6.1.7 Allegations Against Foster Carers

SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER

This procedure applies where allegations are made or suspicions are raised that approved foster carers have caused harm to a child. It should be read in conjunction with the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Procedures.

AMENDMENT

In October 2020, this chapter was updated throughout in line with local practice.

1. Policy

All children are entitled to the same level and standard of protection from harm including those receiving services from statutory or other agencies. For this reason, enquiries and investigations relating to children in receipt of such services must be dealt with under the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Procedures and Working Together to Safeguard Children.

Allegations or suspicions that a foster carer has caused harm to a child will be investigated thoroughly, speedily and sensitively under those procedures and will involve open and honest communication with and support to all those affected.

It is important to note that, although there may be insufficient evidence to support a Police prosecution, this does not mean that action cannot be taken to protect a child nor that the termination of a foster carer's approval cannot be considered.

It should also be noted that it may be necessary to consider during an investigation what action, if any, should be taken with regard to any other children the foster carers have contact with, including their own children.

2. Introduction

The expectation is that:

  1. At the time of a child's placement, foster carers will be provided with detailed information as to the child's history and background, including previous placements and reasons for placements ending in order to inform the fostering family's safe care plan;
  2. All foster carers will receive preparation, training and guidance to help them provide a safe environment for the child and all members of the foster family;
  3. All foster carers will have received information about this procedure and the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Procedures;
  4. All foster carers will be familiar with and adopt the procedures for recording the progress of children placed with them, including any incidents or complaints, and understand that these procedures have been made to protect all those involved in the child's placement, particularly at times of high stress, and will provide important evidence if an allegation is made.

In addition, in relation to the Fostering Service, it is an expectation of the Fostering National Minimum Standards 2011 that:

  • A manger within the Fostering Service is identified to be the Designated Person who liaises with the LADO. In Sheffield Fostering Service, this is the Fostering Service Manager;
  • All staff within the Fostering Service are aware of the requirements of this procedure, including the role of the Disclosure and Barring Service.

3. Procedure

3.1 Initial Action

Any person who receives information or suspects that a child has suffered or is suffering harm in a foster placement must immediately inform the child's social worker or their manager.

On receipt of any such information, the child's social worker, or their Senior Fieldwork Manager must immediately:

  • Inform the supervising social worker;
  • Inform their Senior Fieldwork Manager/ Service Manager.

The supervising social worker will:

  • Inform the Team Manager/Service Manager within the Fostering Service;
  • Inform the social workers for any other child in the placement;
  • Inform any other local authority with an interest in the foster placement;
  • Inform the Designated Officer in the local authority (LADO) within 1 working day.

The recipient of an allegation should not attempt to determine its validity and failure to report it in accordance with these procedures is a potential disciplinary matter.

The relevant Team Manager for the child and the Fostering Team Manager should jointly decide whether the allegation/complaint/concern satisfies the threshold of harm and if the threshold is met then the Fostering Team Manager must notify the Designated Officer and complete the referral form.

Where there is any doubt about threshold for referral to LADO then the Team Manager for the child and Fostering Team Manager may seek the advice of the LADO using the LADO referral process.

If the concern does not satisfy the safeguarding threshold, or if after consultation with the Designated Officer it is agreed it is not a child protection issue (there may be occasions where children are unintentionally harmed in the course of managing a child's challenging behaviour), the case may be appropriately responded to through internal reviewing structures, which may include support and supervision of the foster carers or training.

Where following discussion it is decided that the threshold for LADO is not met, then a Manager's Decision Record must be recorded on the electronic recording system clearly outlining the rationale for this.

If there is insufficient information to identify if the allegation is a standard of care issue or if threshold is met for investigation about suspected abuse, the child's social worker/ manager in consultation with the fostering social worker and manager could make preliminary enquiries whilst being mindful not to compromise any future investigations. If at all possible, the child should be seen outside of the placement and the foster carer should not be made aware of allegations at this point. Any actions regarding preliminary enquiries must be clearly recorded in case notes on the child/ carers files under 'Statutory Visit/ Fostering Supervisory Visit'. These notes should be made available to the LADO.

