Click the article title to be taken to the full story.
Experts warn that young people are being removed from foster families too easily as private agencies proliferate
Francine West had been a foster carer for 17 years when a council social worker knocked on her door and removed four children from her care.
“I knew nothing about it and I was speechless, just totally shocked,” she says. “I had to start packing their things straight away and I’ve still got some of it that they left behind.”
That was unsettling enough, but the siblings, who all had complex needs and challenging behaviour, were not kept together, and were placed with two new foster families – a separation that will have brought fresh upheaval to their turbulent young lives.
“It was devastating because you’ve got kids you’re looking after,” says West. “The baby was one and had been removed from his mum and he had a bond with me. He was delayed in speaking. I had taught him key words and phrases so he had that level of communication with me.”
She believes that the decision to remove the children was a result of her revealing her intention to change foster agencies. Just weeks earlier,West had told a private agency 24Seven Fostering Services, that she planned to move to a rival business. She had been struggling to meet the children’s needs, particularly when it came to transport, and had been offered no help by the council. After one of the children was excluded from school, West was faced with the impossible task of getting three of the four children to lessons by 9am in different parts of London. As her difficulties mounted, her relationship with 24Seven – owned by Afshan and Aijaz Ahmad – came under greater strain and she decided to move to a different agency.
Days after West revealed her intention to leave, the London borough of Haringey, which had a statutory responsibility for the children’s wellbeing, received an anonymous letter, levelling serious accusations against West, which she has denied. Its author claimed to have witnessed her being “rough with the children” and accused her of boasting openly of manipulating social workers to increase her fostering payments. “She should not be doing the fostering just for money,” the letter concluded.
Within weeks, the children had been taken away, without notice.For the next 18 months, West struggled to find new employment while she sought to clear her name and seek legal redress.
In 2016, the year that West’s career was suddenly interrupted, the Fostering Network charity estimates there was a shortfall of 9,000 foster households in the UK. The network says it frequently hears of children being moved from their foster family “too easily or unnecessarily” and “without the correct processes being followed”. And one source at a non-profit foster care organisation told the Guardian that West’s case is far from the only time that carers and agencies have ended up in acrimonious battles.
Haringey council denies that anything of that nature was the reason it removed the children from West. A council spokeswoman says: “The children’s move was not a result of the dispute between the carer and her agency”, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further. A source familiar with the situation told the Guardian that the council investigated the claims but did not find any reason to fear harm to the children.
West believes the anonymous letter must have played a part. In a libel lawsuit launched against 24Seven Fostering, she accused the company’s owners of writing the letter in an effort to damage her reputation. The company denied this claim. A lawyer for the firm declined to comment further.
In court papers submitted as part of her suit, West claims that the Ahmads were so incensed by her decision to leave that they set out to damage her. Details contained in the anonymous letter to council could only have been known to 24Seven, according to the argument set out by her law firm, Carter-Ruck, which took the case on a no-win, no-fee basis. In 24Seven’s defence, its lawyers said there is nothing in the letter that wouldn’t have been known to other people who knew West, such as friends, neighbours and Haringey employees. West’s claim of the company’s involvement, they said, was “without evidence or foundation”.
West’s solicitor also claimed that the agency owners phoned the council twice in early May, once it became clear that the letter had not had its desired effect.
In these conversations, West was allegedly accused of “irrational and inappropriate” behaviour, causing a breakdown of relations with the council social worker supervising her. Her solicitor argued that this sequence of events led to the removal of the children, leaving her “damaged in her personal and professional reputations and [causing] considerable hurt and upset”.
The financial loss from her period out of foster care was more than £80,000, according to the claim, forcing her to take more than £50,000 in loans, incurring interest.
24Seven strenuously denied all of West’s claims against the company, insisting it was not behind any anonymous letter or phone calls, had not failed to support her and that the Ahmads had not sought to damage West. In June, an undisclosed settlement was reached. 24Seven did not accept any wrongdoing but paid West undisclosed damages and legal costs. In March, West resumed her work as a foster carer.
Some fostering experts fear that legal disputes such as these are an unwanted side effect of private firms delivering a service that is meant to be about the wellbeing of children. To illustrate the sums involved, if a foster carer chose to transfer to a new private fostering agency with the children, the firm might stand to lose up to £100,000 a year per child.
Martin Barrow, a campaigner and foster carer of 10 years’, has long harboured concerns about the unintended consequences of for-profit foster care. He says: “The profit motive skews decisions about where children are placed and how foster carers are treated and it is sometimes not in the interests of the child.”
Cash-strapped councils cannot afford to offer competitive wages to foster carers, so many jump ship to private firms, who offer larger fees and, in many cases, better support, he points out.
But the legal obligation to find a home for children rests with the council and it often has to resort to using private foster agencies. The upshot is that it pays higher fees for the carers, as well as contributing to the profit margin of the independent foster agency – many of which are owned by private equity firms.
“A commercial dispute shouldn’t have an impact on the care of children. It’s obscene if children are being used as bargaining chips,” says Barrow.
A spokeswoman for the Fostering Network says: “Foster carers are key professionals in the lives of fostered children and young people and must be listened to and involved in all crucial decision-making about the children in their care.”
By Rob Davies
12 September 2018