Managing allegations against foster carers and approved kinship carers - How agencies should respond

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Part 1

Key principles

Some key principles which it is recommended are adopted by Child Protection Committees and agencies dealing with this area of work are set out below.

The well being and safety of the child must always be the central and primary concern

Any allegation or concern raised about the child's well being or safety must be listened to and taken seriously.

An assessment of the well being and safety of the child should be set within the GIRFEC framework and the use of the My World triangle will assist with the assessment of need and risk. The National Risk Assessment Framework (Scottish Government, 2012) will also be relevant for the assessment of a child's safety and well-being.

Responses should be proportionate to the perceived/assessed risk to the child

Timely action should be taken to protect any child where significant harm has happened or there is risk of significant harm.

Decisions about whether to remove a child from a foster or kinship care placement should, as far as possible, be based on a well informed assessment which balances the risks of harm to the child remaining with the carer with the associated risks which removal from the placement abruptly may bring.

Where the child must be moved then the timing of the move should be planned in a way that minimizes distress to the child being moved, and to the members of the foster or kinship care family the child will be leaving.

Early and full information sharing among the range of workers who may be involved is critical to making sound decisions about the child's safety

Throughout any investigations, the child, their family and the carers should be regularly updated on progress.

Foster or approved kinship carers against whom an allegation is made should be treated fairly and the principles of natural justice for them should apply.

Delays in reaching decisions about the way to progress enquiries or undertake investigations should be kept to a minimum recognising the impact for children, carers and families of uncertainties which will be stressful.

The context of care

Children who are living with foster or kinship carers will have experienced significant trauma in their life. Some allegations may have their roots in their previous experiences rather than the current placement. Social workers placing a child in foster or kinship care should ensure that the carers have full information about the child's emotional and mental development and their previous care experiences. They should also advise the carers of any history of the child dealing with difficulties in placement by making an allegation about abuse.

Over the years there has been evidence that some carers and residential workers have abused their position of trust and harmed a child physically, sexually or emotionally. These situations have led some members of the public to distrust all carers and workers without appreciating the challenges that carers face and the very low number of carers who abuse a looked after child.

Social work staff will also worry that they may have placed a child with carers who do not care for the child in a safe and nurturing way.

Underlying anxieties about whether the carer may have harmed a child can lead to more punitive responses from the professionals.

Additionally it needs to be acknowledged that foster carers and kinship carers work in isolation within their family home while also providing a public service. They are caring for children whose behaviour and emotions may have been affected by early life adversities and carers are asked to manage all aspects of the child's care at the same time as providing an experience for the child of living in an ordinary nurturing family in the community.

A comprehensive, up to date Child's Plan will provide the best possible understanding for workers and carers about the child's perceptions and concerns.

For approved kinship carers there is often a tension between the carers and the child's birth family who may resent the kinship carers being supported to care for their child. This context can lead to malicious complaints and loyalty conflicts which may make following up concerns challenging.

Significant Harm

In considering whether significant harm has occurred or is likely to occur, the following extracts from the National Guidance [paras 39-43] provide useful guidance in managing the complexity of the definition of the term, significant harm.

"Significant harm is a complex matter and subject to professional judgement based on a multi-agency assessment of the circumstances of the child and their family.

Harm means the ill-treatment or impairment of health or development of the child.

Whether the harm suffered or likely to be suffered is significant is determined by comparing the child's health and development with what might be reasonably expected of a child of a similar child.

[Significant harm may be] a single traumatic event, a violent assault, suffocation or poisoning […] or an accumulation of significant events […] that interrupt, change or damage the child's physical or psychological development.

To understand significant harm it is necessary to consider [a range of factors including]:
The nature of the harm […];
The impact on the child's health and development […];
The context of the harmful incident or behaviour."

(Scottish Government, 2010, paras 39-43).

Who is a looked-after child in relation to this guidance?

A looked-after child is defined as a child up to the age of 18 years. Where the child is aged between 16 and 18, decisions will be required about whether to progress concerns via child or adult protection routes.

What kind of allegations/ concerns may be raised against foster carers and approved kinship carers?

