Determined to improve life chances

By Dave Hill | 09 September 2016

I recently delivered my presidential address at the association’s tenth annual conference since it was established in 2007. The conference provides the ideal space for debate and discussion among our members who are at the forefront of inspiring change, innovation and improvement in their local authorities and in the wider children’s services arena.

It was a privilege to be amongst colleagues from across the country discussing how we can get it right for children, young people and their families.

I want to use this opportunity to expand on two important issues that I raised in my speech; on the profit made by some Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAs) and on creating the conditions necessary for successful social work to thrive.

Firstly, foster care is the heart of our care system and, when done well, can change a child’s life.

The number of children coming into care continues to increase and so our need for foster carers continues to grow. We’ve become concerned with some examples of private for-profit fostering agencies offering foster carers golden hellos, sometimes up to £3000, to switch from the local authority to the private agency. The foster carers are then sold back to the council at an inflated rate.

Whilst this practice isn’t incredibly widespread, it is happening and only adds to the challenges we already face in recruiting high quality foster carers to meet the needs of the rising number of children in our care.

In one unitary authority in the West Midlands the average cost of a local authority fostering placement is £331.69 per week while the average cost of a placement with an IFA is more than double the cost at £754.28 per week. This is neither ethical nor a good use of public money.

This isn’t to say there isn’t a role for IFAs. There are some great IFAs who we are really grateful to and work very closely with, but we must get rid of the sharks in the water.

I wonder, might we expand the restrictions already in place to ensure that no commercial company can make profit from child protection to include private fostering like they have done in Scotland?

I hope that the national stocktake of fostering announced by the Minister of State for Children and Families brings some focus to these areas.

Secondly, how do we create the conditions where great social work can take place? Social workers are trained to understand when children are thriving or not, to protect children in need and to know how to intervene when it’s necessary.

As employers we are absolutely committed to raising the profile of the social work profession and ensuring that social workers are well supported in their role.

If further challenge is added to an already challenged profession; if we don’t recruit enough social workers, if they aren’t well supported and therefore aren’t able to act in the best interests of children, we as directors of children’s services will not be able to ensure that every child in our local area thrives. That’s why we must get the basics right.

There is currently no evidence to suggest that structural change in itself delivers improvement in children’s services or results in improved outcomes for children and families.

Only a small number of local authorities may require such radical intervention, applying the same medicine to others, where it is not absolutely necessary risks destabilising the very services we seek to improve.

Instead, more manageable caseloads for social workers, stability of the workforce, less reliance on agency staff with more permanent, long-term social workers is what we need.

Each of these things enables social workers to do what they do best, develop strong, meaningful relationships with children and their families.

Much of this can be achieved by investing in prevention and early help services, taking fewer children into care and doing even better for those that we do take into care. But of course this requires a shift in the way we invest our money.

For a short while we will need to invest money into early help and into statutory child protection work, but eventually we will begin to feel the benefits.Less child protection work, fewer children in care resulting in more manageable caseloads for social workers meaning that they are able spend more time on what matters the most, developing meaningful connections with children and families.

Of course, we know that doing this, at a time when council budgets are already overstretched will not be easy, but there is a need for a debate and local government should be at the forefront of this.

I came away from the annual conference persuaded of the sector’s unswerving determination to make life enhancing improvements for children, young people and their families - not that I ever doubted it.

Dave Hill is the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the director for people commissioning in Essex CC

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