Our response to the NAO's report exploring pressures on children’s social care
Sarah Duerden is the Strengthening Placements lead for children, education and families at Oxfordshire County Council
Oxfordshire County Council started using the Valuing Care approach to communicate children’s needs in July 2018. One of the most effective ways I have used it is for identifying and planning children’s moves from residential to fostering placements. This is not with the belief that residential care is not an appropriate option for some of our young people, but we always emphasise the importance of having the right children in the right placements, and the importance of giving our young people every opportunity to experience family life.
Valuing Care enables us to see where there is potential for children to step down into foster care. It provides a framework for evaluating their needs in a robust way, and flags where changes in the level of a child’s needs may mean that support could be more appropriately provided in a different way. The structure of the tool also means that we can rule out where a move is not appropriate, for example where one need continues to require active and intensive management, even if others have reduced.
We struggle at times to find fostering placements for children who are moving out of residential homes as they often have more complex needs; this is a challenge faced by most local authorities around the country. We often put this down to an insufficient number of placements. However, using the Valuing Care approach we have been able to find placements for some of our more complex children who previously we have found difficult to place.
The first step in the process has been to develop profiles of each child or young person in a consistent way that also produces a well-rounded picture of each individual, including strengths and ambitions. We have used the Valuing Care needs assessment approach to do this and also to provide the agenda for profiling meetings. These meetings are attended by the child’s social worker, their key worker from the residential home and other relevant professionals involved with the child. The approach enables an informed and holistic discussion about each individual, and allows professionals to highlight areas of need and to consider the strengths and challenges faced when caring for this individual. I have been surprised by how rich these conversations can be, even though the approach itself is simple. It gives structure to our discussions but is straightforward enough for practitioners from a range of agencies to pick up, meaning that we get all parties contributing.
Out of 20 children and young people we have profiled in this way we are actively searching for 10 foster placements. For the remaining 10 young people, the process provided the evidence to either say they were appropriately placed or that joint funding with health or education needed to be explored.
To ensure children also play a part in this process, they are encouraged to write their own personal profile which we attach to the placement request form. For each child, we then plan what support would be needed when they move to a family setting and set out the child’s goals for the immediate and distant future.
The next step, which is a new method of searching for a placement, has been to invite providers of placements along to an event, where they can learn more about some of the children we are searching for placements for. This approach gave us a way to share the ‘softer’ information about each child with providers. The key worker from their residential home and their social worker were again involved, and could talk about what it was like to care for the child on a day-to-day basis.
So far we have managed to step down five of the ten young people, with another three placements in the process of being agreed. Savings for the council in 2018-19 as a result of these changes have been in the region of £460,000.
We are delighted with these results, considering that the children being discussed all have complex needs and histories that have made foster care hard to secure. The things that have made the biggest difference were having the time to use a robust method for identifying the children’s needs, getting support and involvement from the residential homes they were placed in, including the children, and proactively collaborating with providers to find placement options.
Using the Valuing Care approach has enhanced our reputation as an authority with providers. They tell us we are trusted to share accurate and instructive information about the children in our care. It is helping us secure the best placements for those children and to guarantee that they have every opportunity to thrive and succeed.