England: Foster Care Cottage Industry Comes of Age in Wave of Privatization
Foster Care: Cottage Industry in Search of a Middleman?
Part 2 in a series on recent developments in child welfare England.
According to journalist Christopher Booker of The Independent, the child removal rates are indeed astounding. “The latest figures show that applications to take children from their parents into care continue to break all records – nearly 1,000 a month in England and Wales alone…”
Just where the foster parents to handle the deluge are going to come from is anyone’s best guess. A press release issued on March 14, 2013, reports that: “Capstone Foster Care, a UK based independent foster care agency, has just completed a survey of over 230 UK adults to better understand the U K’s attitude towards fostering and gauge the knowledge of the nation on the subject.”
As the actual study is unavailable on the organization’s web site, we are constrained to the description of the results in the press release:
With a number of children waiting to be fostered, the survey highlighted that a large majority of UK adults would not consider fostering a child, with 70% of respondents considering themselves very unlikely or unlikely to foster a child in the future. Only 6% would consider themselves likely or extremely likely to foster a child in the future, with the remainder not sure or undecided.
Surprisingly, the survey also highlighted that those from less affluent households were more likely to consider fostering a child than those from well off households. Of the 6% of respondents who answered that they were likely or extremely likely to consider fostering a child in the future, all came from households with a combined income of less than £50’000, and nearly two-thirds of these had a combined household income of less than £30’000.
What Parliament seeks do accomplish is far more ambitious than just taking children into care and working toward their possible reunification with their families at the customary snail’s pace. It now seeks as fait accompli to turn a majority of foster care givers into prospective adoptive parents by means of a new “fast track process” through the magic of “concurrent planning” to find children “loving homes without delay.”2
As a recent paper issued by the Department of Education entitled An Action Plan for Adoption: Tacking Delay explains:
Concurrent planning is a well-established process which can help provide early stability for children who may be adopted. Where local authorities use this approach, prospective adopters who are also approved as foster carers, care for the child from soon after the child enters care and work with the local authority to see if a child can return home, assessing the birth parents’ capacity to care for the child and maintaining contact. Concurrent planning has been introduced in several London authorities including Harrow, Islington and Camden, in partnership with Coram. Almost all concurrent planning placements have resulted in the baby being adopted by the carers with whom they have lived, in most cases, from just a few weeks of age. Concurrent planning means that children get a stable loving home as early as possible and that the risks of disruption are taken by adults rather than children.
That is quite a lot to expect from a reluctant 6 percent with so much as a modest interest in becoming foster parents. And, it is certainly quite a lot for prospective adoptive parents to endure, as fostering a child comes with no warranty express or implied.3
Far from being part of a mere cottage industry, some foster care givers have taken to making raising other people’s children a full time avocation. According to Be My Parent – a family-finding service for children in the UK, provided by the British Association for Adoption & Fostering:
Increasingly, fostering is seen as a professional role, and some foster carers are making fostering a ‘career’. Foster carers like these are registered self-employed with their fostering agencies, and receive a fee for the work they do in addition to a fostering allowance for the care of a child. Other foster carers are volunteers and they receive an allowance but no fees. Foster carers do not pay tax on the first £10,000 per year of their fostering income.
How much actual income may a British foster family bring in? “Recommended national minimum fostering allowances were introduced in England in April 2007 and in Northern Ireland in 2006,” the aim being “to make payments to foster carers consistent across the different local authorities.”
On January 29, 2013, the Department for Education announced the national minimum fostering allowances for 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 in England:
To be sure, many foster carers “will be entitled to more than the minimum allowance, depending on their skills and experience and the age and needs of the child, but no foster carer should receive less.”
According to Love Fostering – Need Pay, a survey of over 2,000 foster care givers conducted by The Fostering Network in 2008-09, at that time, over 53,000 children lived with 43,000 foster families throughout the UK, providing for over 75% of placements.
– English Foster Carer
66 per cent of respondents said they have no paid employment other than fostering. And, in some instances, the terms of their agreement with a foster care agency expressly prevents them taking on outside employment. As one foster carer put it: “I am not allowed to have any other job while I am a foster carer, which means I am unable to subsidise my income. Fostering should therefore pay a living wage.”
The only consistency to be found is the existence of many inconsistencies. 26 percent of survey participants said they were paid 52 weeks per year, including periods when they have no child in placement. Others received nothing while they awaited a placement, while having being instructed not to work outside the home. 54 percent of respondents received fee rates of less than the equivalent of a forty hour work week based on the minimum wage.