Where there is reasonable cause to suspect the child has suffered harm the relevant Team Manager for the child should consider whether or not an immediate Strategy Discussion needs to take place (i.e. for medical examination, inviting police to preserve evidence etc.). In these cases a LADO may be invited to attend if appropriate but in any event the conclusion of this should be shared with the LADO. The results of any enquiry completed prior to the LADO Strategy meeting must be made available for the Strategy Meeting in writing.

The relevant Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) must implement the Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Procedures in relation to the allegation/suspicion. They will gather relevant background information and convene a Strategy Meeting within 2 working days of the referral.

For allegations against Sheffield City Council Foster Carers who live in another local authority, in addition to the actions identified above, the child's social worker must:

  1. Make a referral to the LADO for that area and send the LADO referral form and request notification of the outcome of the investigation;
  2. Upon receipt of information, the child's social worker to send information to the Supervising Social Worker in the Fostering Service who should then upload the information to the foster carer's record and inform the Fostering Reviewing Officer of the outcome;
  3. Wherever possible the child's social worker and supervising social worker will attend all Strategy Discussions.

In exceptional cases were immediate action may be necessary to safeguard the welfare of the child, the child's social worker and their manager may decide to request that a new placement be identified.

3.2 The LADO Strategy Discussion

Where threshold is met a Strategy Discussion in the form of a meeting must be held within 2 working days of the referral and will involve a face-to-face meeting. The purpose of the meeting will be to decide if an investigation is necessary and, if so, how it should be carried out. If emergency action is required the Strategy Meeting should be convened as soon as possible.

The meeting will be chaired by a Designated Officer (LADO) who should be independent of management responsibility for the child or carer. The following people will be invited:

  1. The manager of the team undertaking the Section 47 Enquiry;
  2. The child's social worker and their manager;
  3. The supervising social worker linked to the foster carer, and their manager;
  4. The police;
  5. Any other agency involved with the child or foster family.

The Strategy Meeting must consider and record whether any further action in required with respect to:

  • Child protection;
  • Criminal investigation;
  • Fostering panel procedures;
  • Complaint procedures.

In addition the meeting should consider the following issues:

  1. The nature of the allegation, its source and reliability and any previous allegation made against the carer, their family or any other household member;
  2. Background information relating to the foster family, how long the family has been known, how many children have been placed there, the family's known strengths and weaknesses and any exceptional features about the child and the placement;
  3. The involvement of other agencies, for example if the child was placed by another local authority;
  4. The need to inform other agencies who use the foster home;
  5. A referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service for inclusion on the Children's Barred List. This should be considered whenever a carer is deregistered from fostering as a result of safeguarding concerns;
  6. The safety of all children in the household including the foster carer's own children and whether any action is necessary to protect the children including the removal of all or any of the children while the investigation is conducted;
  7. How the needs of any child who has to leave the placement will be met including contact with other children in the placement;
  8. How and by whom the investigation is to be conducted. (It is important that careful consideration is given to the planning of criteria when a joint investigation is recommended. In situations where the Police or Crown Prosecution Service recommend no further action then the social worker must interview the foster carers about all allegations and concerns. Interview notes must be taken and made available to future meetings);
  9. The time-scales for the investigation (see below) and any contingencies should timescales prove unlikely to be met;
  10. How the child should be informed of the procedure to be followed and supported through the process;
  11. Whether the alleged perpetrator should be asked to leave the home while the investigation is conducted and confirmation that the Chair will inform the carers of the allegation verbally and then in writing;
  12. Informing the child's parents of the allegation and devising a 'communication strategy' to ensure they are kept up to-date (where this is appropriate). Also to consider, depending upon the nature of the allegation, whether this impacts upon any contact arrangements that are in place. (Note that where a child is accommodated under section 20 Children Act 1989, the local authority do not have Parental Responsibility);
  13. Once informed of the decision what support to offer the foster carers;
  14. How reports on the investigation will be shared with the foster carers and the child or children in the placement;
  15. Whether further placements should be suspended in the meantime;
  16. Arrangements for reconvening the Strategy Meeting.

