take on that role; and appropriate time, training and support offered to enable them to fulfil the task. It is important that any minute taker has some advance knowledge of the context of the work of the fostering panel. Normally, this is initially through working in a relevant section of the local authority. Where possible, this should be supplemented by training on the role of the panel, the purpose of its discussions and what needs to be conveyed to the agency decision maker, to underpin the agency decision about the case. They also need to be aware of the timescales governing decision making following panel recommendations, in regulations 22 and 26.

Panel functioning

Regulations cover the appointment and composition of the panel. In order for the panel to function effectively, it needs to be supported by structures within the local authority. This requires:

(a) efficient administrative support to manage the practical arrangements for the meeting; organise timings and attendance; gather, copy and circulate papers; ensure minutes are completed, signed by the chairperson and reach the agency decision maker within the required time; and keep well ordered records of all the cases considered.

(b) professional support:

  • to have an overview of the adequacy of the reports submitted to the panel;
  • to pick up, prior to the panel meeting, any professional issues which need to be addressed if the panel is to be able to carry out its role or issues which could indicate a need to postpone a panel;
  • to alert the chairperson to any sensitive or complex issues;
  • to pick up any professional agency issues following panel meetings, as appropriate;
  • to review any panel monitoring that is carried out, and bring any comments from those attending panels to members at business sessions.

Large authorities may be able to appoint a panel adviser, or have this as a recognised part of a job description with appropriate time allowed for the tasks. Where the functions need to be shared across different managers or supervisors, their responsibilities need to be clear. In all cases, line managers of those presenting matters to panel need to be clear about the panel's requirements.

Decision making

The fostering panel recommendations are made to the local authority, which must make the decision. This responsibility is normally delegated to a senior manager with child care experience, who is designated the agency decision maker (" ADM"). Agencies should consider appointing more than one agency decision maker, to cover, holidays, illness, alternatives for review (appeal) panels and other circumstances.

Both at the panel recommendation stage, and when the reports and minutes of the panel go the agency decision maker, there is a three-fold task: firstly, considering whether a prospective foster carer is suitable to be a foster carer to a child who is looked after; secondly, whether he or she would be a suitable carer for a particular child, any child or certain categories of child; and thirdly, the maximum number of children a particular foster carer may have placed with him or her at any one time.

Consideration of cases

There is no question about the importance of authorities ensuring that all reasonable checks are made, so that applicants can offer safe care to a child. Knowledge of the wide range of challenges presented by children who are looked after and the skills required of foster carers is growing continually, and all prospective carers will have been prepared and assessed with this in mind. There is therefore an increasing emphasis on the need for the assessment of prospective foster carers, to evidence their capacity to provide reparative care. It is the panel responsibility to ensure the quality of the process leading to the presentation of the applicants to panel.

There may be agreement about the potential of new foster carers to embark on the task, but tensions can arise between the perceived need for the local authority to have flexibility in using foster carers, and concern about the risks of 'overload' if there are no clear parameters about what carers can be asked to take on. It is unlikely that foster carers will be given completely open approval for any child for any duration. At both the approval stage and in relation to reviews, the foster panel has a responsibility to consider the remit and terms of approval of all foster carers. In considering the limits of the categories of children and maximum numbers who could be placed with carers, agencies should consider the following matters.

A. For new carers

  • The impact on new foster carers especially of the demands of 24 hour care for children, and the growing body of information about secondary stress on carers.
  • The need for new carers to have space to grow, reflect on their initial experiences and learn to manage the multiple tasks of fostering.
  • Sensitivity to the impact of fostering on the children already in the family, and the need to support them in adjusting to this change to their family life in a way which helps them participate positively.

During preparation and assessment, prospective foster carers frequently start with thinking about categories of children where they have some experience and confidence. The reality of the needs of looked after children can initially challenge this. Someone who has a talent with babies may not have direct experience of the demands of an infant with neo-natal abstinence effects or helping a mother with learning difficulties manage basic parenting skills with contact 5 days a week. Someone who is stimulated by helping troubled teenagers through youth work may find it works differently when offering full-time care in his or her own home. New carers need time to grow into the reality of the role.

It also takes time for new foster carers to become familiar with the structures within which fostering occurs, and the aspects of the task not directly involved with caring for children, such as record keeping, contributing to meetings, and communicating with a whole range of social workers and other professionals.

B. For all carers

  • The positive reasons for the choice of foster care rather than residential care for children and the benefits from individualised personal care within a small family unit.
  • Practical considerations in a family home in providing privacy and personal space, with carefully restricted use of sharing bedrooms, especially where there may be many unknowns about a child who has just become looked after.
  • The increasing expectations of carers in providing compensatory care, addressing educational, social, behavioural and lifestyle deficits.
  • Awareness of the emotional impact of separation on children, frequently superimposed on experiences of neglect and abuse; and the long lasting emotional effects of this creating increasing expectations of the level of work carried out by foster carers.
  • For children with chaotic backgrounds, the need to model a different type of family life and offer a sense of security and safe control.
  • The complexity of contact arrangements for different children and the time needed not only to manage these but also to handle the effects on children before and after the contact.

In reaching a recommendation, the panel must be mindful both of the purpose of foster care for looked after children, what it seeks to achieve, and also the need to sustain a positive enthusiastic pool of foster carers who feel well supported and have a sense of what they are achieving for children. Further guidance about the functions of the panel and its role in the approval process is given under

The primary role of the panel is in respect of the approval of foster carers under regulation 22 and reviews under regulations 25 and 26. The role of a panel may be extended to include consideration, advice and recommendations in relation to decisions by the local authority other than approval and review of foster carers, such as linking and placement or consideration of possible applications by foster carers for residence orders