"New-born babies being taken into care should be fostered by people who want to adopt them, the prime minister has said."
Seems to me that David Cameron wakes up pretty much every morning with some new bright idea or other. I have to wonder how many of these pronouncements are based on anything, or likely to come to anything, or whether they are just soundbites designed to distract us from all the things that are not being done or said!
Let's take this new 'foster to adopt' idea for instance. At first reading, it sounds like a wonderful idea. Why should tiny babies spend months in foster care when they could just be moved straight into the home of a prospective adoptive family? It's hard to see the bad side of such a suggestion isn't it?
Unsurprisingly, however, I have reservations. Although supporters could, rightly, argue that this option would potentially provide the most stable pathway for the child, I think it's important to remember that although the child should be at the heart of the process, they are not the only ones who are important to the process.
It's also important to remember that stability is not the only necessary factor in ensuring that a looked-after child gets a start in life that is as good as possible. The issues surrounding looked-after children are complex and require the collaboration of a number of professional services. Caring for a looked-after child is manifestly not the same as bringing up your own child.
I suppose my main points of concern are as follows:
* According to the news article, 50% of one-month-old babies who come into care are eventually adopted. This means that adoptive parents face a 50/50 chance that the child they have been caring for will eventually be returned to the birth family - not particularly good odds for a couple desperate for a child.
* Fostering a baby is a full-time job. It is not acceptable for fostered babies to spend their days with childminders or in nurseries, so at least one of the potential adopters may be required to give up work to care for a child that they might never get to adopt. This is a big ask. Will adopters who are not able or willing to do this be told that they stand next to no chance of being approved?
* When working parents adopt, they can receive adoption leave and pay. They will not receive this if they are classed as fostering.
* Fostered babies can have as many as five contacts with their birth families each week. These can take place in a neutral location or at the foster carer's home or the birth family's home. How many potential adopters will be comfortable with facilitating these contacts?
* There are a lot of meetings between professionals that foster carers are expected to attend, including 6-weekly visits from social workers (both the child's and your own), regular formal reviews, and a whole host of medical appointments. Again, these would require a carer to be available during office hours.
* Foster carers receive training that adopters do not get. The initial Skills to Foster training is different from the Preparing to Adopt sessions, and foster carers also receive training in safeguarding, record keeping, food hygiene and first aid, and are expected to have evidenced their achievement of the CWDC standards by the end of their first year of fostering. Are potential adopters going to be expected to receive the same level of training, or will a lower level somehow be acceptable for adopters who are fostering than is required for professional foster carers?
* Babies often come into care in emergency circumstances with little or no notice - both my boys arrived in my home less than two hours after the initial phone call. As a foster carer, I am on call for this sort of emergency, but would potential adopters be ready to receive a child into their home at such short notice?
* Children are carefully matched to potential adopters. This matching process takes account of the needs of the child and the skills and experience that the potential adopters are able to bring to the mix, and can take some time to finalise. If a child is coming into care with just a few hours notice, how will social services be able to complete the matching process as rigorously as needed? This is particularly important if the child is likely to have special needs, which may not yet be known if a child is as young as one month.
* Foster carers have absolutely no parental rights over the children they care for. This means that I can't so much as change a child's hairstyle without permission of the parents! The parents can deny permission to take the child on holiday, for instance, and even if they agree, getting a passport is a total nightmare (literally takes months and months) and you need a special letter of permission to travel with the child - not exactly a new parent's dream!
* Most local authorities prefer to place children for adoption some distance from their birth families. This would make it incredibly inconvenient for adopters acting as foster carers to facilitate contacts, meetings, etc.
* There is no indication that the foster-to-adopt scheme would actually reduce the amount of time that it takes for a child to be formally adopted after coming into care. Children in care are not just sitting in cupboards waiting to be adopted - there is a necessary process to be followed to ensure that children are not being wrongly removed from their families. If this process is truncated then we run the risk of rushing babies into adoption who could actually have successfully been raised by their birth parents or other birth relatives, opening the floodgates for complaints of abuse of power by social services.
* Since the likelihood is that foster-to-adopt will not shorten the process, adopters are running the risk of being asked to give up their jobs to care for babies who need lots of extra help, who may have complex medical and emotional needs and who will need ferrying to endless contacts, only to find after 12-18 months that the child is to be returned to their birth families and they are now that much older and no nearer to having a family of their own. It's hard to imagine how heartbreaking that would be.
Cameron's announcement, and so many of the ill-informed comments that followed it have demonstrated to me once again that many among the general public (not to mention the government!) have very little idea about what it is that foster carers actually do. As a foster carer for babies, I take my role of preparing a child for its forever family very seriously. I hope that, with the skills, experience and training that I have, I can use the time the child is with me to overcome some of the sometimes overwhelming disadvantages that the child has previously experienced so that by the time the child is adopted, they are no longer carrying the crippling emotional baggage of their early experiences.
One in five adoptions fail. I believe that foster carers play an incredibly important role in dealing with some of the issues that are common in looked-after children (e.g. attachment disorders, food anxiety, etc. etc.) so that adoptive parents don't have to. We have the training and experience to do this, and most adoptive parents do not. So let's stop treating foster carers as some sort of unnecessary expense and start treating them like the professionals they are.