Written evidence submitted by Home for Good
The Impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
Submission from Home for Good, 29 May 2020
Home for Good is a national fostering and adoption charity with the aim of finding a great home for every child who needs one. We seek to inspire those who might never have considered welcoming a vulnerable child into their family, to step forward to foster or adopt, and we hold their hand every step of the way – from inspiration right through to post-placement. We also equip their local community to offer the wrap-around support that they need. After five years of growth, the Home for Good ‘family’ is now made up of thousands of foster carers, adopters, social workers and others who are playing their part on behalf of the UK’s most vulnerable children.
This allows Home for Good to access a pool of expertise about the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children and the families that care for them across the UK. Since the start of lockdown we have heard from over 300 families about the impact the crisis has had and as such, are submitting evidence to this consultation to share some of our findings with the committee.
Summary of submission
This submission highlights the impact of COVID-19 on children living in foster, adoptive or kinship care arrangements in England. Many of these families have experienced enhanced pressure with reduced support during this time due to limited social work capacity and social distancing limitations making normal practice untenable. This has left many of these families at risk of crisis or breakdown. In addition, the impact of the pandemic has added further pressure to families with children on the edge of care with the added complexity of many children becoming invisible to professionals overnight with the closure of schools and other public services. As such, this submission contends that we could see a spike in care admissions when the schools return, but the sector is lacking capacity to meet this forthcoming wave.
While many families have struggled during COVID-19, there have also been many positive examples of best practice where local authorities and agencies have been using innovative methods to keep in contact and support families, as well as attempts to keep children on the edges of care within their sight. There are some important lessons that can be learnt from this crisis, many of which have demonstrated greater efficiency and effectiveness than ‘normal’ practice. It is vital that the rapid decisions made and innovation shown are evaluated effectively after the pandemic has abated to ascertain whether any of these changes could improve the care provided to vulnerable children in ‘normal times’. This document also highlights a number of areas that should be considered to prepare for any future crisis, including an agreed strategy for relaxing regulations, a system for assessing national capacity more rapidly and measures that can be introduced to mitigate against delays in adoption.
Our submission will consider three aspects of the Terms of Reference published by the committee at the commencement of this inquiry:
Section 1: The capacity of children’s services to support vulnerable children and young people
Shortage of Foster Carers
For some local authorities, older individuals and families make up a significant proportion of their foster carers. We know that in one local authority, 25% of the 350 carers on their books are over the age of 65. As a demographic recognised to be most ‘at risk’ to the dangers of COVID-19, many of these foster carers have stepped back from fostering temporarily, either due to having to self-isolate or because of concerns about their foster children coming in and out of their home and continuing to have contact with others, either at school or elsewhere. This has resulted in an immediate need for emergency placements for many children. In addition to those who have already stepped back, many local authorities are concerned about how many of their remaining foster carers could become unwell and therefore be unable to continue caring for vulnerable children. The combination of these factors is creating significant concerns around sufficiency for local authorities. We are hearing mixed reports from local authorities as to how they are choosing to respond to the immediate need and prepare for the inevitable spike in the number of children entering care when lockdown ends. Some local authorities are utilising the new, more flexible, regulations to approve carers faster and for longer. Others appear to be fixed on using their original operating models and are reluctant to adapt their processes or assessments despite changes to regulations allowing for this.
Foster carers who have taken the decision to stop fostering because of health concerns have told us about the financial cost that this decision has had for them, not to mention the emotional weight of making such a decision. Most significantly, many will not receive any payment while they have no children in their home which raises concerns not only about how they will manage financially during this period, but whether fostering will become financially viable for them after COVID-19 has abated and whether we could see a drop-off in carers on a more permanent basis.
Home for Good would like to see central Government providing funding such that local authorities can offer a retainer to foster carers who have taken the decision to step back from fostering due to being ‘high risk’ or because of their age. Not only would this honour the crucial role they play and support the steps they are taking to adhere to Government guidance as best they can, but it could also incentivise them to return to fostering once it is deemed safe for them to do so. In addition, we recognise that there could be other innovative ways of utilising the expertise and capacity of foster carers who have stepped back at this time, such as facilitating them to provide virtual peer support and advice to carers who continue to have children in their care.