By way of providing a wider-reaching perspective, assuming that a foster caretaker receives the upper end of the pay allowance of £250 for the full 52 weeks out of the year, that would amount to about $20,158 per year in US dollars, of which the first $15,506 would be tax free. Not the most generous of stipends.
But getting paid at all – let alone what you may be owed – may be problematic. In July 2013, the Local Government Ombudsman ruled that the Liverpool council had underpaid hundreds of care givers across the city. The investigation revealed that around 340 carers in the Merseyside area had been underpaid for years.
The Liverpool council graciously accepted the Ombudsman’s ruling, agreeing to backdate payments to all of the affected parties.
On the whole, the city councils have not fared well in terms of providing their mandate to protect children. Research by Community Care – a subsidiary of Reed Information Services that provides a web site “for social workers and social care professionals” – reveals that as of June 2013, 25 percent of 70 councils that were recently inspected failed. The surprising part, according to Community Care’s writeup, is that among the quarter rated as “inadequate” are those councils “considered to be best practice leaders, like Devon and Kingston Upon Thames.”
Responding to criticism from government officials of the Somerset County Council’s “adequate” rating, Frances Nicholson, the Council’s cabinet member for children and families, replied in the Somerset Standard in a letter to the editor, defending the council, saying:
This is crystal clear. We do not accept that “Adequate” is good enough. We have already taken steps to improve. We are recruiting more social workers to help deal with the huge rise in numbers of children in care – it is worth noting that just a few years ago there were about 300 children in our care, now there are well over 500.
The opposition spokesman knows this and knows the reason behind that rise, which is linked to the Baby Peter Connolly scandal, something totally outside this council’s control.
While it is certainly true that the increase in reporting that invariably follows after the tragic death of a child is something that is outside the council’s control, what is well within its ambit is how it responds to the crush of reports. The Urban Institute, in a report entitled The Decision to Investigate: Understanding State Child Welfare Screening Policies and Practices, explains that screening child abuse is part of a responsible program to control caseloads, while minimizing the intrusion on innocent families.
Critics such as Douglas Besharov, founding director of the National Center on Child abuse and Neglect, among others, have long called for responsible mechanisms to curtail false or inappropriate reports, as the Institute explains, “Screening enables child welfare agencies to respond to this increased work burden in a prioritized fashion. In theory, this type of screening should reduce caseloads to a manageable number so that investigators have time to conduct thorough investigations of accepted cases and make the best use of limited resources.” More on point, the Institute further explains:
For inappropriate reports of maltreatment, screening can also reduce unnecessary intrusion into families’ private lives. Many argue that current child maltreatment statutes are vague and overly broad and, coupled with expansions of mandatory reporting laws, have led to an increase in the number of families investigated but a decrease in the percentage of substantiated reports. These critics argue that the declining percentage of substantiated reports is a result of investigation of inappropriate referrals, which causes an unnecessary intrusion into families’ privacy. Screening is a mechanism state child welfare agencies have been using to reduce such intrusions and to ensure that only appropriate cases are investigated. Cases that are screened out generally involve no contact with the reported family and therefore could represent effective triaging without subjecting families to intrusion or shame.1
It is also within the council’s authority to pull in the reigns on its social workers. While it is unclear whether the council has expressly called for an increase in child removals in response to the Connolly scandal, cabinet member Nicholson’s remarks leave no doubt that the council has condoned them.
An article published in the July 2013 edition of the British Journal of Social Work entitled Moral Panics, Claims-Making and Child Protection in the UK examines the role of the child protection charities in issuing press releases on a regular basis with the apparent intent of influencing public policy through inflated or exaggerated claims. Both policy and practice may be susceptible to distortion by such claims. As the abstract explains “claims-making has had a detrimental effect on child protection, contributing to a coarsening of attitudes towards families in child protection work, a retreat from preventative practice and a deterioration in relationships between social workers, service users and members of the public more generally.”
In an online interview on Podsocs, a web site intended primarily for social workers, Gary Clapton, one of the paper’s authors, speaks about how Barnardo’s and some of the other larger charities that profit from the child protection industry issue a stream of press releases – sometimes on a weekly basis – framing the issues in a manner calculated to stir up a panic. He calls these releases “a form of propaganda,” adding that they are issued in “a competition for government grants.” The panic that results puts pressure on child protection workers, making them “more risk adverse” in terms of leaving children with their families when they are in doubt.