Whether or not the Strategy Meeting considers that the allegation or suspicion has any foundation, the matter should be investigated unless there are exceptional circumstances. The minutes of the meeting must contain clear action points and clear time-scales for each action. The action points and timescales will be circulated immediately after the meeting. Actions agreed must be recorded and be the responsibility of named individuals.

Copies of a summary of the action points can be placed on the child's electronic file for information, however it should be clear as to why this is being recorded and should be proportionate and necessary. The full minutes and actions should be held on the foster carer's electronic file.

Any decision to take no further action following the Strategy Meeting must be clearly recorded on the child's and the foster carer's electronic file by the respective Managers on a Managers Decision Record.

3.3 Investigation and Action

In anticipation of the outcome of the investigation and subsequent Foster Care Review being concluded, the supervising social worker or their manager should contact the Fostering Panel Advisor in order to book onto the next panel at the earliest opportunity.

The actions agreed at the Strategy Meeting should be implemented by those responsible within the agreed timescales.

Unless there are circumstances when the details or nature of the allegation cannot be shared immediately, the foster carers should be advised of the allegation as agreed at the Strategy Meeting and of the process to be followed in the investigation, including the possibility that an Initial Child Protection Conference may be convened in relation to their own children.

Where considered appropriate by those at the Strategy Meeting, the foster carers should be given the opportunity to respond to the allegations before any final decision is made about necessary action to protect the child and other children in the household. Such protective action may include asking the person against whom the allegation has been made to leave the household while the investigation is conducted.

Placements

Any decision to suspend making further placements with the foster carer while the investigation is being conducted should be communicated in writing to the foster carer by the manager of the fostering service.

No further placements of any kind should be made with the foster carers until the enquiry has been concluded unless the Strategy Meeting decides otherwise.

Maintaining Independence in the Enquiry/ Investigation

The close relationship between carers and Children's Services and the need to ensure the investigation remains independent should be taken into consideration in the management of any enquiries/ investigation. During the course of the investigation the Fostering Team Manager will nominate a second worker from the fostering service who will undertake the investigation working alongside the fostering social worker. Any reports completed should be sent to the LADO Strategy Meeting. Both the fostering social worker and the investigation officer will attend any Strategy Meetings, and panel, and where appropriate may attend together the assessment sessions with the foster carers for the purpose of a thorough but fair investigation.

Those supporting the foster carers (supervising social worker and team manager) must contact the foster carers as soon as practicable after the foster carers are made aware of the allegation, and explain their role and the role of the investigating officer. They must make clear their responsibility to report to the local authority, the Police and in some circumstances to the Court if any information relevant to the investigation comes to their attention. They must inform foster carers on how they will be supported and paid whilst they are under investigation.

During the course of the investigation carers have the right to:

  1. Details concerning the nature of allegations (this will be dependent upon Police and Children's Service's Investigations);
  2. The contents of this procedure and the relevant Sheffield Children Safeguarding Partnership Procedures;
  3. Written contact details for the relevant managers;
  4. A written copy of the procedures being followed;
  5. A written statement about future placements;
  6. Financial arrangements during the investigation;
  7. Make a written statement of response to the fostering team;
  8. An indication of the timescale of the investigation;
  9. Details of independent support and how this may be acquired. The supervising social worker in conjunction with business support will make a referral for foster carers through this process once the foster carer has given written permission for the referral to be made to Foster Talk who will be able to provide independent support and information;
  10. Receive details in writing of all decisions made about them and actions taken. If an Initial Child Protection Conference is convened, the Conference Chair must be consulted in advance to discuss whether the foster carers should be invited to attend. In any event, the foster carers' views must be obtained for and communicated to the Conference.

The social worker undertaking the investigation will prepare a report on the investigation and a copy will be provided to the foster carers and their representatives.

3.4 Concluding the Investigation

The Strategy Meeting will be reconvened to conclude the investigation. The same people will be invited and the same person (LADO) will chair the meeting; the foster carers and their representative will be invited to participate as considered appropriate by the Chair.

