Chapter 11 The Assessment and Approval of Foster Carers
Relevant Regulations ?
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. (2Regulation 48 ) 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: Information to be gathered during a Foster Carer Assessment
2. Who can apply?
3. Making an Application
4. The Use of Referees and References
5. Medical and Health Issues
6. Staff carrying out the Assessment
7. The Assessment Process
8. The Assessment Format
9. Matters to be covered in the Assessment Report presented to the Fostering Panel
10. Derivative and Dual Approval of Foster Carers
11. Agreements with Approved Foster Carers
1. Information to be gathered during a Foster Carer assessment
(2)Regulation 22 and Schedule 3 cover the information that must be gathered about a prospective carer and presented to the fostering panel when asking for a recommendation for approval. In deciding whether to recommend approval, the panel should receive the information in Schedule 3 and "such other information or observations" as the local authority consider appropriate. Schedule 3 is very much a minimum of what is required and authorities should have a clear process for the preparation and assessment of applicants to foster, and the format for reporting this to the panel.
Schedule 3 contains three broad areas of information:
- a range of factual information that describes the applicants and their lifestyle;
- information about their identity and the details needed for the range of checks and references;
- 'assessment' aspects termed as 'capacity' and 'an analysis of motivation'.
In considering potential foster carers, authorities need a clear understanding of the nature of the fostering task; the needs and challenges of the children who may be placed; and the qualities and skills required to provide them with safe care which promotes development and addresses the deficits of poor or abusive earlier experiences. Each step of the process, from initial expression of interest to approval, must be consistent with the aim of a robust assessment that prepares applicants for the task and provides evidence of their potential to meet its demands.
Authorities should normally aim to complete an assessment within six months of receiving an application. The stage of making an application is therefore an important one. Authorities should have clear procedures about the ways they provide information to potential applicants, enabling them to decide if they wish to proceed to making an application. These procedures should also address the nature of the assessment, general criteria for approval and the checks and references necessary to ensure safe care of children. Authorities may use a combination of general information and an initial interview at this early stage, supporting potential applicants to discuss any personal issues or possible barriers to their application. The aim of these initial discussions is to establish that the applicant has a basic understanding of the fostering task, is applying to undertake a type of fostering that is in demand by the agency and appears not to have a background which would preclude him or her from fostering.
To avoid raising expectations and wasting resources, when there are grounds for believing that health and criminal records may give rise to contentious or problematic issues such checks should be carried out at an early stage, consulting with the fostering panel for advice as appropriate. See also Section 3 of this chapter.
2. Who can apply?
Regulations no longer specify the categories of people with whom a child may be fostered. Applications to foster may come from a wide range of different family structures and many authorities make a point of reflecting this openness in recruiting new carers. This needs to be followed through in all the subsequent stages of assessment, approval and placement of children.
The advantages of family based care can be evidenced in a range of different type of households. In particular, the following characteristics may be seen as desirable in any prospective fostering household:
- positive, respectful relationships between adults;
- appropriate relationships and boundaries between adults and children;
- valuing each individual within the family group;
- containing and managing a whole range of behaviours and emotions within the family unit;
- celebrating, supporting and learning to problem solve together.
Some of the information in Schedule 3 will provide a starting point for an individualised assessment which addresses the core issues of each application. This will apply whether the application is from a married couple who may have children of different ages, co-habiting or reconstituted families, single applicants or same sex couples.
Assessment and Diversity
As well as diverse family structures, valuing diversity also relates to welcoming applications from families from different ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds. Where the applicant is from an ethnic, religious, or cultural minority, or his or her first language is not English, the social worker should be allocated with special regard to this. Expert advice should be sought and, where applicable, an interpreter used. An interpreter should be well prepared by the worker and familiar with the fostering task. The interpreter should be acceptable to the family being assessed, as otherwise they may not be willing to divulge personal information. He or she should not, however, be a member of the applicants' family. It is important in these situations that authorities have given careful thought to the provision of an ongoing service to these applicants, and have considered how they will be used. It will not be helpful to applicants if early expectations are raised, either about the further steps in the process or their active involvement in placements, but which cannot later be fulfilled. This is especially so when there is an expectation of approved foster carers carrying out ongoing tasks for the local authority.
