Placement Requests: Access to Resources Making LAC Placements with ART
SCOPE OF THIS CHAPTER
The purpose of this chapter is to advise on the process and procedures for requesting a placement for a looked after child through the Access to Resources Service.
This chapter was reviewed and updated in May 2017 to reflect the current organisational structure and decision-making within the Department and to reflect the updated terminology for Merton's electronic recording system. There is emphasis also that where children are placed in residential care, the relevant documentation has been received from the provider before the placement is made (see Residential Care Options).
1. Principles, Policy and Procedure
The explicit purposes of Merton's Access to Resources Team (ART) are encapsulated as:
- Ensuring consistency of approach to all placement finding for children requiring accommodation or schooling away from the family home;
- Increasing local authority fostering options and improving placement stability by addressing sufficiency matters;
- Ensuring placements are commissioned with a best value framework;
- Improving reporting arrangements in the areas of finance and management information;
- Ensuring that agreed procedures are in place before children are accommodated;
- Researching and suggesting alternative strategies which may divert children from accommodation;
- Administering all aspects of the placements process including payments and reliable management information;
- Taking the lead on procuring and monitoring SEN residential placements in the independent sector.
The team seeks to operate in explicit partnership with allocated social workers to ensure the best outcomes for children in care as well as those on the edge of care.
2. Bringing a Child into Care for the First Time
The LA must be satisfied that a child's entry into care is in the child's best interest. This overriding principle must be satisfied via a thorough assessment of the child's needs and, importantly, meet the expectation that the child will be better off in a placement away from home.
There will be an expectation that the following options have all been thoroughly explored prior to a referral to the Access to Resources Team for a placement:
- Referrals to appropriate community services to support a family in order to prevent a child becoming looked after or moving to a residential school, including those provided by partner agencies;
- Use of appropriate Friends and Family members (Connected People) to provide alternative care.
It will be the role of the Access to Resources Team to ensure that these options have been considered before accepting a referral for a placement.
As is already the case in proceedings, all voluntary admissions into care must take note of the following welfare checklist from the Children Act 1989:
- The ascertainable wishes and feelings of the child concerned (considered in the light of his age and understanding);
- His physical, emotional and educational needs;
- The likely effect on him of any change in his circumstances;
- His age, sex, background and any characteristics of his which is considered relevant;
- Any harm which he has suffered or is at risk of suffering;
- How capable each of his parents, and any other relevant person is of meeting his needs.
Guidelines, Legislation and Regulations are contained in Department of Education materials covering all aspects of care and education - but particularly relevant are the materials relating to The Children Acts of 1989 and 2004 - of most relevance is The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review.
In all cases, a child may only be considered for care if an appropriate and thorough assessment of the child's needs has been carried out and consideration has been give to any alternative services which may support a family to continue to care for their child at home. This will be overseen by the team manager, and signed off by a Head of Service.
In the majority of cases, agreement for placement should be given at the Care and Rehabilitation Panel in advance of any placements.
There will be occasions when an emergency placement is required, for example, following police protection or other circumstances where it is possible that children will need to come into care for their own safety and social care may have no prior information about the family. In these circumstances as much information as possible will be gathered prior to placement request but this will not compromise the need or speed of placement provision due to the emergency nature of the referral.
In the event that the ART team are not in agreement with the request for placement this will in the first instance require a discussion between the ART Head of Service and the relevant Head of Service. Any cases that cannot be resolved through this process will be escalated to the relevant Assistant Director (Education or Social Care and Youth) and the Assistant Director, Strategy, Commissioning and Performance.
Any child or young person accommodated as an emergency must be presented to the next Care and Rehabilitation Panel for agreement of the Care Plan.
In situations where children are likely to be admitted to care through legal proceedings the same considerations of assessment and best interests are just as important as are matters of planning for best outcomes.
A. A child has been assessed as requiring an entry into care
The allocated social worker will be required to complete a Placement Request form on the social care information system and reassign it to the Access to Resources Team on the social care information system. A follow-up email should then be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org (N.B. this should be used for initial referrals and urgent enquiries - if the child's case is already allocated to a specific ART worker they should be contacted first).
Once the referral has been received in the team it will be quality assured for relevance, content and gate-keeping purposes. This is an important part of the process for three main reasons:
- Correct and comprehensive information will greatly improve the chances of a successful placement;
- The team will be passing much of the information to third parties, chiefly placement providers, and Merton needs to ensure that the material is accurate, relevant and professionally written;
- The team needs to be sure before searching for placements that it is in the child's best interest to do so, in that the child requires protection from significant harm which s/he would suffer without such a placement.
