In 2000, the country was shocked to the core by the murder of 8-year-old Victoria Climbié. She was privately fostered with her great aunt, who had arranged a fostering agreement with the child’s parents. After this tragic case, legislation was swiftly introduced to stop another tragedy by ensuring that vulnerable children were placed in safe, secure homes, regardless of the relationship of the carer to the child. It also means that local authorities now have to be a part of any private fostering arrangement, regardless of whether or not it’s a private arrangement between family members, or a third-party foster carer.
Today, the legislation is even tighter, offering protection to vulnerable young people who are fostered through private agencies and arrangements rather than through local authority fostering programmes. We’ve put together a quick guide on private fostering and who is responsible for what when it comes to the welfare of vulnerable children.
What is private fostering?
A private fostering arrangement is when a child under 16 (or 18 if they are disabled) is placed with foster carers for 28 days or longer. If a child stays with a distant relative or other adult for 27 days or less, then it is not regarded as ‘fostering’, and unless there is serious concern for the welfare of the child there is no requirement to notify the local authority. However, any length of time over a 27-day period could be regarded as a private fostering arrangement and is governed by a set of strict criteria.
Private foster carers can be members of the extended family but cannot be a relative as defined in the Children Act 1989, such as a grandparent. The foster carer will be someone who is not the child’s natural birth parents, or a close relative, friend or other person directly connected with the child.
There must be notification made to the local authority if a child is living with a private foster carer for more than 28 days.
Private foster caring isn’t a snap decision. If it’s decided that a child is to be placed with a private foster carer for more than 28 days, the carer must notify the relevant authorities at least six weeks before the arrangement begins, and supply them with relevant information, including the child’s history, their health, education, and religious or cultural background.
There is also a wealth of other information that the authorities will ask for, all designed to ensure that the best interests of the child are being catered to and that they are in a safe and secure environment, even if it is only temporary.
What the local authority has to do
Not only must the local authority stay up to date on the status of the child in private foster care, but they also need to liaise with Social Services to ensure a social worker carries out checks to ensure that the situation is in the best interests of the child. That will include a home visit to ensure the accommodation is adequate and provides the child with good quality living conditions, that the proposed carers are fully aware of their responsibilities, and to investigate any financial arrangements to make sure they make due provision for the care of the child.
During a period of private fostering, the situation is continually monitored by Social Services, and if the arrangement is regarded as no longer suitable, but the child cannot be returned to the biological parents, then it is up to the local authorities to decide what to do to safeguard the child’s welfare.
They can also help the foster carer with advice and guidance on making benefits claims and parenting support. This observation period will carry on continuously while the child is in the care of the foster parents, and there will be a visit from social workers at least once every six weeks in the first year, and then once every 12 weeks from them on.
The status of the carer
Once you take on a foster child, you become their primary carer, which means you make the day-to-day decisions on behalf of the child. That can include everything from schooling to medical treatment. The biological parents of the child still have parental responsibility and can exercise it or delegate certain aspects of the care of the child to the foster carer.
If a private foster care arrangement is coming to an end (for whatever reason) then the ongoing welfare of the child is paramount. Foster carers must notify their local authority (preferably directly through their caseworker) at least 48 hours before the arrangement finishes so that the authorities can decide the best course of action. Part of that will be to ascertain who will be taking on the care of the child, or if the local authority must step in.
Looking after a vulnerable young person is a major commitment, and because of the legislative revisions since the Victoria Climbié case, potential foster carers now need to meet far more stringent standards if they are taking on the care of a child, regardless of their relationship. If you are concerned about a foster care arrangement or are planning to enter into a private foster care agreement, then it’s vital that you talk to a family law solicitor beforehand.