By their very nature, child abuse allegations are usually the most serious form of complaint that can be made against foster carers.
The Children Act 1989 directs social services departments to investigate such allegations in the same way as child abuse allegations concerning birth families or institutions. It is the responsibility of the locality’s practice manager to decide if the county’s child protection procedures should apply.
Carers should be aware that since physical punishment is not acceptable in a fostering context, a strategy meeting could be triggered if a carer is alleged to have smacked a child.
In all situations where an allegation of child abuse is made, a strategy discussion or meeting is held. The purpose of a strategy meeting is to collect all relevant information and to reach an agreement as to whether the matter needs to be investigated, and if so, when and by whom.
It is important that child abuse allegations are managed in a coordinated manner, so that all involved understand their role in any investigation. All information shared at meetings is viewed as strictly confidential.
A strategy meeting will normally involve the child’s social worker, practice manager, police, fostering workers and any other professional involved with the child.
The meetings may be chaired by an independent chairperson called a child protection officer. The fostering social worker will provide background details of the carers to enable those at the meeting to understand the foster family better.
The foster carers themselves are not invited. This is because the strategy meeting may lead to the investigation of a criminal offence and prior knowledge of this might contaminate subsequent evidence.
For similar reasons, foster carers may be told that there is an investigation underway, and what its general area of concern is – but they may not be given details in advance of a formal interview.
Informing foster carers
Whilst openness with carers regarding child abuse allegations is a basic principle, there may be circumstances in which a decision is made to delay informing the carer, for example:
- a lack of clarity regarding the complaint
- concern that the investigation may be obstructed if carers are informed prematurely
This can save carers from being subjected to an extended period of anxiety whilst the situation is clarified and an investigation is commenced. Support for carers will be available to assist them through the process, but the best interests of the child involved have to take precedence.
Where an investigation is considered necessary, a decision will be made as to whether the police should be involved. Where the police are involved, carers will be interviewed under police caution. Depending on the nature of the investigation, further strategy meetings may be necessary.
Carers subject to child abuse allegations are clearly in a stressful position, and those involved in the investigation will try to ensure that the matter is dealt with as quickly, openly and fairly as circumstances will allow.
Such investigations are difficult for all concerned, as many of those involved will know the foster carers and understand the stress they will be experiencing.
Where carers are involved in a child abuse allegation, arrangements will be made to provide them with support, which may be independent of the fostering social worker.
It is not possible to prevent a child abuse investigation from being stressful. The position of the fostering social worker in such circumstances is a difficult one. Whilst part of their role is to support carers, they remain directorate employees and so also have a supervisory responsibility for the situation.
Therefore, they have a duty to pass on any information which they feel is pertinent to an investigation. In cases involving serious allegations, they may be called upon to give evidence. This may mean that it is more appropriate for the carers to be supported by someone independent.
Carers will need to consider where they turn to for support. Many turn to other foster carers they have come to know through support groups, while others turn to family and friends.
It is important that carers try to share their circumstances with someone, although the nature of the allegations can clearly make this difficult. The Fostering Network may also provide a useful source of support.
Being accused of child abuse is clearly a serious matter, and foster carers finding themselves in this situation are strongly recommended to seek immediate legal advice.
All Fostering Devon carers are members of FosterTalk where they can obtain information and support for all aspects of their role, including their free, confidential Fosterline.
Carers may wish to consider personal membership of the Fostering Network, as this will give them access to an insurance scheme that provides higher levels of support and legal advice in the event of an allegation. Direct contact may be made with the Fostering Network.
If carers are to be interviewed by the police, they are strongly advised to have a solicitor present.