In order to help explain this part of the process the Access to Resources Team has adopted the following principles to guide the referral gatekeeping function:
- The recipients of our services will be the children and young people of Merton and their families. We therefore aim to ensure that all advice given and services offered will follow the philosophy that we act in the best interests of the child;
- In many cases, we recognise that children are not best served by entry, or repeated entries, to the care system. As such we will seek to try to maintain the child in the environment most suited to a successful outcome for him/her. This means we will seek to consult on services which will divert children from care or, in the case of children already looked after, prevent multiple placements;
- In order to maintain the first two principles we recognise that planned placements have a far greater chance of success than those made in an emergency. Therefore we will strive to ensure that all placements are made in a planned, methodical manner with clear aims and objectives.
It follows from the third principle that we should seek to ensure that all procedures relating to the placement (or otherwise) of children should follow agreed Departmental procedures and DfE guidance. This will include ensuring that:
- Assessments are completed;
- Care plans are made and followed through;
- All administrative tasks are carried out satisfactorily (including inputting information onto required IT systems);
We aim to act within a spirit of equality of opportunity. This will recognise, and positively reflect, the diversity of the population of Merton and the people who work for the children of the borough and will be taken into consideration when deciding appropriate matches for placements.We recognise that we have a responsibility to the community at large not to waste resources through rushed decisions. Therefore we will seek to work in a manner that delivers a best value service to the people of Merton.
B. A Referral Has Been Accepted
The local authority has to be satisfied that the placement proposed will meet Merton's duties to promote and protect the child's welfare.
The following must be considered when choosing the most appropriate placement for each individual child:
- Placement with family, friends or Connected Persons (see Placement with Connected Persons Foster Carers Procedure). The local authority must make arrangements for a child to live with family or friends unless this is impractical or not consistent with a child's welfare. The local authority can support an application for a Special Guardianship or Child Arrangements Order;
- The ability to ensure that the child is prepared for the move. We will seek to avoid 'emergency' or urgent placements wherever possible. Planned placements with appropriate introductions are far more likely to be successful. ART will be responsible for ensuring that placements are available for introductions and will facilitate this with the social worker where an external placement is proposed. An ART member should be available to attend the introduction with an external provider where possible;
- Family based care is to be preferred. Should a placement with family/friends not be feasible, the next option to be considered should be a foster placement;
- As close to home as possible. Accommodation provided should be as near to the child's home as is consistent with his welfare;
- Siblings should be placed together. This should happen at all times if consistent with each child's welfare. In the exceptional circumstances where this is not possible, for example with very large sibling groups, consideration must be given to the placement provider's ability to facilitate high levels of contact between siblings;
- Promoting contact between children and families. The ability of the placement to promote and facilitate contact will be a key consideration in deciding suitability;
- Placements for children with special needs or disabilities must be suitable for their requirements;
- Placements should be appropriate to the child's linguistic, religious, racial and cultural background. In nearly every case this will mean placing a child in a family that closely matches their own, whenever possible;
- Placements should be time limited. Effectively all placements are time limited by default, but there is an expectation within these procedures that the time limit is explicit prior to the placement taking place;
- Wherever possible ART will seek to offer a choice of placement option. This will be easier to provide when placements are planned appropriately:
In House Options
Where there is no connected person available to offer a placement to a child or young person, Merton in house fostering provision will be the first option to be considered. All vacancies will be available for consideration and in the majority of cases placements will be made within approval range of the foster carers.
However, there may be occasions where an in house placement is appropriate, despite there being no apparent vacancy, given the specifics of the situation. This may require an exemption in order to allow a specific carer to be used outside of their specified approval for a short period. If this is the case, the placement will follow the procedure outlined in the Exemption Protocol in line with Fostering Regulations. See Exemptions and Extensions/Variations to Foster Carer Approval Procedure.
Other Local Authorities Fostering Options
Merton is a member of the South West Regional Commissioning Group with Sutton, Kingston, Richmond, Wandsworth and Croydon. Should no Merton foster carers be available to offer a placement, ART will approach partners within SWLRCG to ascertain whether they have a suitable placement.
Independent Sector Provided Fostering Options
If it is not possible to make an appropriate match with a friends and family carer, in house carer or other local authority foster carer permission must be granted by the Head of Service, Access to Resources to look for placements in the independent sector. From the social worker's perspective the process will be the same as will the in house processes. No new referral will be required and ART will seek to provide a choice as outlined above. However, at this point an 11th priority will be evident.
- ART will ensure that any placement in the independent sector will provide best value for the local authority.
Whilst not evident at the point of referral, all potential fostering agencies have been thoroughly assessed for the ability to provide an appropriate service to the borough in the spirit of partnership. All ART workers will have a thorough working knowledge of each agency, their strengths, specialisms and location of carers. In many cases, the team will know the specific carers and will always have access to their Prospective Foster Carer Report (Form F) which they will share with the referring social worker ahead of any placement.
