Date: 9 August 2022
CoramBAAF recently held an Exploring Expertise webinar ‘Square Peg in a Round Hole’ that was co-facilitated by Alexandra Conroy-Harris, CoramBAAF’s Legal Consultant and myself. This explored the legal and regulatory context of the assessment of kinship foster carers, many of whom don’t choose to be foster carers but are required to by law to enable them to care for a child in their family who would otherwise move to unrelated foster carers. The session explored the difficulties many local authorities have in approving kinship carers as foster carers in the timescales required. When these timescales are not met, the ‘placement’ of the child who is in the care of the local authority and living with their kin, becomes unlawful.
Kinship carers are motivated by love, commitment and sometimes a sense of family or cultural duty. Their decision to care for a child is often made at times of family crisis, triggering heightened stress and anxiety, with little planning or preparation time. They have not made a proactive choice to become a foster carer or adopter, but find themselves in a situation, not of their own choosing or planning, but wishing to safeguard a child that they love. Within this context, imposing on them the burden and responsibility of being assessed as a professional foster carer is not a good match. Neither is the language of ‘placement’ and ‘connected persons’. It is no surprise that many ‘placements’ become unlawful. When we step away from the indisputable facts of what the law says, we are left with a complicated tangle of ethical and practice dilemmas.
In some situations, the challenges of approving kinship carers as foster carers are a consequence of robust risk assessment that sadly concludes a child cannot safely live with their kin. Social work assessment practice can be a finely balanced exercise and some families do pose too great a risk for social workers and the Court to feel confident that a child’s needs can be safely prioritised, even with targeted support. However in many situations, the challenges of the approval process for kinship carers speak more to the limitations of the law and regulations within kinship practice, than to the ‘suitability’ of them to care for a particular child. The requirement to assess them against ‘professional standards’ originally written for unrelated foster carers, creates inherent challenges and dilemmas for professionals, given the context of kinship care.
During the Exploring Expertise session, Alexandra set out the legislation that regulates the temporary and full approval of kinship foster carers. Helpfully, she also set out the potential legal solutions to remedy or avoid unlawful ‘placements’. We discussed the actions that local authorities need to consider if they still unavoidably find themselves with a child living in an unlawful ‘placement’ and how to ensure that both the child and carers are receiving the support they need, and that the arrangement is being reviewed. I set out the need for all members of Fostering Panels to receive training in relation to kinship care. The approval of kinship carers has not always been their core business and therefore many panel members need to deepen their understanding of the context of kinship care. Any training should include why we are ethically and legally required to prioritise the pre-existing relationship between the child and a kinship carer when it is safe to do so. This would hopefully enable Panel members to feel more confident and comfortable in applying the flex that does exist in the system to approve kinship carers as a specific match for a child they already know and love. CoramBAAF provides such training for panels.
I also recommended that Fostering Panels have kinship carers sitting as independent members, to ensure representation, in the same way Panels have adopters and unrelated foster carers as standard. We discussed the need for all assessments of kinship carers being presented to Panel to include a robust support plan, which articulates how any risks and vulnerabilities can be mitigated against. Kinship carers’ support needs may be wide ranging, but it is the local authority’s responsibility to support kinship carers’ to meet National Minimum Standards rather than use the Standards as a benchmark to not approve.
Alexandra and I will be capturing all the advice and guidance discussed in a Practice Note to be published in the autumn. CoramBAAF will also continue to set out our ideas for a much needed discreet legal framework for kinship care. For now, however, the challenges of approving kinship carers as foster carers will continue.
Keep an eye out on the website and in newsletters for information about the Practice Note when it is published. And watch this space, for a future blog ‘Square Peg in a Round hole – Part 2’ where I will ponder over where kinship social work practice sits in the wider social work system.
Ann Horne, Kinship Care Consultant, CoramBAAF