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

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Chapter 10 - Recruitment of Foster Carers and the Fostering Panel

Relevant Regulations 17, 18, 19 20

References to local authorities and their duties in the guidance for Parts VI, VII, VIIIand Xinclude references 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 under Part VII are included in these.

In this chapter:

1. Introduction: The Responsibilities of Local Authorities and Registered Fostering Providers
2. Recruitment of Foster Carers
3. Establishing a Fostering Panel
4. Specific Roles in the Fostering Panel
5. Panel Functioning
6. Consideration of Cases by the Fostering Panel
7. Decision Making

1. Introduction: the responsibilities of Local Authorities and registered fostering providers.

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.

Regulations governing the fostering service are in Parts VI, VII and VIII and XIII, with Schedules 3,4,6 and 7. These cover the fostering panel, the approval, review and placement with foster carers; fostering allowances; and arrangements with registered fostering services. Other regulations are also relevant. These are all in the context of the recognition of the role of foster care in the provision of services to looked after children who require to be placed by local authorities, and the need to ensure an active programme to recruit and sustain sufficient foster care resources.

Fostering is one of the services which local authorities provide directly, or commission from a registered fostering service, to provide for children who are looked after and placed by them. The number and range of children who are fostered in Scotland has grown steadily. It is the primary means of care for children under 12 who are placed away from home; and also provides care for adolescents who have either remained long-term in foster care or for whom it is the first choice when separation from their parents and kinship network is necessary. Specialist carers also provide short breaks for children with disabilities. Fostering therefore requires a range of well prepared and supported skilled carers for a diverse group of children.

Children's Services Plans should clearly state the role of foster care within each local authority area, the patterns of use and demand for such services and how the local authority intends to meet that demand. This should include any planned use of registered fostering services, the arrangements for this are covered in Part XIII of the regulations.

2. Recruitment of Foster Carers

The planned development of fostering services should identify the numbers and range of placements likely to be needed, and publicity campaigns should target the full range of people who may be able to provide these placements. Whilst some prospective foster carers will approach an agency directly to offer their services, publicity will be required to attract others. Particular groups may be under-represented amongst foster carers and this could indicate that they are not aware they are eligible to foster, or not aware there may be a need for their services. This may be because of their family structure, background or some misperception of agency criteria. Efforts have been made to encourage groups such as single carers, those on low incomes and potential carers from different religious and ethnic origins to apply. This needs to be backed up by informed and welcoming procedures and careful consideration of how to make best use of such resources.

Previous regulations required that the local authority could only make a foster placement place with a man and a woman living and acting jointly together; or a man or a woman living and acting alone". There is no such restriction on foster placements in the Looked After Children (Scotland) Regulation 2009. This means that an assessment may be carried out on applicants, regardless of their family structure, and so includes single applicants, married couples or those in a civil partnership and cohabiting couples. This is subject to applicants' understanding of the tasks, any particular requirements relating to these, such as the need for a full time home based carer for certain specialist schemes, and awareness of the full assessment, preparation and checking procedures.

Publicity should provide a clear picture of the characteristics of children needing foster homes, what the fostering task will entail for the prospective carers, and an indication of the payment, support and training they will receive. Recruitment should be planned and regular. It is most likely to be effective when it draws on the three levels of:

  • general, educative information across the UK and Scotland, through country-wide bodies such as BAAF and t FN, government initiatives and the use of national media;
  • co-ordinated efforts across groups of agencies with compatible needs and aims, for example, through local consortia;
  • focused recruitment by individual agencies.

All inquirers should receive a speedy, informative and welcoming response so that their interest is maintained. Even where the inquirer's preferences do not meet the immediate needs or requirements of the service, some may be prepared to consider a different kind of fostering, or adoption, or an alternative to fostering such as befriending schemes, youth clubs or out of school schemes. The agency which receives an initial enquiry which does not fit the agency's requirements at that time, should offer the enquirer details of other local authorities or registered providers who may be able to progress the application.

