Version 2: 7 May 2020 (PDF version)
The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 have amended the relevant sections of the Adoption Agencies Regulations 2005 (AAR), the Fostering Services Regulations 2011(FSR) and the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 (CPPCR).
The coronavirus guidance states that the Department for Education (DfE) has listened to the concerns raised by the sector about the challenges of bringing together panels for matching and approvals, but notes that agencies are utilising technology and holding virtual panels, and the feedback is that these are working well, and they would encourage these to continue where possible.
The guidance sets out that the amendments to the regulations will give agencies flexibility to reduce the quoracy of their panels or use their agency decision-maker to approve matches and approvals without first going to panel when they are unable to hold a full panel due to sickness or other reasons. The coronavirus guidance notes that fostering services may want to bring in more emergency foster carers to help build capacity within their services in case of additional demand during this period, and that the Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011 have been amended so that it is now optional to refer applications for potential foster carers, ongoing suitability assessments of existing foster carers, and any cases where a foster carer is not deemed suitable, to a fostering panel for a recommendation. However, the DfE guidance also recognises that panels can be conducted remotely and that there are examples from around the country of this happening, so they would still expect a panel to be convened (making use of remote meetings and the flexibility provided around panel numbers). Where a panel cannot be convened, approval can take place without a panel, but they would not expect this to be the norm.
Adoption agencies and fostering service providers have therefore been given flexibility to decide whether they refer cases to their adoption or fostering panels, and the minimum number of panel members required to make a recommendation has been reduced to three panel members: a Chair/Vice-Chair, a social worker with three years’ qualification and required experience, and one other independent person.
The guidance from the DfE and earlier guidance from Ofsted has therefore confirmed that there is nothing to prevent agencies holding a virtual panel, and indeed encourages agencies to do this where possible.
Implications for adoption
Regulation 4 of the new regulations sets out that agencies may decide whether to refer the following cases to their adoption panel for a recommendation:
- A relinquished baby for a recommendation that the child “should be placed for adoption”.
- A prospective adopter for a recommendation that they are suitable to adopt – for both domestic and intercountry adoption.
- A prospective adopter for termination of their suitability to adopt following a negative review.
- A match between a child/ren and approved adopters.
Although medical advisers can attend panel meetings as panel members, and we know that adoption panels value the input and advice of a medical adviser, it should be recognised that given the current priorities of the health sector, some medical advisers may not be able to attend a panel meeting at this time. As a result, panels may need to rely on written reports only. See CoramBAAF guidance on adult medical reports in family placement for more information.
Implications for fostering
Regulation 9 of the new regulations sets out that agencies may decide whether to refer the following cases to their fostering panel for a recommendation:
- A prospective foster carer for a recommendation that they are suitable to foster.
- A prospective foster carer who makes written representations to the agency following a qualification determination that they are not suitable to foster.
The requirement under FSR 28(5) to discuss the foster carer’s first annual review at panel has not been amended, but regulation 9(11) states that: ‘a review must, where reasonably practicable, take place not more than a year after approval, and thereafter whenever the fostering service provider considers it necessary’, and so recognises that reviews may not be a priority for fostering services at this time.
Regulation 8(11) has extended the period of temporary approval from 16 to 24 weeks, and the further extension of eight weeks under CPPCR regulation 25 can be agreed by the agency decision-maker, but there has been no amendment to FSR 25(4b), which sets out the need to seek the views of the fostering panel when extending the temporary approval of a connected persons carer.
Decision-making when a case has not been referred to a panel prior to the agency decision-maker decision
If an adoption agency or fostering provider decides not to refer a case or cases to a panel prior to referring the case to the agency decision-maker, they will need to consider what process they would need to put in place and how the agency decision-maker would obtain any additional information they require if they have questions that need to be answered by the social workers responsible for the reports submitted, the medical adviser or the applicants or carers themselves. The DfE coronavirus guidance suggests that the agency adviser would be used to provide quality assurance of the paperwork, and that medical, legal or professional advice can be provided in writing for the agency decision-maker to approve matches and approvals. It also states that a record should be kept of all decision-making.