Merton does not provide any in house residential options. Consequently all residential placements need to be brokered using other local authority or independent sector provision. The placement priorities for identifying suitable residential placements for children will be the same as those listed in Local Authority Provided Options. However, permission must be granted from the Head of Service, Access to Resources before a residential placement is sought. Where a residential placement is being considered, the Placement Team must ensure that all the relevant documentation has been received from the provider prior to the placement being agreed.
Wherever possible ART will seek to offer a choice of placement options
Social workers, in partnership with ART workers, will need to carefully balance the factors outlined in priorities to ensure selection of the best placement available. This is most likely to be achieved when:
- The placement is carefully planned;
- The plans are based on a comprehensive assessment of the child's needs;
- A care plan is drawn up;
- The needs that must be met in the placement are identified;
- Required outcomes are clearly defined;
- Where appropriate the child and his family are consulted about placement options.
The most successful placements will always adhere to these principles and the likelihood of being offered a choice of placements (with an optimum of three) will be increased the more comprehensive the adherence.
Placement Planning - Emergency and Unplanned
Our aim is to place children in a carefully planned way, with all the necessary information available and the agreements completed before placement, but we know that the circumstances requiring children to be placed can arise at very short notice.
However there must always be some information gathered, and baseline agreements made and it is important that information, however limited, is provided using the referral form in order to ensure best practice in finding the most appropriate placement for a child.
The lack of a comprehensive assessment can mean that inappropriate placements are not identified as such, making the situation worse. Being looked after may not even be the best way of meeting the child's needs; there may be family resources which, with support services, would make it possible for the child to stay in her/his community.
Where it has not been possible to complete the Placement Referral form (e.g. where a placement has been made out of hours) this must be completed at the earliest opportunity. This forms provides basic information for any care provider and is also the Essential Information Record for each child or young person.All actions relating to children being brought into care must reduce the possibility of placements being unplanned or made in an emergency.
3. Request for a Move of Placement
Any move of placement is disruptive for a child. Before a move can be agreed, the Local Authority must be convinced that this is in the child's best interests and that a new placement will improve the outcomes for that child.
Placements are often seen to have "broken down" as an emergency or there are times when an end of placement can be anticipated. All providers are expected to give the local authority notice of their need to end a placement, therefore any emergency breakdowns of placement should be very rare.
Unless there are serious concerns or child protection issues within a placement, a referring social worker must have informed the ART that the placement is becoming fragile. ART will then take responsibility for exploring what additional support could be provided to the current placement in order to prevent an unnecessary move. This is likely to be through the convening of a placement support meeting where any support issues can be discussed. This will apply to both in house foster placement and externally commissioned provision.It will be the role of the Access to Resources team to ensure that all support options have been provided before accepting a referral for a move of placement.
4. Factors for Consideration when Choosing a Placement
The Placement team will seek to find a placement with a provider who is rated either "Good" or "Outstanding" with Ofsted. On the few occasions where a placement with a lower rating is being considered or the rating of a placement changes after a child is placed, the Ofsted action plan must be obtained and presented to an Assistant Director for final agreement for the placement.
Where a child or young person is being placed outside of Merton, agreement must be obtained either before or, in an emergency, immediately after placement from the Director of Children's Services. (see Out of Area Placements Procedure).
5. Actions Once a Placement has been Agreed
The duty officer in ART will have responsibility for ensuring that the placement is secured and in advising the allocated social worker of details of the placement. This will also involve negotiation around any cost implications with the provider of the placement and confirmation in writing of any specific additional support packages agreed if necessary. As the ART will have been provided with all details of the child's behaviour from the allocated social worker at this stage it is unlikely that any additional funding will be agreed at a later date unless there is a serious deterioration in the child's behaviour.
Business support officers in ART will input the data with respect to the identified placement onto the Council database.
The ART duty worker will inform the Placement Finance Manager in ART of the financial implications for any placement agreed.
If a placement has been identified with an in house Merton foster carer, the Placement Planning Meeting will be attended by the supervising social worker within the Fostering Supervision Team (FST) and on going support for the carers will be offered from that team.
If a placement has been identified with another LA, an IFA or a Residential unit, ongoing day-to-day support will be the responsibility of the provider. However the ART will maintain responsibility for liaising with the provider of the placement for any further discussions around the placement, including any requests for additional funding which are likely to be refused except in exceptional cases.
ART will undertake regular QA monitoring visits to providers to ensure that commissioning of placements meets the high expectations of the service, provides best value to the Council and remains in the best interests of the child or young person.
This input from ART is likely to involve attendance at the initial placement planning meetings and any placement support meetings. However this is unlikely to be an ongoing involvement with individual workers from ART and requests for attendance at meetings will be allocated as necessary to workers in ART. Placement officers within ART will maintain links with external providers to ensure that placements continue to meet the needs of any child placed.