It is a rather peculiar, but very effective form of advertising certain to inspire reports. Clearly the major financial beneficiaries of this arrangement are the private firms that provide an increasing number of the foster care and adoptive placements.
Close up: Demonizing the Poor
In his Forward to the 2012 government report Social Justice: transforming lives, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith writes:
I was recently handed a report by a charity containing images and sculptures created by a number of vulnerable children. One of the scenes was produced by ten young people whose parents were substance abusers, and the caption below the photo read as follows:
“The house of children whose parents are addicted to crack-cocaine. Dad has passed out on the mattress in his own vomit, mum is crouched over a table, preparing her fix. What you don’t see is the child hidden in the corner crying.”
This is how these children chose to represent their home lives.
The antidote to this particular variety of political snake venom arrives in the form of a report from the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland and the United Reformed Church.
In The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty, the churches painstakingly dissect not only this particular statement, but other prevalent myths about poverty in the United Kingdom as well. As the coalition explains: “Collectively we have come to believe things about poverty in the UK which are not grounded in fact. We need to develop an understanding of the depth and breadth of UK poverty that is compatible with the evidence available. Just as importantly we need to match the language of public debate with the reality of people’s lives.”
The coalition describes how a narrative is transformed from its original meaning into a claim of the variety exposed by Clapton and colleagues:
The story of the ‘Troubled Families’ is a case study of excellent initial research being misused for political purposes. The original study showed there were a large number of families, highly disadvantaged and mainly in poverty, who were in need of help. This fact was misused to tell a story of 120,000 dysfunctional, anti-social families costing the nation a fortune; a story which makes the existence of poverty far more acceptable to those who are not affected.
Too many cooks stirring the pot?
Another part of the problem is suggested by a Unison report that found nine councils had over 100 outside service providers to do business with, while another 31 councils had at least 50.
Freedom of Information requests were used by the union to obtain the information, the results of which were reported in an August 2 article in Community Care.
– Heather Wakefield, Unison
“Councils no longer have proper insight into how home care services are run,” said Unison’s head of local government, Heather Wakefield.
“Privatisation, huge budget cuts, a proliferation of providers, and a situation where councils can commission care from hundreds of different organisations has been synonymous with drastically declining standards. This all adds up to putting elderly and vulnerable people at risk.”
This is not a promising observation, particularly in light of the recent push toward outsourcing of foster care services.
On July 18, 2013, Rajeev Syal of The Guardian ran with a headline reading “Social services for vulnerable children in England to be privatised.” The article explains:
The government is planning to allow outsourcing firms to bid for contracts to manage social services for vulnerable children in England – while dropping laws allowing the removal of companies that fail to do the job properly.
A number of firms have expressed an interest in proposals that would allow them to bid for contracts managing foster care and providing other services for children in care.
But Labour says the plans would take away legal provisions that allow councils to remove a firm that has failed to meet national minimum standards. They would also relax the rules governing independent inspections of services that place and monitor children who are looked after by the state.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that “two of the biggest outsourcing companies in Britain, Serco and G4S, are being investigated for overbilling the taxpayer by charging to tag offenders who were dead or in prison.”
Shadow children’s minister Lisa Nandy told The Guardian that the latest plans would leave some of Britain’s most vulnerable children at the mercy of an unregulated private sector. She wrote to the regulatory reform committee, which is considering a draft legislative reform order, urging it to reject the government’s plans.
“For the government to consider outsourcing a sensitive service such as foster care to the private sector, when we have just seen with G4S and Serco how a profit motive can have disastrous consequences for the public purse, is madness. The proposals remove many of the checks and balances required to ensure the safety of children whilst introducing the unchecked unpredictability of the market. They should withdraw these proposals now and think again,” wrote Nandy.
The Pilot Projects
Guardian journalist Rajeev Syal explains that: “Pilots in six areas where the private sector was involved, inspected by Ofsted, were set up as a response to concerns that social workers were overburdened and unable to dedicate enough time to supporting children in care. The evaluation, published last year, showed mixed results but no better outcomes for children in care.
“An evaluation of the pilots by academics from King’s College London, the University of Central Lancashire and the Institute of Education found there was limited evidence for relocating public services for children in out-of-home care to the private sector.”
While the pilots were far from being outright failures, and in some cases showed some promising results, the results were – at best – mixed. Among the findings of the study:
- Changes in the political and economic context have had mixed effects for the pilots.