A Solution to Sufficiency
To address the sufficiency challenge around foster carers for local authorities which we recognise to be the most pressing need within children’s social care, Home for Good has developed an emergency scheme to recruit foster carers and launched it in five local authorities to date.
We at Home for Good specialise in running inspirational campaigns and accessing motivated local communities who are ready to step up and play their part. We have seen an exceptional response to our COVID-19 recruitment campaigns and are poised to support other local authorities in their emergency recruitment. However, we are concerned that some local authorities are not forecasting to anticipate the inevitable upcoming increase in demand and are therefore not preparing accordingly. We believe central Government could play a useful role in supporting local areas to forecast and could advise on how they might increase capacity.
Struggle to Support
In addition to the challenge of needing to source emergency placements for children who are unable to remain with their current foster carers, there are concerns about the pressures created by COVID-19 for all children living in foster, adoptive or kinship families. Most of these children have experienced abuse or neglect, with all having experienced trauma in their lives. As a result, these children and the families that care for them contend daily with the legacy of trauma which can be hugely challenging to manage. The disruption of routines, regularity, support and contact with others caused by COVID-19 is feared to exacerbate many of the existing challenges experienced by these children and yet simultaneously, social services are limited as to the support they can offer.
Many adoptive families who were accessing therapeutic support through the Adoption Support Fund have found that their support has been put on hold. Others receiving support through CAMHS or from within social services are not able to access such support at present. While efforts have been made to take support online, families have emphasized that such forms are less effective. As well as these formal examples of support, social workers face challenges being able to visit families and offer face-to-face support due to social distancing measures.
In addition, staff shortages across local authorities due to sickness or self-isolation, combined with demand in other parts of the system such as Child Protection has meant that many social workers who might have been supporting families prior to COVID-19 have been seconded to other areas. This reduces the ease and availability of support for families. While some families reported receiving positive communication from professionals, including social workers, at the beginning of the pandemic, communication for many has tailed off, despite challenges mounting within many households as Lockdown persists. We welcome the temporary changes made by the Government to the Adoption Support Fund during this time which allow families to access different forms of support, including peer support and couples therapy. It is vital that the impact of this extended remit is evaluated after the pandemic.
Social workers and other care professionals have shared with us their concerns that they may see significant numbers of placements breaking down due to families struggling to cope with presenting challenges and without sufficient support during this time. This would create further instability and uncertainty for children. Local authorities are fighting fires in every direction and while many are demonstrating creativity and determination to do their best for communities, there are many challenges at their doorstep which require concerted effort and attention.
There are particular concerns around how social services are able to support the estimated 200,000 children living with kinship carers. Nearly half of all kinship carers are grandparents who are more likely to be vulnerable to the negative effects of COVID-19 and are concerned about what will happen to the children in their care should they become unwell. In addition, many kinship carers have received little or no training about meeting the needs of children who have experienced trauma and as such, if their children are presenting enhanced challenges due to social isolation and routine disruption, they are less equipped to know how to respond and support children well. Many of these families do not have a social worker in their lives and therefore have very limited avenues to turn to for support. Yet, the needs of these children remain as acute as those living in adoptive and foster families and could therefore present similar challenges.
Section 2: The effect on disadvantaged groups, including the Department’s approach to free school meals and the long-term impact on the most vulnerable groups (such as pupils with special educational needs and disabilities and children in need)
Our evidence for this section will focus specifically on children in need. For many children and young people across the UK, staying at home does not keep them safe. The closure of schools, parks, libraries, shops, leisure facilities and other public services are enhancing the pressure felt daily in the homes of many families. Families who might have been coping before are now facing increased pressures from all directions; children being at home every day, financial pressures due to job losses or changes and anxiety about COVID-19 itself can all be significant factors in causing relational tension and harm. Environments where parents are struggling to cope with these pressures can leave children vulnerable to abuse and neglect. In addition, social distancing measures have lessened the opportunities for the signs of abuse to be picked up by social services, school staff or medical professionals.
