A new approach to vulnerable families is urgently needed. That's the conclusion of our inquiry into children in care, published on Wednesday.
In early 2012, eight chief executives of charities working with children and families in England got together to discuss approaches to finding permanent homes for children in and on the edge of care. All eight support the government's desire to speed up decision-making and to strengthen support after adoption. But adoption will only ever be the best option for a small minority of children who can't live with their birth parents, and we need a similar level of commitment to improving the life chances of all children in care.
And so the Care Inquiry was born. Its remit: to investigate how best to provide stable and permanent homes for all vulnerable children in England who cannot live with their birth parents. In addition to consulting directors of children's services, politicians, academics, managers and practitioners, we heard evidence from more than 200 care leavers, adoptees, adopters, social workers, foster carers, kinship carers and birth families.
All stressed the importance of relationships for children, but found that all too often the care system is better at breaking relationships than making them. Too many children have too many moves between homes, and whether the system works in providing them with a permanent, stable place to live often seems to be a matter of luck. Important relationships are being broken for these children, whether that be with birth parents, siblings, other family members, previous foster carers, social workers, friends or teachers.
Problems within the care system are not new, but there is increasing strain in the lives of vulnerable children and families because of increases in unemployment and poverty, and changes to the benefit system. Public sector budget cuts are preventing local authorities from fully discharging their duty of care to these young people and their families.
Central and local government must rethink the purpose of care and the way in which the most vulnerable children and families are treated. All care options – returning home, kinship care, adoption, foster care, special guardianship and residential care – must be seen as equally valid, and given the same political, financial and cultural priority.
A more flexible response is needed, with support to families varying in intensity as their circumstances change, and with support based on need, not legal status. This will help to ensure that children in need can stay at home or return home safely, and that those who can't are supported to develop and maintain permanent relationships.
This requires changes in practice and a cultural shift: Whitehall, local authorities and those working in the care system must focus more on the importance of relationships than on legal status.
The Care Inquiry has identified steps to achieving this. Now it is the responsibility of all of us in the sector to make sure these changes become a reality.
• Robert Tapsfield is chief executive of the Fostering Network and Chair of the Care Inquiry steering group