- Verdicts on the SWPs have been mixed with participants in this evaluation identifying achievements and challenges as well as winners and losers in the experience of the pilots.
- The needs of looked after children and young people are often long-standing and profound; consequently they are unlikely to be resolved by an intervention delivered over two years.
- Children?s and young people?s accounts showed no differences between pilots and comparison sites in terms of allocated workers? accessibility and responsiveness.
- Likewise, there were no substantial differences found between pilot and comparison sites regarding the quality of children?s and young people?s relationships with allocated workers or their satisfaction with support.
- Some children and young people expressed anger about their lack of involvement in the decision and regarded the move to the pilot as yet another change that had been imposed on them.
Privatization in Perspective
Foster care has frequently been described as a political hot potato.4
When a politically sensitive event occurs in child protection, however, it may more accurately be described as a game of badminton, with each political opponent frantically seeking to land the shuttlecock in the other party’s court. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are equally capable of taking the safest course of action, which is to expand the bureaucratic “safety net” for children when called upon to do so.
Few would dispute that former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher deserves the lion’s share of the credit – or the blame depending on one’s perspective – for the wave of privatization that continues to ripple throughout the United Kingdom today. As margaretthatcher.org explains in her online biography:
The government began to pursue a policy of selling state assets, which in total had amounted to more than 20 per cent of the economy when the Conservatives came to power in 1979. The British privatisations of the 1980s were the first of their kind and proved influential across the world.
Where possible, sale of state assets took place through offering shares to the public, with generous terms for small investors. The Thatcher Governments presided over a great increase in the number of people saving through the stock market. They also encouraged people to buy their own homes and to make private pension provision, policies which over time have greatly increased the personal wealth of the British population.
Regardless of how the costs and the benefits may weigh out in other sectors, in the industry of child protection, privatization has not served children and families well.
Privatization was pushed as medicine sure to cure the ills of the foster care system during the mid-1990s, but some early critics of the privatization efforts in Kansas, where the grand social experiment began, suggested during testimony that it only added another cold and impersonal bureaucratic layer to contend with.
Over a decade later, the Kansas Joint Committee on Children’s Issues described the privatized system as one in which there are instances when contractors “do not place children with family, are allowed to submit sometimes subjective court reports parents and family of the child are not allowed to see, act in arbitrary ways, do not return children when parents have completed reintegration plans, and don’t provide enough meaningful contact between children and parents in their visitation policies.”
In August 2012, the Center for Public Integrity branded Nebraska’s efforts at privatizing its child welfare system, as “a public failure.”
Nebraska Appleseed had expressed concerns about the reform effort in 2010, asking whether the State was heading in the right direction. As Appleseed explained: “We are concerned about the impact of these substantial changes on children and families in the system, particularly at a time when the system is already in flux.”
Appleseed concluded that: “This reform, not even one year old, has resulted in turmoil for hundreds of children and families, state and private agency employees, and community based agencies in our state as well as the loss of millions of dollars.”
Nebraska’s Foster Care Review Board weighed in on the issues in a letter addressed to legislators, writing: “The implementation of the Reform was besought with problems from the start. . . the Reform has undergone constant change, has not been fully staffed resulting in multiple staff changes, payment delays to foster families and service providers, documentation issues, difficulties accessing services, visitation supervision issues and delayed permanancy,”
Nebraska’s Foster Care Review Board’s Office’s 2012 Annual Report revealed high levels of caseworker turnover, missing documentation, and a lack of complete case plans. All three problems worsened after the state turned over major responsibilities for managing child welfare and juvenile justice to private sector contractors.
The Texas Experience
After nine months of planning, Texas entered into an $899 million, five-year contract with Accenture who was to monitor other contractors involved in the conversion to a privatized and modernized welfare system. The Clearinghouse REVIEW Journal of Poverty Law and Policy details what happened next:
In early 2006, some six months after the contract signing, the system rolled out in two counties. Disaster ensued. Low-income people had trouble getting through to the call centers, and poorly trained call center staff could not process applications timely or solve client problems. Clients suffered major delays in getting benefits. For example, the food stamp application timely processing rate was only 80 percent in March 2006. Child enrollment in Medicaid plunged, and adult Medicaid enrollment also dropped. CHIP enrollment fell due to both the new system and tougher new enrollment policies. Significant technical problems, clients’ difficulty getting through to the call center, and inadequately trained private call center staff were among the major causes of the disaster. In response to the Center for Public Policy Priorities’ prerollout request, both the state and the USDA assigned staff to help with client problems. The USDA and its independent contractor monitored implementation in the initial months and identified serious deficiencies—application processing delays, misinformation given by call center staff to clients, insufficient documenting of client problems, inadequate computer and system testing, a rollout schedule that left no time to resolve problems, and inadequate staffing.
