There has been talk of the ‘corporate parent’ but what about the ‘corporate family’? It is one thing for a local authority to be responsible for a child they are looking after under a Court Order, but who are the child’s family if they no longer have their own family to turn to? There are documents which refer to various agencies such as Housing, Education and the Health Service as ‘corporate family’ (1), but, while they have specific responsibilities to provide services to children and young people, they are most unlikely to be seen as ‘family’ by those using the services.
It may be that I have not read the social work theory and government policy documents on the subject, or it may be that I am raising a new issue. The purpose of this article is to lay out some of the thinking about the situation and raise possibilities for improving services for children and young people who are in care.
The Corporate Parent
Local authorities have been described as ‘corporate parents’ for the children and young people in their care, at least since 1998, though the idea goes back much further. As Mark Burrows put it,
The term “corporate parent” is not one which has a formal legal definition. However, the term recognises that the local authority must have the same interest in the progress and attainments of looked after children as a reasonable parent would have for their own children. The responsibilities of being a corporate parent are relevant to all local authority staff. However,… it will be senior officers, particularly the Director of Children’s Services and their senior staff, with the lead member for children’s services, who are accountable for ensuring that looked after children are adequately safeguarded and that they are able to access effective services to respond to their individual needs. (2)
Frank Dobson MP introduced the term when he was the responsible Secretary of State in 1998. In his words:-
The (looked after) child has a right to expect that members of the authority are looking out for him and will protect him from harm.
Therefore, given that the central importance of the local authority’s role in caring for looked after children and supporting them to reach their potential, all Councillors should take an informed interest in how the council supports this very vulnerable group.(3)
Corporate parenting is a nice concept in that it implies a high level of concern on the part of the community for those who need its protection and help in growing up. The usual principle is that those responsible should want as good a standard of upbringing and education for children in the public care as they would want for their own offspring.
But in practical terms how does the child experience corporate parenting? It can only be expressed through individual people. In the days of the Children’s Departments some of the Children’s Officers developed the reputation of knowing all the children in their care personally, and even if they saw them only occasionally they could act as benign, caring figures who oversaw the care provided to the children. In today’s services, with all their bureaucratic demands it is unlikely that Directors of Children’s Services will be in a position to adopt this model.
Typically it is social workers who carry case accountability on a day-to-day basis, but their contact with the children is generally infrequent unless there is a crisis. In any case the turnover of social workers is often high, and the opportunities for children to build up trusting meaningful relationships is limited.
Where children are placed outside their families those who have most contact are their foster carers and residential child care workers. In some cases these relationships can be lengthy and former children in care may turn to their foster carers for help as adults, seeing them as family. Former children in care also often return to their children’s homes for support or for reassurance, but sometimes the homes have been closed, or the staff have moved on.
The overall picture is that the commendable concept of corporate parenting is generally patchy in its application. In best practice, a child or young person being looked after by a local authority will have had :
- a constant social worker overseeing their case,
- consistent oversight by a senior manager who knows him/her, and
- carers who look after him/her throughout his/her time in care, and
- who go on to provide support into adulthood.
I suspect that the typical experience of those looked after is of changing social workers, senior managers who have only heard of them, and several placements. If this picture is unduly cynical I hope that readers will respond.
What can We do?
The question is what we can do about it. We cannot force social workers to stay in post in order to provide continuity. If the services are allowed to settle down without further re-organisations there is more chance that senior managers will get to know the children they are responsible for. We could probably provide better training and support to reduce the number of placement changes. Aftercare has improved, but it scarcely matches the continuity offered by most natural families, and the switch to aftercare usually entails the involvement of a new service, causing yet another break. Are there ways, then, in which we can improve on this situation?
Young people leaving care require three main things if they are to survive:
- somewhere to live,
- an occupation, whether work, education or training, and
- a social group to whom they can turn for support or share leisure times with.
Social workers involved in their aftercare can help in finding accommodation, and can assist in identifying colleges, employers or training schemes, but creating a social milieu is more difficult. Without a group of friends and contacts, young people leaving care can suffer isolation and loneliness, leaving them vulnerable to a wide range of problems - gravitation to the wrong sort of friends, getting into trouble and mental health problems for example.
People who were in care sometimes later want to return to see the place where they were cared for, or to make contact with those who used to care for them or with those who were resident at the same time as themselves, whom they may see as a sort of sibling. Indeed, in some agencies there are annual reunion days and other systems for keeping former children in care in touch with each other. These patterns have some similarity to the ways in which natural families stay in touch, meeting up at Christmas, for example.
An Idea to Explore
Could we do more to create networks of this sort for children and young people leaving care? Could these constitute a ‘corporate family’? If so, what might the corporate family look like?
First, it would need a home - a base on a domestic scale which could offer a place:
- as somewhere to belong,
- where there will be a welcome and support,
- to go and meet other family members,
- which is safe and where there will be no exploitation and bullying,
- where family members will have help in accessing services,
- to stay in a crisis if homeless or after a row,
- to return to years later after a long break.
Secondly, there would need to be the core of a community or network:
- to offer a friendly face and a welcome
- to provide support and advice,
- to arrange practical help,
- to liaise with other services,
- to provide information,
- to maintain the family’s memory or history.
The core might need to include paid social workers but it could also include voluntary workers who might well have had experience of the care system themselves.
Around the core there would be a wider network, including care leavers of all ages, residential child care workers, foster carers, social workers, teachers perhaps and others with a stake in making the care system effective.
A quality which could not be guaranteed from the start is that the corporate family should provide continuity over a long period, even if its members change. An essential element is that care leavers could support each other, with those who have survived transition helping those still going through the process.
Would there be risks? Yes; such a network could go sour, offering opportunities for some members to exploit others or to get into trouble collectively, but those risks are there in any case, as many contacts are made as children and young people move round the care system. The point of staff involvement would be to ensure a positive and supportive atmosphere in the network.
It used to be said that children in the community at large leave their families at the age of twenty-three and a half on average , while those who are looked after leave care on average at seventeen and a half. The needs of care leavers are obviously generally greater than those of the general population. Could a corporate network or extended family provide a counterbalance?
Has this been done before, or is it a new idea? If it helps, it does not matter, but if you are involved in a scheme of this sort, how is it going?
accessed on 24 12 10
letter dated 13 02 09, accessed on 24 12 10
letter dated 04 03 09, accessed on 24 12 10