3. Making an application
The application form should be based on Schedule 3 of the regulations and applicants should be made fully aware of the range of checks which will be made. Applicants must have to be asked to complete the application form for Disclosure Scotland for an Enhanced Disclosure check. Applicants need to know about the documents which must be seen as proof of identity to support the application, such as passports, driving licenses, household bills, etc. Disclosure Scotland provide detailed information about the process, including completing the forms and checking the identity of applicants for disclosures. http://www.disclosurescotland.co.uk/The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exclusions and Exceptions) (Scotland) Order 2003, SSI 2003/231, as amended, applies to such checks.
It is also necessary to apply for Disclosure Scotland checks for all other members of the household over 16, and this requires them to complete application forms and produce documents for identification. This is in terms of regulation 22 and Schedule 3, paras 2 and 12, which require authorities to obtain particulars of all adults in the household. In practice, Enhanced Disclosures are the way to obtain this information. Adult means someone who is 16 or over. There may be circumstances in which applicants have shared information about convictions with partners or other members of the household which will require careful consideration.
Any record of convictions should be discussed with applicants. Convictions will not necessarily preclude approval but will require careful consideration of all surrounding circumstances and consultation with senior staff. Authorities and applicants receive a copy of the Enhanced Disclosures, but applicants' ones do not include any additional, non-conviction information. This is provided separately to authorities' recognised counter-signatories. Applicants need to be told about possible restrictions on authorities sharing third party information which emerges from this and other checks, and/or from references.
Local authorities should check their own current and previous records in respect of the applicants and other members of the household. In particular, this is aimed at checking if there is information about any former applications to care for children and whether the outcome was positive or of relevant concern; and also whether there is any information about concerns about the applicants' care of children in the past. Where applicants live in the area of other authorities, information from and the views of the other authorities must be sought. Where there have been previous applications to foster or adopt, the relevant agencies should be consulted. Application forms should gather all the necessary information about previous addresses to facilitate these enquiries and applicants need to be clear about the different checks that will be made.
4. The Use of Referees and References
Schedule 3 also requires the agency to obtain references on the character and suitability of the applicants. The purpose of this is to obtain independent corroboration of the information provided by applicants. Authorities' procedures should indicate the minimum required. This should be no less than two; and it is recommended that normally two references are obtained from people not related to the applicants and a third one, which may be from relatives who have good knowledge of the applicants and may be offering support to them. As practice is developing in this area, individual authorities may expand on this and ensure new applicants know what is required.
Applicants should be given guidance on choosing a spread of referees who:
- have known the applicants for some time;
- between them, have a balanced knowledge of all existing family members;
- may have known them through periods of particular relevance for the assessment, such as former relationships or times of stress;
- will be part of their support network;
- may have information about areas in individual's chronology such as periods abroad when full record checks may not be available; and
- have relevant understanding of the task of fostering.
Best practice requires that contact is made with applicants' former partners especially where relationships involved care of children; and also talking to grown up children living elsewhere. This can be a complex area: social workers carrying out the assessment may need to use their discretion if these individuals cannot be traced or do not respond. Where this arises, reports to panel should include an explanation of the factors taken into account and how workers and their line managers reached a conclusion.
Best practice also requires that contact is made with applicants' employers, including, if appropriate, former employers. This may be particularly relevant when the employment has related to the care of children or vulnerable adults.
5. Medical and Health Issues
The applicants should be informed that they will be required to have a full medical examination. Application forms ask for information about their GP. The role of the medical adviser to the panel should be explained. Where there are any health issues, these could mean that the medical adviser may need to seek further information from any specialist consultant who was or continues to be involved. Applicants should also be aware from the outset about authorities' policy on smoking, covering both age restrictions on children who can be placed if there is a smoker in the household; and also the broader local authority view of the importance of a smoke-free environment for children, and modelling healthy lifestyles. These issues may broaden to include any local authority policies on other lifestyle issues.