Writing for the Progressive States Network, Nathan Newman explained in an article posted in August 2006: “The poster child for the failure of privatization has been Texas’ attempt to hand over management of social services in that state to Accenture, a Bermuda-based consulting firm. Computer systems have failed, costs have mounted, and, worst of all, the result has been tens of thousands of children being dropped from health insurance rolls because of bungling by the private contractor.”
Texas State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn started an investigation of the company, saying that: “The Accenture contract appears to be the perfect storm of wasted tax dollars, reduced access to services for our most vulnerable Texans, and profiteering at the expense of our Texas taxpayers.”
Undeterred by the experience, the Texas legislature sought to privatize foster care services as well. In April 2007, the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities issued a paper cautioning that:
a major disadvantage to rapid privatization is that it would cause terrible disruptions to children. If a CPS foster home is unable or unwilling to transfer to a private provider, a child will lose his or her home. Even if foster parents are willing to move from CPS to private providers, private providers will have different managers, therapists, and doctors, disrupting the continuity of care to children. A mandate to privatize in 24 months would have tragic consequences for children.
Texas nevertheless continued on its push toward privatization of foster care and child welfare services, hitting a major roadblock in August of 2012, when it was announced that Lutheran Social Services of the South had lost its bid to privatize foster care in South Texas because of what was reported as “a history of problems” at three of its operations in the Lone Star State.
Among other things, Lutheran Social Services staffers had “routinely failed to properly oversee foster homes, conduct background checks on families and protect youth from abuse and neglect,” according to a letter sent to the company by the state child protection agency.
Note: Throughout this article the spelling for “privatization” varies between the spelling used in the United States and the Queen’s English.
2. All of this classic child saving rhetoric may be found in An Action Plan for Adoption: Tacking Delay (2012). It attains a new level saying that as adoptions are at their lowest point for a decade means “a cruel rationing of human love for those most in need.”
3. Adoptive children almost always come with promises that are seldom delivered. See for example Ross v. Louise Wise Services, Inc., 28 A.D.3d 272, 812 N.Y.S.2d 325, N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. (2006); Gibbs v. Ernst, 538 Pa. 193, 647 A.2d 882 (1994); Roe v. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Springfield, 225 III.App.3d 519, 588 N.E.2d 354, 167 III. Dec.713, 60 USLW 2602, 2 NDLR P 269 (1992); McKinney v. State of Washington, 134 Wn.2d 388, 950 P.2d. 461 (1988); Burr v. Board of County Com’rs of Stark County, 23 Ohio St. 3d 69, 491 N.E.2d 1101, 56 A.L.R.4th 357 (1986); Mohr v. Commonwealth, 421 Mass. 147, 653 N.E. 2d 1104 (1995); M.H. v. Caritas Family Servs., 288 N.W.2d 282 (Minn.1992); Meracle v. Children’s Serv. Soc’y of Wis., 149 Wis.2d 19, 437 N.W.2d 532 (1989); Juman v. Louise Wise Servs., 159 Misc.2d 314, 608 N.Y.S.2d 612 (1994), aff’d, 211 A.D.2d 446, 630 N.Y.S.2d 371 (1995). England’s first wrongful adoption case was heard in 2002, according to an article in The Guardian.
4. See for example “From Pariahs to Partners by David Tobis (noting that the Wilder lawsuit in New York City “dragged on for 25 years because it was such a political hot potato”); Herald-Tribune, Give Weinrich and ‘Y’ more credit, November 6, 2007 (likening the YMCA’s role in foster care in Florida to a political hot potato); Stephen Clutter, “Group-Homes Issue Is Sent Back To The Planners – Bellevue Council Shelves A Hot Potato,” Seattle Times, June 7, 1994; Jennifer Michael, Defining Family, in Children’s Voice, the official publication of the Child Welfare League of America, Sept/Oct 2006 (describing the cancellation of a gay parenting workshop for social workers because it was a political hot potato); Sheryl Stolberg, “Digre Digs In: New Children’s Services Chief Arrives in L.A., Goes Right to Work,” Los Angeles Times, January 03, 1991 (describing Digre’s “predecessors’ inability to survive in a job that is widely regarded as a political hot potato”).