Executive summary

Adoption and Children Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:30 am on 20 November 2001.

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The term ``private fostering'' is used to describe the situation when a child of up to 16 years of age (18 if disabled) is in the care of someone who is not his or her parent or relative for 28 days or more. A relative, under the Children Act 1989, is defined as grandparents, siblings, step-parents, aunts or uncles (i.e. brothers or sisters of the child's parents), or other persons with parental responsibility.

Some parents will always need to make use of private foster care. But the needs of their children for support, protection and a healthy physical and emotional development are no different from those of any other children.

Privately fostered children include children placed with strangers for lengthy periods, often while their parents pursue studies, work commitments or live overseas; adolescents who are temporarily estranged from their families; children who attend language schools and independent schools in the UK; children from abroad on holiday or exchange visits; children who are asylum seekers; and some children brought to the UK from overseas with a view to adoption.

As there is no register of private foster carers, families have to find these carers themselves. They may do this through word of mouth or informal networks. The Department of Health says that parents are responsible for ensuring that the people they place their children with are suitable. However, parents have no access to criminal record checks and most will have little understanding of the possible risks that their children face.

There is no accurate information about the numbers of children who are privately fostered. Current estimates suggest that 8 - 10,000 children are privately fostered in the UK, a significant majority of whom are black children of West African origin. The Department of Health ceased to collect statistics in 1990 on the grounds that they were meaningless.

The majority of privately fostered West African children live with white families, often in rural communities where the child will experience separation from his or her culture and may encounter racism. Many private foster carers have little understanding of the difficulties these children may face or the impact on them of separation from their birth families. The long-term effects can be a confusion about identity, relationship problems, underachievement, insecurity, poor development, and learning difficulties.

Some West African families have lost their children when they have been adopted by private foster carers or when children have become so detached from their parents to not want to, or be able to, return to them.

The Children Act 1989 introduced changes in England and Wales. These were to place a duty on both carer and birth parent to notify an intention to place a child in private foster care, and limiting the numbers of children whom a carer could foster to three. Despite these duties, it is generally accepted that the great majority of private fostering arrangements are never notified to the authorities.

Local authorities have fairly minimal responsibilities under the Children Act 1989. Essentially, they have to satisfy themselves about the welfare of the child; receive notification from parents, carers, and third parties; visit the child regularly and offer advice and support. They do not have the power to approve private foster carers and have only limited powers to prohibit a person from privately fostering.

The overwhelming majority of social services departments do not give any priority to privately fostered children. In many cases, no services are provided in the belief that there are no such children within the authority's boundaries. A few local authorities have developed good practice initiatives and have actively promoted services to meet the needs of privately fostered children in their area.

There is a dangerous inequality in the way that local authorities are charged to deal with those foster carers whom they recruit and register for children in the local authority's care and those who offer a private service. The statutory requirement and regulatory framework which apply to child minders who will look after children for part of the day, are much more rigorous than for children who can be separated from their parents for indefinite periods.

Sir William Utting, in his review of the safeguards for children living away from home (1997), said that there were three options: to leave things as they were; to deregulate on the basis that what existed was unenforceable; or to enforce regulation and introduce a requirement to approve and register private foster carers because of the risk to children. He said that the status quo was `the worst of all worlds as it seems to give the appearance of safeguards while in practice they are not complied with'. Deregulation would `abandon children to their fate' and create a ``honeypot'' for abusers'. He recommended that private foster carers should be approved in the same way as other foster carers.

The recommendations for change made by Sir William Utting in his report—which was commissioned by Government—were rejected in 1998. Almost all Utting's other recommendations were accepted by Government. The UK Joint Working Party on Foster Care in their report in 1999 referred to the `high potential for abuse and neglect` and urged legislation requiring local authorities to maintain a register of approved private foster carers at the earliest opportunity. The Government instead promised a public awareness campaign which would take place in 1999. The only ``campaign'' to date has been a distribution of leaflets to professionals and letters to Directors reminding them of their responsibilities.

BAAF's investigative report, written by Terry Philpot, highlights graphically the risks to which privately fostered children are exposed, providing powerful case study material and making urgent recommendations for Government actions to ensure these children are protected.

In 2001, Victoria Climbie, a privately fostered child, died tragically at the hands of her carer and her carer's partner.