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In 2000, the murder of 8-year-old Victoria Climbié shocked the nation. She was privately fostered with her great aunt, who had arranged a fostering agreement with the child’s parents. Following this tragic case, legislation was swiftly introduced to prevent further tragedies by ensuring that vulnerable children were placed in safe, secure homes, regardless of the relationship of the carer to the child. Local authorities are now a part of any private fostering arrangement, be it a private arrangement between family members, or with a third-party foster carer.
The legislation is now tighter than ever, offering protection to vulnerable young people fostered through private agencies and arrangements rather than through local authority fostering programmes. So, in light of these changes, who is responsible for what regarding the welfare of vulnerable children?
What is private fostering?
A private fostering arrangement involves a child under 16 (or 18 if they are disabled) being 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 beyond a 27-day period could be regarded as a private fostering arrangement and is governed by a set of strict criteria. Notification must be made to the local authority if a child is living with a private foster carer for more than 28 days.
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. By law, the foster carer cannot be the child’s natural birth parents, or a close relative, friend or other person directly connected with the child.
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’s a wealth of additional information that the authorities require, with the intention of catering for the best interests of the child and ensuring they are in a safe and secure environment, even if it’s only temporary.
The local authority’s responsibility
The local authority must monitor the status of the child in private foster care and liaise with Social Services to arrange for a social worker to carry out checks to confirm that the situation is in the best interests of the child. This 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 that any financial arrangements make due provision for the care of the child.
During a period of private fostering, the situation is continually monitored by Social Services. If the arrangement is deemed no longer suitable and the child cannot be returned to the biological parents, then the local authorities must decide how to safeguard the child’s welfare.
They can help the foster carer with advice and guidance on claiming benefits and parenting support. The observation period will continue while the child is in the care of the foster parents, and social workers will visit at least once every six weeks in the first year, and then once every 12 weeks from them on.
The status of the carer
When fostering a child, you become their primary carer and make the day-to-day decisions on their behalf, including schooling and medical treatment. The biological parents of the child retain parental responsibility which can still be exercised. Alternatively, certain aspects of the child’s care can be delegated to the foster carer.
If a private foster care arrangement is due to expire (for whatever reason), then the child’s ongoing welfare 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 best course of action can be determined. This includes identifying who will take 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 potential foster carers must meet 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 plan to enter into a private foster care agreement, then it’s vital that you talk to a family law solicitor beforehand.