“It is a time of severe pressure across society, which we know will present heightened levels of risk for some children and young people, so it is especially important that these children and young people continue to receive the services and support they need.” Government Guidance on Children’s Social Care
Government guidance recognizes the social care implications of school closures, stating that “attending education settings is known as a protective factor for children receiving the support of a social worker.[i]” Despite their efforts to keep vulnerable children visible by encouraging those with a social worker to continue attending school, attendance has been low[ii]. In addition, this provision only extends to those who had a social worker prior to COVID-19, therefore leaving families who may have tipped over into needing support by COVID-19 itself, without any. We are concerned about the number of children who are now out of sight and out of reach.
In some parts of England, child protection referrals have dropped by more than 50%[iii], giving reason to be concerned about our ability as a corporate parent to identify children who are not being kept safe. Describing the nature of this challenge, the Children’s Commissioner for England has stated in recent days:
“There will be the best part of one million children who have needed a social worker in the past three years now becoming invisible to professionals, just as their families come under unprecedented strain.”
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England
The Children’s Commissioner estimates there to be up to 2.3 million children who are at significant risk on the edges of the attention of social services, but not currently receiving any help[iv]. Children’s services directors are particularly concerned about the higher levels of domestic abuse being experienced by children, with the National Domestic Abuse helpline reporting a 25% increase in calls since the lockdown began[v] and the number of suspected domestic abuse killings to be three times higher than the average rate for this time of year[vi].
While some social services are already reporting an increase in children coming into care[vii], we anticipate that a significant spike may occur when schools return, and community services restart as these children become more visible again. When this occurs, while it remains only speculative at present, we anticipate a wave of new children to enter the care system as a result.
This will exacerbate the existing sufficiency challenges being faced by social services. The system is currently not in a strong enough position to be able to respond effectively enough should a surge occur. The implications of failing to build capacity quickly enough to respond is that either thresholds for entering care may rise due to physical lack of carers and homes, meaning that many who should not remain with their birth family will remain so, or children and young people will be placed in inappropriate provision which are unable to meet their needs. Both options are unacceptable for our nation’s children.
While the crisis persists, it is vital that we find ways to ensure that these children do not remain ‘invisible’. Just as creative solutions are being developed to provide ways for adult victims of domestic abuse to seek help[viii], we should be doing the same for children who may be experiencing abuse or neglect.
We recommend that the Government develops a strategy for identifying children who are experiencing abuse or neglect using community networks and touchpoints (such as supermarkets, pharmacies etc.) and conducts a public awareness raising campaign to communicate what individuals should do if they suspect a child is at risk or at harm.
Section 3: What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency
Once the pandemic has abated, it will be important to learn lessons that help the sector be better prepared for future emergencies, so that vulnerable children can be protected. We have identified a number of areas that can be secured to provide resilience to the sector in case of any future national emergency:
1. A strategy for relaxing regulations in case of emergency - the uncertainty around whether regulations might be relaxed or changed has held local authorities back in making decisions. We have particularly witnessed this around recruiting emergency or connected foster carers. Some local authorities were forced into taking action prior to the change brought in by Statutory Instrument 445 because of the urgent need to find homes for a significant number of children who were suddenly without a placement, leaving them at legal risk. The Government should consult on which regulations introduced through the Adoption and Children (COVID-19) (Amendments) Regulations 2020 were the most helpful and prepare a draft of tiered sets of regulatory amendments which can be used depending on the severity of future emergencies. Knowing the regulatory amendments that could be made would allow local authorities to respond more effectively in emergencies.
2. National data collection to gather the short, medium, and long-term effects of COVID-19 - we would be short-sighted to only consider the short-term implications of COVID-19 when evaluating the local and national response to the emergency. It is vital instead that local authorities continue recording and submitting data to the Department for Education about the impact of COVID-19 for at least 2 years after the pandemic has abated in order to assess the longer-term impact of the crisis itself and the steps taken in response. Only then can we equip authorities to be truly resilient to future emergencies, considering both the short and long-term implications.
3. Development of a placement sufficiency tracking tool – it is unacceptable that we do not have a readily available national picture of foster home availability, especially during periods of national emergency. Without access to this data, central Government cannot possibly make informed policy decisions. We believe it is vital that the Government considers what digital solutions could be introduced in this space. A digital system could allow the Department to impact-assess policy changes; for example, the Secretary of State’s call that “No child should have to leave care during COVID-19” is likely to impact on sufficiency in the rest of the sector which could be seen, monitored and observed on a more national scale.