Further information can be found in Moving Forward in Kinship and Foster Care, 2009.

3. Establishing a Fostering 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. It should be emphasised that 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, including their responsibilities when commissioning such services from registered fostering agencies.

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 and
  • 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 experiences that would provide an informed, objective and independent group and reflect the diversity of the community within which the service is delivered;
  • the different users and stakeholders of the service; and
  • the aims and objectives 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 have been 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 fostering 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 and;
  • 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.

4. Specific Roles in the Fostering Panel

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 deputy 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.

Access to legal advice may greatly assist the panel when it is considering recommendations about the approval or termination of approval of foster carers.

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. It is important that a clear process exists for the production/scrutiny/approval of minutes and who has access to these.

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.

5. 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.

6. Consideration of cases by the Fostering Panel

In considering 'suitability to foster', the panel must be satisfied that all reasonable checks have been made to ensure the safety of any children placed, and that there is sufficient evidence that the applicants understand the fostering task and have the potential to meet its demands. The twin guiding principles must be:

  • firstly, that the fostering service, in the form of its foster carers, can offer care that meets the needs of looked after children and encourage their well-being; and
  • secondly, that prospective carers recognise the potential impact on themselves and all their family members and can manage this.

The tests for these will be information about the outcomes for children in foster care and the level of retention and satisfaction amongst foster carers. The panel need to keep themselves informed about these matters.

Many local authorities have a combination of mainstream foster carers who can care for a broad range of children; and more focused schemes or identified carers with particular interests or skills, such as those who care for children with disabilities or children with special therapeutic needs, or those who can offer only time limited short breaks. Alongside each assessment report, panels need information about any specific requirements of particular schemes to ensure that recommendations are realistic. This may be about the availability of a full-time home based carer, separate bedrooms or aspects such as wheelchair access. Panels also must be kept up-to-date on any changing local authority policies relating to criteria for approval, such as smoking policy or policies on other lifestyle issues. Such policies may not bar applicants but may restrict the categories of children who may be placed.

The Fostering Panel has an important role in ensuring that the inevitable pressures placed upon local authorities and Registered Fostering Providers do not result in overloading foster carers. The following issues should always be considered in relation to proposed approval terms:

For new carers

  • The impact on new foster carers especially of the demands of 24 hour care for children, and the growing body of research about the impact of secondary stress.
  • 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.

It 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.

For all carers

  • 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 impact of caring for children who have experienced trauma.
  • 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 and monitor the effects on children before and after the contact.

Although 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 fostering panel may be extended to include consideration, advice and recommendations in relation to linking and placement, or consideration of possible applications by foster carers for residence orders.

7. Decision making

Following the panel recommendation to approve applicants or not approve applicants, the local authority must make their decision within 14 days of the panel meeting, regulation 22(3). This decision is made by the agency decision maker, who should be provided with a copy of the panel papers and minutes as soon as possible after the recommendation. Each local authority should have procedures to make sure that these timescales are followed, particularly including the prompt production of the panel minutes. Agencies should consider what procedures they should have for sending a copy of the relevant part of the minutes to the applicants after they have attended the panel.

After the decision is made, the local authority should give notice of it in writing, within 7 days, regulation 22(7). The notice of approval should state the terms of approval. Except where breach of confidence would occur, the reasons for any refusal should be explained. Information concerning the local authority's reconsideration or review processes and the complaints procedure should be included with the written notice. The outcome should also be notified to any professionals who have contributed to the assessment. The letter to the applicants should usually be followed up by a visit from a social worker to ensure that its contents have been understood.

The responsibility for decision making is normally delegated to a senior manager with child care experience. 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.

It is essential that the decision making process consists of a fresh, impartial consideration of the papers presented to the fostering panel, alongside the minutes outlining the key debates and issues raised in the panel's discussions. Decision making should never be regarded merely as a rubberstamping exercise.