What does the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in Northern Ireland mean for fostering?

On 21 June 2023 Professor Ray Jones published his final report as Chair of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in Northern Ireland. The report sets out a plan to transform children’s services through a whole scale reconfiguration of children’s trusts and the creation of a new Northern Ireland wide independent agency. It also made some key recommendations on foster care to which The Fostering Network contributed, which Kathleen Toner, director for Northern Ireland will explore in this blog.

We are grateful for the review’s thorough engagement with our members over the extensive 16-month consultation period. This has included speaking with foster carers, kinship foster carers, Step-Up, Step-Down families and our Independent Fostering Providers’ Forum.

Increasing numbers of children needing support

Professor Jones’ report found a shocking 4,000 children were waiting for assessments and help from social care services in Northern Ireland and a much higher rate of children are being referred to services than in the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland. He highlighted the increasing demand placed on foster care with an overreliance on kinship care – presenting difficulties in finding stable, long-term placements for children. He warned that the system is in crisis at every level, with social work workforce levels at an all-time low, while the number of children requiring care is at an all-time high.

To help combat this rise in demand, the report highlights the positive impact of our award-winning, home-grown Step-Up, Step-Down (SUSD) service where foster carers support families, whose children are at risk of being removed, to remain safe and supported at home. This service is now fully embedded in the South Eastern Trust, where almost 200 children have been supported to remain at home. We would like to see SUSD rolled out across Northern Ireland.

The importance of recruitment and retention

In our submission to the review, we estimated the urgent need to recruit 261 foster carers in Northern Ireland in 2022-23 if we are to meet current demand. There is a need for a clear vision to set out a strategic action plan to recruit and retain foster carers before the crisis deepens further. Central to this, is a remuneration system which is both child centred and accounts for the full costs of caring for a child. The report does not adequately address this key issue.

We were pleased to see the report recommend region-wide roll out of our Mockingbird programme as a way of harnessing the experience and expertise of foster carers to improve retention. 

An equal member of the social care workforce 

We welcome the call to action in the report that foster carers ‘should be seen as colleagues and not simply as service users’. This reinforces the report’s recommendation that foster carers should be recognised and positioned as valued members of the children’s social care workforce. This was one of the most frequent issues raised by our members during the consultation – in terms of the impact it has on their ability to do their roles and effectively support children. Foster carers tell us that they are not getting the support they need from social workers or are excluded from professional meetings, with a lack of understanding of the role compounding the impact of staffing issues.

Urgent action needed by elected representatives

There has been no Government in Northern Ireland for well over a year now. The most crucial recommendation in the report is the urgent call for previous reviews of foster care to be acted on and not allowed to drift as many others have done for decades. 

The Fostering Network want to see the introduction of recently published regulations for foster care and development of standards to address many of the practical day to day concerns of foster carers. 

We call on elected representatives in Northern Ireland to urgently restore the institutions of government to ensure this much needed reform is prioritised, resourced and fully implemented. This is ultimately so that generations of children do not miss out on the vital protections they need to keep them safe.

We look forward to engaging with the Government’s Children’s Reform Board and the forthcoming consultations to continue to press for much needed change in foster care.

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