4. Continuation of vulnerability score for children – many local authorities have assigned a red, amber or green vulnerability score to each child or family on their books, allowing them to identify priority families and assign support appropriately. Sustaining this practice would not only help authorities to have oversight of their cohort and needs as a whole in ‘normal times’ but also prevent delays in assessing vulnerability and making according decisions if future emergencies arise.
5. Public awareness raising around vulnerable children – just as this crisis has catalysed a campaign to upskill the general public around identifying potential victims of domestic violence and indeed in the management of infectious disease, we believe the invisibility of vulnerable children during this crisis demands similar action. Launching a campaign which helps the general public to identify children who may be at risk or in danger outside of an emergency would make necessary preparation for future emergencies when the general public may be more relied on than usual to identify children at risk because of reduced contact points between children and professionals.
6. Digital Capability and readiness – Local authorities and agencies have demonstrated large variation in their ability to transition into digital services which has had huge impact on families. Therefore, to prepare for any future emergencies, the Department for Education should encourage authorities and agencies to ensure that a significant proportion of each of their services are deliverable online in order to make the transition in future emergencies smoother. This could include aspects such as approval panels, training, home visits, support etc. We recognize that to eliminate the sudden endings to these vital activities as we have witnessed in part during COVID-19, an element of these should be deliverable online in case of emergencies.
7. Devices and connectivity – disruption in maintaining relationships with friends, teachers, school staff and others can have a huge impact on vulnerable children. In addition, we recognize that the impact of trauma for many children in care makes engagement with education challenging. We welcome the Government’s pledge to provide vulnerable children with digital devices not only to support them in their education but to enable them to remain virtually connected to their support network. We identify that this should form part of the Government’s ongoing support to all children in care during normal times which would also reduce disruption in instances of emergency where many children in care have felt cut off and isolated from their networks.
8. Recently retired foster carers and social workers – this crisis has demanded greater workforce capacity to deal with the changes and challenges presented, resulting in a general call-out for social workers who have recently left the profession to return if they can. However, a centralized, ongoing register of social workers and foster carers who have left the profession would enable quicker and systematic contact with such individuals to help where capacity is needed, rather than a net thrown out.
9. End to the localized approval of foster carers – currently, when a foster carer moves to a different local authority, they have to go through a re-approval process with the new authority, causing delays in them being able to welcome vulnerable children into their home. An end to this requirement and a digital tool to enable easier transfer across local authorities and agencies would help to meet demand, not just in ‘normal’ times, but especially in emergency situations where capacity is needed more urgently and speedily.
10. Financial support for adoption - as many families experience financial challenges during the current emergency, we know this impacts on family planning. We recognize that there are pre-existing barriers which may have been exacerbated through COVID-19 which disincentivize individuals from considering adoption. To address these and to prepare for any future emergencies, the Department for Education should consider offering financial packages to compensate for these enhanced barriers and ensure families and individuals continue stepping forward. We know that single people may be particularly vulnerable to the financial implications of COVID-19 and therefore may feel in a weaker position to consider adoption as an option for them. In addition, the self-employed have been particularly vulnerable to the financial impacts of COVID-19 but in addition, are currently unable to access adoption leave. Introducing parity of this provision with workers of other status would mitigate against this being a barrier and encourage more self-employed individuals and families to step forward to adopt. It is vital that we mitigate against the inevitable financial concerns and ensure that financial hardship does not impact on waiting times and adoption.
11. Draft guidance ready and waiting – the guidance issued by the Government through the crisis has aided decision-making and helped to provide clarity for families in uncertain times. However, the staggered release of this guidance has caused delays in providing reassurance to authorities and families. To build resilience for future emergencies, the Department for Education should consult on the guidance published during the current crisis and have such guidance ready and waiting when crisis occurs, to be amended as necessary, enabling services to plan.
 Across the past year, the UK has already seen a heightened focus on the reality that many older teenagers in the care system are being placed alone in inappropriate forms of accommodation, including tents, caravan parks and canal boats, due to a lack of other, suitable options. While there has been collective political and public will to put an end to such practice, should there be a surge in entries to care, Home for Good identifies that many Local authorities will face no other option but to use inappropriate provision such as these in a more widespread way. We recognize older teenagers to therefore be particularly vulnerable to receiving inadequate care if we are to see a surge of entries into care.