6. Staff carrying out the Assessment
The quality of the assessment of new foster carers will depend on the knowledge and experience of the staff carrying out the task. The agency must ensure that it has sufficient appropriately qualified social workers to prepare and assess applicants. This includes having the skills, knowledge and confidence to carry out the task, supported by a robust management and training structures. Assessing workers need opportunities, both to develop their skills and to keep in touch with best practice in preparing, assessing and supporting carers and also with information about placement outcomes for children.
This also requires workers to have the following attributes:
- an ability to establish a reflective and open relationship with applicants;
- a commitment to anti-discriminatory practice;
- good communication skills;
- an inquisitive approach to evidence gathering along with the ability to analyse the evidence once gathered;
- a clear awareness of what is needed for the task and how to identify those attributes and skills in others;
- an ability to work with all members of households, children or adults; and
- an ability to balance positives and risks as objectively as possible.
7. The Assessment Process
All aspects of the recruitment, preparation and assessment of prospective carers should be carried out in compliance with the regulations and also in line with the National Care Standards: foster care and family placement services ( Care Commission website for the National Standards). The Standards address all aspects of the service to prospective and approved foster carers.
Wherever possible, the assessment process should include both group preparation and the individual home study. The size of the local authority and geography will influence the frequency and pattern of preparation groups. Authorities may wish to form preparation and training groups quite early in the process, so that more informed discussions can take place subsequently in the individuals' homes. Where such groups follow a formal application and are clearly part of the assessment process, the applicants should be aware how their participation is being recorded. Some group preparation material includes formats for applicants to note what they learnt from each session and the implications, as well as feedback from the group trainers.
Prospective foster carers should understand the need for visits from social workers, the timescale of assessment and the information required. Applicants from a culture or background where alternative family arrangements are made in a more informal manner, or with no direct knowledge of fostering looked after children, may require careful explanation of the foster carer role alongside the statutory responsibilities of local authorities.
A wide range of prospective foster carers should be sought for the wide range of children requiring fostering. However, no-one has the right to foster and not all applicants will be able to provide a suitable environment for the care and nurture of children. The decisions to approve applicants as foster carers must centre on an understanding of what is required to fulfil a skilled task. To do this, authorities need to have a framework for the key areas to be covered in the assessment. The assessing workers, their line managers, panels and agency decision makers need to have a shared understanding of the factors that indicate that applicants have the skills and potential to provide care for looked after children.
Assessing workers should be given the time to carry out thorough assessments. The recommended time for completing assessments is six months, as set out in National Care Standards, Standard 6.4. This should only be disregarded under exceptional circumstances such as where rigorous work by the assessing worker requires the continuation of the assessment for a longer period. This work may require more time or put pressure on applicants who may themselves also need more time. Where more time is needed, this should be negotiated with the applicants and the reasons for any extra work identified, agreed and noted.
Birth Children of Applicants
The perspective of applicants' children and extended family should be actively sought during the assessment process, using a variety of methods including direct contact, family meetings, group work, books and games. Consideration should be give to the establishment of an easily accessible resource bank where workers could access ideas and information about different methods and strategies for working with applicants and children.
No single approach to the assessment task fits all situations, but assessing workers must be able to describe and report their method of working and any adaptations for the particular circumstances of the applicants. The perspective of the applicants on the process should be actively sought and reflected in the assessment report. The quality assurance function carried out by supervisors, fostering panels and agency decision makers should be facilitated by a clear distinction in reports between description, analysis and recommendations. Assertions about applicants' capacities should be supported by evidence and examples. Reports should identify why a particular conclusion has been reached so that discussion can take place about the validity/reliability of the final assessment.
At the end of the assessment, the information needs to be presented to the fostering panel which makes the recommendation to the agency decision maker. The local authority therefore needs to have regard to the quality of the reports used for this purpose, and monitor their effectiveness. Two key areas are:
- the rigour with which the line managers of the assessing workers monitor what is presented to panel before signing off reports; and
- the opportunities for the panel to feedback any concerns based on the reports they receive.
A robust assessment will balance the strengths of the application with areas of vulnerability or areas for development. Guidelines cannot resolve such issues, but they must be clearly laid out; and at each stage the conclusions of the different people and bodies who consider the application must be articulated with reasons.
8. The Assessment Format
At present, authorities use one of three formats developed by:
- The Fostering Network;
- The Local Authority, possibly adapting features from other formats.
