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Private Fostering: Safe Or Dangerous?

January 20, 2009

The British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) says that thousands of children in the United Kingdom might be unlawfully fostered and could be at risk of abuse and trafficking.

According to the British law, the authorities must be informed at once if a child is left with someone except parents or close relatives, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. When a child is being looked after family friends or distant relatives it is considered as private fostering, which is more useful and a better alternative to foster care.

10,000 kids all across Britain are estimated to live with people who are not their close family. Many might be at risk of abuse and humiliation, and yet nobody knows who they are, who they live with, who is taking care of them, or where they live. Children could live in fostering arrangements for different reasons: some having bad relationships with their parents, some sent abroad in order to find a better life, some having sick parents, some have parents in prison, or serving in the army, it includes also children brought to the country by traffickers, etc.

Not everyone knows that if children live with someone who is not their immediate family for more than 28 days, it is considered as "unofficial" if care chiefs are not being notified. David Holmes, chief executive of BAAF, says: "Children in private fostering situations can be invisible and it is very difficult to estimate accurate numbers. While most children in private fostering situations will be well cared for, some may not be. It is those children we are concerned about. When asked, only 26% of people knew what private fostering was. We suspect that even fewer know that the local council needs to be informed of these arrangements." When social services are being informed about an arrangement, they carry out background checks and interview the children from time to time. In some authorities, such as Tower Hamlets, in case of need social workers visit them at home within 24 hours. Many foster carers are afraid of contacts with authorities and do not want them to get involved with their private lives. At the same time, some of them don't even realize that looking after children they are in charge for some period of time, counts as fostering at all.

Private fostering may in most cases be safe and appropriate, but measures to regulate the issue were brought in after the death of Victoria Climbie, the eight-year-old girl violently abused and murdered by her great aunt Marie Therese Kouao and her boyfriend Carl Manning in 2000. She was sent from Ivory Coast to the United Kingdom by her parents, who hoped for a better future for their child. This very case demonstrates the potential vulnerability of this often hidden group of children, often called as "invisible" children.

The BAAF has launched a first Private Fostering Week, national campaign, called Somebody Else's Child, to promote awareness of a private foster care with major involvement for child protection. The charity insists that both the public and professionals start reporting signs of illegal care arrangements and neighbors who are caring for children unrelated to them on a long-term basis. A charity survey showed that 22 per cent of people will not do anything if an unrelated child suddenly appeared living next door, and 7 per cent would not take any measures and get involved if such a child disappeared. Just 25 per cent had an idea what private fostering was.

Sukruti Sen, a family support and protection service manager for Tower Hamlets, has found that the problem of public negligence is compounded by social care professionals who have often very limited information about the meaning of private fostering. She says: "It can be quite shocking how little awareness there is. Some nurses have come up to me and asked if private fostering is where you get paid to foster a child. That level of misunderstanding is worrying." Sen adds: "I absolutely see it as a safeguarding issue. But in every council it is imperative that there is a dedicated team to work on private fostering who have support from director level. There must be strong links with mosques and faith communities, where these arrangements are particularly common."

Councils all over the country are organizing awareness conferences for teachers, social workers, school nurses and pre-schools. They hope that such moves will help unveil the secrecy that still covers many private fostering arrangements. Authorities understand that much more time is needed to realize if the system can work. "Whatever the system is, it's not going to work if people don't know about private fostering. That's why awareness-raising is the most important factor for us," they say.

The research was conducted by ICM who polled about 2000 adults online between December 5 and 7, 2008.

Tags: Parenting and Families