Care reformers must lend their ears to looked-after children

David Holmes is chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering

The green paper Care Matters is vital. Despite great efforts at reform to ensure children benefit from being in care, results are still not good enough. We at the British Association for Adoption and Fostering are pleased that the Government has made looked-after children a top priority.

Now, this commitment must translate into the best deal for children via the 2007 comprehensive spending review.

Since consultation began in October, BAAF has been considering its response. This must be informed by what children tell us they want, not by what adults tell them they need. Government has tried hard to listen, and young people's views must not be lost in the reform.

Young people in care say they want more contact with brothers and sisters, more choice in where they live, help in school when they need it, someone to have aspirations for them and a decent place to live when they leave care. Above all, they want to be treated like others and to feel normal.

They do not want a bureaucratic childhood.

Many of the proposals have great merit. But there are so many proposals that would need legislative, procedural and administrative reform that implementing them all could lead to even more elaborate and complex structures than exist now. In short, they may add up to a childhood that is more bureaucratic and less ordinary.

We must move beyond good ideas to a serious discussion about how to cost, prioritise and put into practice the best of Care Matters. So, which proposals will make the biggest difference to children? And do we agree on what they are? The green paper recognises that decisions are often made on behalf of children in care by people they do not know. We know how much children resent this. But under the proposals, a child in care in future can expect to have tiered foster or residential carers, a local authority social worker, a more powerful independent reviewing officer, maybe an independent practice social worker, a virtual headteacher, a statutory designated teacher, a named health worker, an individual advocatevisitor, and a local authority councillor. Will creating a lead professional for children in care help to reduce this mass of roles, and do we all agree on who that person should be?

Another key proposal is a tiered framework for foster-carers. This assumes that some children will have few extra needs while others will have complex ones. Carers with more skills and qualifications would be paid more to look after children with greater needs. But how many children in foster care will have few extra needs? And will a tiered system deliver what children want from placements - more choice over where they live, the stability of family life, and someone to aspire for them?

We believe the focus should be on changing practice, not systems. The proposals underplay the contribution that foster-carers can make to children's lives. Normality can best be provided by the day-to-day carer and most looked-after children live with foster-carers. But they often lack power to act on behalf of children. Empowering carers to build relationships with schools is crucial. They should be invited to sports days and parents' evenings, but teachers too often do not know who to contact about problems or if there is praise to be passed on. We must train, support and value carers and be clear about their roles.

BAAF will back the proposals it believes will make the biggest difference for children: enabling them to stay with foster-carers until they are 21; giving them a veto on leaving care before 18; and reducing the numbers of placement moves. Practical measures such as avoiding unnecessary moves in Years 10 and 11, putting designated teachers on a statutory footing and giving looked-after children priority in schools admissions will also get our support. What happens at home, school - and the relationship between the two - are all equally important.

We urge you to think about what will make the biggest difference, and to respond to the consultation before it ends on January 15.

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