These all aim at attaining consistency of approach. Some formats emphasise an analysis of the character of the applicants (their lifestyle and experience of being parented; their own experience of parenting); others focus more on the skills they can demonstrate, taking a more competency based approach. In reality, these approaches are not mutually exclusive: some of the evidence for skills, for example, may come from reflecting on significant formative past experiences.
The toolkit developed by the Scottish Recruitment and Selection Consortium for safer recruitment and selection for those working in child care - including foster carers - took a more formal human resources approach to trying to identify the qualities found in 'good carers.' These are mirrored by the skills identified within the competency approach, which grouped the necessary skills under four main areas:
- caring for children;
- safe caring;
- working as part of a team; and
- own development.
Regardless of the format used, all assessments should focus upon achieving good outcomes for the children subsequently placed with foster carers, avoiding the risk of becoming advocates for the applicants and instead remaining child-focussed throughout.
9. Matters to be covered in The Assessment Report presented to the Fostering Panel
The report on the applicants that is presented to panel needs to state clearly the recommendation made by the assessing worker and be signed by his or her line manager. The assessing worker's report should also be shared with the applicants, subject to possible exclusion of third party information, before being sent to panel members. They should be asked to sign it and any aspects with which they disagree should be identified and their views on these included in writing with the report.
As part of collecting third party information in the form of references, medicals, statements from former partners, adult children away from home or, current or former employers, there should be discussion with applicants and with those offering their views about any aspects, where information is given in confidence. Where concerns have been voiced from any source, these need to be addressed in the report and the conclusion of this included in the final recommendation. This should be in a separate part of the portfolio of information presented to the panel. It should be clear in the report what has been shared with the applicants with the agreement of the person providing that information, and what is confidential to the panel. Wherever possible, the person expressing concerns should be encouraged to share these with the applicants or allow the worker to do this. Where it has not been possible to share the concerns as expressed by the third party directly with the applicants, an alternative way needs to be sought, to explore the issues identified with the applicants. The recommendation should reflect what has been made explicit within the application and the extent to which any concerns have been addressed or resolved. While every effort should be made to respect the confidentiality of third party information, it must be explained to the third party that, if a particular application is not approved and this is appealed complete confidentiality cannot be guaranteed.
The completed assessment needs to enable the panel to make a recommendation about:
- firstly, whether the applicants are suitable to foster,
- secondly, to state whether the applicants should be approved in respect of a particular child, any child or certain categories of children; and
- thirdly, the number of children whom they may have in their care at any one time.
The issue of maximum number of children who may be placed should be covered in the report by the assessing worker, and then considered by the panel to enable them to fulfil their responsibilities in making a recommendation.
The report should also cover, among other matters:
- how the applicants might address not only the practical needs of children but also have the time and reflective ability to engage with the children's emotional needs;
- how applicants might ensure adequate privacy and space for each child and also facilitate safety for each member of the household;
- how applicants might manage the shifting and potentially uncomfortable relationships between unrelated children, who may enter or leave the household at different times and have varied needs;
- if siblings may be placed, how applicants might manage the different challenges of working with the pre-existing sibling relationships, which may or may not be supportive within the wider group in the household;
- the stage of understanding of the applicants' sons and daughters and how their needs will be monitored in the early stages of fostering;
- explicit discussion with the applicants about the possibility of stress, how they will recognise this and use supports and seek opportunities to maintain their own well-being.
Applicants should be invited to meet the fostering panel. Unlike the regulations for approval of adopters, prospective foster carers do not need to meet with the panel. However best practice regarding the open, transparent and inclusive nature of the fostering service means prospective foster carers should have this opportunity.
10. Derivative and dual approval of foster carers
Under regulation 23 , it is possible for a foster carer to be registered as an approved carer with more than one local authority. This is called "derivative approval" and should be differentiated from 'dual approval', where a carer has been fully assessed and approved by two different authorities. Dual approval is possible but would be unusual.