The purpose of the final Strategy Meeting is to:

  • Ensure that all actions agreed in previous strategy meetings have been completed;
  • Agree on the outcome of the investigation and responsibilities for any further action including reporting on the matter to the Fostering Panel and/or considering whether it may be appropriate to make a referral to the Disclosure and Barring Service for inclusion of the foster carers on the Children's Barred List.

The criteria of abuse should be recorded under one or more of the following categories when recording the outcome of the investigation:

  • Physical abuse;
  • Emotional abuse;
  • Sexual abuse;
  • Poor standards of care leading to neglect of a child.

The following definitions should be used when determining the outcome of the investigations:

  • Substantiated: i.e. there is sufficient evidence to prove the allegation;
  • False: i.e. there is sufficient evidence to disprove the allegation;
  • Malicious: i.e. there is clear evidence to prove there has been a deliberate act to deceive and the allegation is entirely false;
  • Unsubstantiated: i.e. this is not the same as a false allegation. It means that there is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the allegation. The term therefore does not imply guilt or innocence;
  • Unfounded: i.e. to reflect cases where there is no evidence or proper basis to support the allegation made.

The outcome should also make reference to the following criteria outlined in the DfE Guidance 'Keeping Children Safe in Education Statutory Guidance For Schools and Colleges':

  • Address whether looked after children remain in or return to placement;
  • Clarify any plans for protecting any children including the carer's children;
  • Consider counselling/ therapeutic needs for those affected;
  • Agree who should inform the child, parents, other children in the placement or involved, other relevant agencies and Ofsted (if an Independent Agency);
  • The investigative process may conclude that there has been no harm experienced by the child but that other procedures may be identified as appropriate, for example, the complaints process.

Although this will always be envisaged as the final meeting, should new information come to light further actions may be required thereby necessitating the suspension and rescheduling of the meeting.

The supervising social worker and team manager will notify the foster carers (if not in attendance) of the recommendations made at the meeting. The child, the parents and other children in care who are in placement will be notified by their child's social worker and other relevant agencies will be notified by the Chair of the recommendations made at the meeting in line with the DfE guidance outlined above.

The supervising social worker must place on the carers file the minutes of the Strategy Discussion records. A summary of the investigation, recommendations and actions arising should be added to the child's file by the child's social worker.

The Designated Officer (LADO) must ensure that within two weeks of the concluding Strategy Discussion a letter is sent to all parties including parents and carers, outlining the above, a copy of which will be placed on the carers file.

In any event the meeting may wish to draw to the attention of the Fostering Service certain areas of the foster carer's practice that should be reviewed and considered.

Informing the Foster Panel/ Foster Care Review

Following the outcome of the investigation, the supervising social worker will arrange a foster carer review to take place within 28 days of the conclusion of the investigation to consider:

  • The finding of the investigation and any recommendations;
  • What, if any, concerns remain and what actions need to be undertaken to address this;
  • The views and experiences of the foster carer;
  • View of the child's social worker and supervising social worker;
  • Any implications for the safer care agreement;
  • Training issues;
  • Any other issues relevant to the annual review such as attendance at support groups, availability for supervision visits, family dynamics and stressors, etc.
  • Other information relevant to the child in placement.

This process provides the carer with the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and consider what actions they might wish to consider. They must be informed of the panel date and information of the complaints procedures.

The Review Report and Investigation Report will be presented to the next available Fostering Panel. The social worker preparing the report should consult with the Panel Advisor of the Fostering Panel who will advise on who should attend the Panel meeting (usually the child's social worker, the supervising social worker for the foster carers, the investigating officer, foster carer and their foster talk representative).

Prior to Fostering Panel, the foster carers and their representative should have seen, and had time to comment and respond to the report being presented to the Panel. The procedure to be adopted for the Fostering Panel will be the same as for any other foster carer review - see Review and Termination of Approval of Foster Carers Procedure.

The panel must consider the following information prior to drawing its conclusions:

  • The review report by the fostering social worker and Fostering Reviewing Officer and the recommendations made;
  • Minutes from any relevant child protection conference;
  • A summary of, or redacted version of the strategy minutes if requested by the supervising social worker and agreed by the Designated Officer.