This section sets out the range of concerns/allegations that may be made against foster carers or approved kinship carers:

  • Allegations/concerns about the well-being of any looked-after child placed with a foster carer/approved kinship carer, in particular about the child's safety.
  • Allegations/concerns that the carers have acted in a way that has caused or may have caused significant harm to a looked-after child.
  • Allegations/concerns that the carers may have committed a criminal offence against a child or related to a child.
  • Allegations/concerns that the carers have acted in a way that could cause a child distress but not leading to significant harm.
  • Allegations/concerns/dissatisfaction about the level of care carers are providing which is not reaching the high standard the person raising the concern feels is required for children in public care or where care is not seen as meeting the child's needs.

Some concerns may be expressed as complaints about some aspect of the carer's behaviour which does not imply any risk of significant harm. Some concerns will be specific, others may be a cluster of issues that need to be addressed. Some concerns may be more appropriately treated as a complaint if no significant risk to well-being is raised.

The complaints procedure of a local authority, voluntary organisation, or registered fostering provider may be the appropriate route for further discussion of such concerns.

Some concerns or complaints may be resolved by the involvement of workers from a Children's Rights Service or Who Cares? Scotland in discussion with the child and with the person raising the concern or making the complaint, and their carers if possible. (See appendix 3 for contact details of Who Cares? Scotland).

Whatever the route to follow up an allegation, concern or complaint, it is important that the child's wishes, views and feelings are respected and explored and that the child remains involved and informed.

Organisational arrangements for responding to allegations and concerns involving foster carers or approved kinship carers

Each local authority and Child Protection Committee will have differing organisational arrangements for managing their child protection, children and families and fostering services. To ensure a consistent collective response to allegations involving foster carers and approved kinship carers, it is important that the partners within the Child Protection Committee approach these allegations within the context of this guidance.

To assist in responding in a consistent way to the complex concerns/allegations raised, each local authority should identify a designated manager, with responsibility for overseeing and/ or managing the response to concerns raised about foster and approved kinship carers living in their area. The designated manager will require to liaise with fostering colleagues, with managers in registered fostering services, with managers of Children and Families Services, with the police, health colleagues and child protection staff when a concern/allegation is made. Each local authority should consider fully how the designated manager will involve the named person or the lead professional as that person will already have responsibilities for the coordination of information about the child and their care plan. Procedures should identify the scope of the task expected to be carried by the designated manager and clarify their reporting lines.

Each registered fostering provider should identify a senior member of staff to be their designated manager. They will be responsible for managing the response to concerns about carers approved by their agency and for working with the appropriate local authorities as well as the police to plan and carry out any enquiries or investigations that may be required, liaising with the lead professional/named person as appropriate.

Some recent practice issues addressed in the guidance

Across the country there have been reported variations in the response of child protection teams to concerns and allegations involving foster carers and kinship carers. Some appear to have progressed quickly to a child protection investigation although no significant risk of harm appears to have been identified.

As identified above, paras 39-43 of the National Guidance for Child Protection (2010) make it clear that child protection investigations should not be used where there is no evidence of significant harm to a child. Child Protection procedures locally will reflect the National Guidance and there needs to be a commitment to apply it to situations involving foster carers and kinship carers as for any other family in the community.

Child Protection Committees work in partnership across agencies and in following up concerns or allegations it is important that actions reflect the partnership approach and that individual agencies do not act unilaterally.

The national process for interviewing any person (including carers) following an allegation which potentially involves a criminal offence includes the requirement for interviews of people who may have committed a criminal offence, that legal representation must be obtained before interviews take place and the interviews must be held in appropriate facilities where safe recording of information is possible. This may be distressing for carers who have no previous experiences of police interviews.

In relation to the Protection of Vulnerable Groups legislation, where a concern is investigated within a child protection process, although no firm evidence of harm has been found and the concern is unsubstantiated, information about the investigation may appear on any subsequent disclosure checks on foster or kinship carers. Furthermore, this could lead to consideration by Disclosure Scotland about whether to refer the carer for listing as unsuitable for doing regulated work with children.