Regulation 23(1) allows a foster carer to be 'registered' with more than one agency, when he or she has already been approved by a local authority or registered fostering service and that approval has not been terminated. It can only apply if the second local authority is approving the carers for a similar range of children, (regulation 23(2)). If the second agency wants to alter the terms of approval, a new assessment and approval process must be carried out. Although the only other action required in this regulation is for the second agency to notify the first agency in writing, regulation 23(3), clearly this is an eventuality that should involve detailed communication between the agencies.
This is intended as an enabling provision in certain circumstances, not as one which should be regularly used. Normally, approved foster carers work in relationship with one agency which ensures they are properly supported and maintains an overview of the needs and numbers of children placed with the carers. In some instances, however, foster carers may move to a new area but continue caring for a child or children who are already placed on a long term basis with them. They may therefore continue to be approved by their original agency for the existing placement, but wish to offer their services in the new area.
In these circumstances, it will be necessary for the second agency to undertake its own assessment and approval processes for the foster carers. It would be expected that, with the agreement of the foster carers, their original assessment report, the minutes recording the panel recommendation, any comments from the agency decision maker and their most recent review would be shared with the second agency. Where a foster carer has been approved by one agency and is in the process of being assessed and approved by a second agency, use of regulation 23 could allow a placement to be made.
The provision should only be used in an emergency situation to facilitate the placement of a specific child. It should not be used to circumvent the approval processes of the second agency.
Following any such derivative approval, an agreement should be established between the agencies covering:
- recognition of the needs of the child/ren already in placement;
- services which the original agency will provide for the child in placement;
- expectations of both agencies about sharing information of relevance to the ongoing use of the foster home;
- confirmation of who is responsible for support of the carers and ongoing reviews, including ensuring the parameters in respect of placements are maintained;
- arrangements about advising the original local authority about any changes in circumstances in the foster home or other matters which may affect the child/ren in placement;
- the requirement in regulation 25(5)(b) to give notice of decisions following reviews;
- protocols for managing any concerns or allegations.
Dual approval, where a foster carer has been fully and separately assessed and approved by more than one agency, is a potentially complex situation. It would be unusual but could occur when an agency clearly planned not to place any more children with the foster carer. When a foster carer has been dually approved, it is crucial that attention is paid to the care planning of all the children who are, or may be, placed with the foster carer.
11. Agreements with approved foster carers
After a foster carer is approved, the approving local authority must enter into a written agreement with him or her. This is, in effect, the local authority's contract with the carer. It should be distinguished from the specific foster placement agreement regulation 27 and Schedule 4 which is entered into for every individual child placed with the carer.
The foster carer agreement provides written information about the terms and conditions of the partnership between the local authority and the foster carer. The matters and obligations to be covered in the foster carer agreement are set out in Schedule 6 .
The agreement covers:
(a) the services which the carer should expect from the local authority and the main procedures of which the carer should be aware;
(b) the foster carers' obligations to inform the local authority of any changes; and
(c) the carers' agreement to caring for any children placed in line with local authority policies and expectations as covered during the assessment.
The matters in Schedule 6 are the minimum that are standard across Scotland. Each local authority may wish to add others which will either apply to all their carers or which may be additional requirements for particular schemes. Every local authority should ensure that foster carers have a full understanding of what is expected of them as foster carers and of the local authority when a child is placed, in relation to the requirements of regulations, this guidance and the local authority's policies and procedures. A foster carer handbook, issued and regularly updated by the local authority, can be very helpful in this regard.
Some aspects included in Schedule 6 are likely to have featured significantly within the assessment. Carers need to be aware of the content of the foster carer agreement throughout that process and understand the complexity of what is included. Wording such as caring for each child "as if the child was a member of that person's family" (para 6(c)) signals a wish that looked after children should not face further disadvantage or stigmatisation by being fostered but this does not address the children's identity needs or their feelings about their place within their birth family. Used positively, agreements should indicate that the carers and the authorities have the same hopes and aspirations for looked after children as they would for their own children. But as so many children in foster care have been disadvantaged or damaged by their earlier experiences, they may need additional help beyond that required by carers' own children.
The content of these agreements should be reviewed at intervals by the authorities and any proposed changes or additions explained and discussed with carers. Equally, carers should have the opportunity to make suggestions and comments to their local authority on any issues of relevance to the agreement between them.