The panel chair should without delay, forward the panel's recommendations to the Agency Decision Maker. The decision maker, informed by the panel's conclusions, must then make the qualifying determination and progress it in accordance with the respective requirements of the Fostering Services Regulations 2011.

A copy of the letter must be added to the foster carer's file.

All relevant documents in relation to the investigation, whatever the outcome, must be retained on the child's and the foster carer's records.

Foster Carer's right to appeal

The foster carer has a right to challenge the decision either by an appeal to Sheffield City Council Fostering Panel or by the Independent Review Mechanism and this will be outlined in the decision maker's qualifying determination letter.

Representation to the Fostering Panel must be made no later than 28 days of the date of the written notice of the decision maker, and this must be submitted to the Fostering Service Manager. In addition, as an alternative, the carer may exercise the right to apply to the Secretary of State to request a review of the decision by the Independent Review Mechanism, (IRM). Any such application must be made in writing within 28 days of the decision and supported by their reasons for this appeal.

Representation to the IRM

If the applicant decides to refer the matter to the IRM the relevant Panel reports, any new information obtained since the Panel meeting, a record of the decision made and reasons, a copy of the written notification of the decision and a copy of the Panel minutes, if different, will be sent to the Independent Review within 10 working days of their written request.

The procedure for the Independent Review is carried out by CoramBAAF; the applicant and two representatives of the fostering agency will be invited to attend the Independent Review.

After considering the representations, the Independent Review may make a recommendation, which the Agency Decision Maker will consider before a final decision is made.

Written notice of the final decision, together with reasons, must be sent to the applicant within 7 working days of the receipt of the Independent Review recommendation.

The only circumstances where the foster carer will not have the right to request a review by an Independent Review Panel is if he or she is regarded as disqualified as a result of a conviction or caution for a specified offence.

If no written representations or notification of a request for a review are received within this period, the decision to refuse the application can be confirmed.

Representation to Sheffield City Council Fostering Panel

If the carer chooses to appeal to Sheffield City Council Fostering Panel and written representations are received within the 28 day period, the Panel Adviser will arrange for the reports and other documentation to be reconsidered by the Fostering Panel, taking into account the written representations. The Panel will make a new recommendation to the Agency Decision Maker (Fostering).

The Panel Administrator will advise the applicant within 7 days of the date of the Panel meeting when they can attend and their written representations will be considered.

In these circumstances, applicants who wish to attend the meeting of the Fostering Panel can arrange for a friend or supporter to accompany them. However the friend or supporter may not participate in the panel process but may sit in the panel meeting.

After considering the representations, the Panel will make further recommendations either confirming or amending their previous views, which the Agency Decision Maker (Fostering) will consider before a final decision is made.

Written notice of the final decision, together with reasons, must be sent to the applicant by the ADM within 7 working days of the decision being made. Information about the Complaints Procedure must also be sent. A copy of the report to the Panel, the Panel's recommendation and the decision, with reasons, must be retained on the applicant's case file.

An applicant can only choose to attend IRM or be heard at the Panel, not both.

Consideration should be given to holding a debriefing meeting for all involved as to the impact of the allegations and the investigation, whatever the outcome, and all necessary assistance and support should be made available as necessary.

Role of the Supervising Social Worker

  • Be informed of the allegation from the outset;
  • Escalate concerns to the child's social worker team and Fostering Team Manager;
  • Attend the Strategy Discussions;
  • Link with the investigating social worker about when to make contact with the carer (s) and to undertake any joint meetings as requested;
  • Contact the carer as determined at the Strategy Discussion;
  • Ensure the carer receives appropriate information and advice;
  • Attend any follow up interview with the carer and her/his family, unless judged inappropriate;
  • Liaise with the Fostering Reviewing Officer to arrange the Carer Review;
  • Liaise with Panel Admin to book a panel date;
  • Complete the review paperwork and share with the carer in line with the Review Process.

Attend the Review and feedback to the foster carer subsequent to this.