Understanding Permanence for Looked After Children: A review of research for the Care Inquiry
In 2012, The Care Inquiry was established with the support of the Nuffield Foundation. It is a collaboration of specialist charities. Adoption UK, British Association of Adoption & Fostering (BAAF), Family Rights Group, the Fostering Network, Research in Practice, TACT, The Together Trust and The Who Cares? Trust brought together their expertise and knowledge – and that of others within the sector – to explore how society can best provide homes for some of our most vulnerable children.
The Care Inquiry held four evidence gathering sessions between November 2012 and January 2013, and I was very pleased to be invited to speak at the first of those sessions. The paper I gave formed the basis of a longer research review, which was published with the final report of the Care Inquiry on 30 April 2013. My remit was to consider what research tells us about how we should understand permanence for looked after children, and how best permanence might be achieved. Government policy in recent years has placed a strong emphasis on adoption, and while this is positive in many ways, it could lead to a ‘hierarchy of care’, whereby adoption is prioritised as a route to permanence, and the permanence needs of other children in the system are neglected.
Most children who encounter the ‘looked after system’ – 100,000 in a year – will not follow pathways to legal permanence, through adoption, special guardianship orders or residence orders. Research shows clearly the importance of thinking beyond legal permanence in finding solutions to match individual children’s needs. Understandings of permanence must be differentiated, with a variety of possible pathways to permanence that are equally valued and that share common principles in planning to meet children’s lifetime needs. Such differentiation is essential to respond to children’s diverse needs and circumstances, ensuring the best solution for each child and taking account of the complexity of their identity and the important relationships in their lives.
It should be possible to conceive of permanence as a common objective for work with children and young people across services, but this positive conception is likely to depend on addressing low expectations of success for public care as an intervention to support children’s upbringing. In the words of a manager of a French secure unit, interviewed in one of my previous studies, the aim of care is to provide a ‘cadre de vie’ – an environment for life – concerned with individuals’ life-needs, through childhood and beyond. In that context, it was very welcome to hear Edward Timpson (the DfE Minister with responsibility for looked after children) emphasising that there should be no hierarchy of care. We’ve been delighted that the Care Inquiry reports have been so well received. The reasons why this work is so important are summed up – better than I ever could! – in a film made by just a few of the 100 young people who advised the Inquiry in its work.