Children in the Care System: Sibling Contact

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:28 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:28 pm, 4th March 2020

I would like to confirm that it refers to any relative, which can include any siblings, but I take the hon. Lady’s point and I will look at it. As I said, will be updating the regulations.

Ultimately, all contact decisions should be based on each child’s individual circumstances. The current legislation provides for flexibility for decisions to be made case by case, and we have committed to revising the statutory guidance on fostering to ensure that it is clear, straight- forward and focused on the importance of the child’s voice. This will emphasise the need for relationships outside immediate placements to provide young people with a sense of belonging that lasts into adulthood. Those revisions will need to be undertaken in consultation with children, foster parents and other stakeholders. We will set out a timetable for that in due course.

The role of the independent reviewing officer is key to making sure that, where appropriate, sibling contact takes place. They must check that the child is happy with their contact with siblings, and that the frequency and quality of contact are right for them.

We know that the quality and consistency of IRO services remains variable, and we are working to promote a coherent strategy for improvement. We have formed a new steering group with the national IRO organisations and key national partners. Furthermore, there is a specific requirement for the care plan to set out arrangements for the promotion and maintenance of contact with brothers and sisters, as far as is consistent with the child’s welfare. That is in paragraphs 3(1) and 3(4) of schedule 1 of the Children Act 1989 care planning guidance.

Regarding advocacy, which the hon. Lady mentioned, all children must have access to an advocate to help them express their feelings and to ensure that their views are taken into account. This especially includes their views on sibling contact. We have committed to improve the awareness of and access to advocacy services for children and young people.

On Monday evening, I was delighted to announce that the Government will take this commitment forward through consultation later this year on a revised and fully updated version of the national standards for advocacy for children. We have also confirmed that we will extend the advocacy “safety net” service, Always Heard, run by Coram Voice, for another 12 months.

Foster parents play a crucial role in supporting the children in their care to stay in touch with the people who matter to them. We know that it often falls to carers to facilitate contact between children and their families, and that this can be challenging. In 2018, the Government published “Fostering Better Outcomes”, which sets out our vision for the foster care system in England. Through “Fostering Better Outcomes”, we urged social workers to talk to children about what is important to them, including former foster parents and foster siblings. We called for this contact to be encouraged and facilitated if it is what is best for that child.

Foster parents are often best placed to understand the child and their needs, so it is essential that they are included in the decision-making process and properly supported to manage contact arrangements. We want to understand where this partnership working is working well, how we can share good practice and how to ensure that foster carers are always an integral part of placement planning. Therefore, we will launch a network of fostering trailblazers this year. That will initially focus on support for foster carers, ensuring that they are empowered to have input into decisions for the children in their care, including on supporting children through contact.

I also want to put on record my support for the Fostering Network’s campaign, Keep Connected, which promotes maintaining relationships for children and young people through and beyond periods of transition.

Maintaining relationships and contact with siblings, family or other trusted individuals can help to give children the stability they need to develop. We want children to experience stable care placements and the consistency of relationships, and for them to keep in touch with the people who are most important to them.