A Passion for Permanence

Author: TACT

Tags: Fostering, Permanence, Social Work

Date: 20th January 2017

Aileen Nicol, Permanence and Care Lead at CELCIS, explains why reducing time delays for children with care needs is crucial.

My lightbulb moment came when I was working as a Foster Care Manager at TACT. I had seen too many instances of looked after children (those in care) where decisions about where they should live in the long-term were put on hold – what we call their ‘drift and delay’ – for a variety of complex reasons. I had seen this repeatedly happening for eight years of my career, and I thought: enough! Let’s grab drift and delay by the scruff of the neck and pick up the pace for children reaching their permanent home.

In England, the notion of permanence usually means a form of adoption or fostering (i.e. care outside of the family home); whereas in Scotland we use a broader definition – keeping the child at home with family support; returning the child to the family home with support from professionals; kinship care where the child is cared for by another family member; long term permanence fostering; residential care or adoption.

I started to consider the root causes of drift and delay. There are many individuals and professional groups involved in a child’s life – parents, social workers, health workers, teachers, foster carers, advocacy workers, to name a few. What was missing for me was more purposeful and joined up dialogue, with less drift and delay in decision making around the eventual permanence option.

Research evidence is clear that delaying decisions on a child’s permanent home can seriously hamper their life chances. Narrowing the gap in the time it takes to settle a child in a stable home, can improve what they achieve in life. When a child’s wellbeing is compromised within their birth family, for whatever reason, we need to act early with thorough and robust assessments, sensitive parent and child support and effective decision making. The clock on that child’s childhood never stops ticking, and it’s all of our jobs to ensure alarm bells keep clanging all the way to early physical, emotional and legal permanence. Issues are many and complicated and we need everyone working together to get it right.

I am passionate about making sure we get decisions about a child’s permanence option assessed, evidenced and agreed in partnership with parents and the team around the child. Getting It Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) is the Scottish Government’s holistic wellbeing policy blueprint which enables this to happen.

Recently, I wrote in the Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care about Keiran, whose permanent option eventually became long-term permanent foster care. The team around Keiran worked hard with him, his family, his foster carer and his teachers to make the move as smooth as possible, and was managed in such a way as to minimise distress or trauma for him. There was fantastic whole-system working, but it had taken Keiran several years to be settled in his family of permanence.

My role at CELCIS has allowed me to turn my lightbulb moment into positive action. We believe that once we have given families all possible opportunities and support to care for a child and if they are still unable to do so, that the child should be provided with a settled, secure and permanent place to live with minimum disruption to their young lives.

We are working with the Scottish Government on the Permanence & Care Excellence (PACE) programme, aimed at developing innovative and rigorous approaches to reduce drift and delay in permanence decision making for looked after children. In Aberdeenshire, the permanence process has almost halved in time, which has exceeded the original aim.

The PACE programme is underway in ten local authorities and will be rolled out to every local authority in Scotland. PACE is built around a whole-system improvement approach including social workers, colleagues from education, health, legal and data services, Children’s Hearing Scotland, third sector agencies and the Scottish Government all coming together in partnership to make informed decisions about the future of looked after children. At last, the much needed cohesion and dialogue requires for improvement! Woohoo!

I have been encouraged by what PACE has achieved so far. It has been great to observe groups of individuals involved in a child’s life plans communicating with each other, and understanding each other’s viewpoints. Clearly, there is strong motivation and commitment to improving life chances of looked after children, with permanence being a crucial focus of this process. There are exciting, creative and energetic initiatives happening, and working, in local practice throughout the country. But there is still a long, long, way to go to ensure we are getting this this right for every looked after child. We all have our role to play here.

If you want to know more about our permanence work you can read our special edition of REACH magazine.

Aileen Nicol