Tuesday, September 7, 1999 Published at 17:40 GMT 18:40 UK
Call for radical action on foster care
Children could benefit from more radical interventions
Social workers should put children at risk in care at an earlier stage because they are more likely to form a good relationship with a carer when they are younger, says a study.
Delegates at a British Psychological Society conference in Nottingham on Tuesday heard that children over seven were much more likely to develop behavioural problems and have difficulty forming a stable relationship with foster carers than their younger counterparts.
The researchers, from the University of Cork in Ireland, say this is because older children may have suffered years of neglect and abuse before they were taken into care.
Deborah Browne, one of the researchers, admitted social workers had to tread "a fine line" when deciding to intervene in cases for fear of overreacting to reports of abuse.
But she said: "A lot of the time social workers know there are problems, but fostering resources are limited so they try to patch things up, but the problems develop anyway.
Social workers rejected the accusation that they do not intervene early enough.
"Often abuse does not occur until a child is in adolescence," said John Buttle of the British Association of Social Workers.
"Removing children from their families must be a last resort and this research should not be used as an excuse to remove children when there are other options available."
He said more resources were needed to prevent children needing to be taken into care in the first place and that social workers working with children should be better paid.
"Preventive care is very cost-effective since foster care costs £500 a week to resource and non-secure residential care is £1,500 a week," he said.
Ms Browne agreed that extra resourcing, such as parenting information, could help prevent children being taken into care.
"Some parents just need some support, but others are just not interested in looking after their children," she said.
The researchers studied 120 young people, aged 0 to 20.
They found older children were more likely to develop behavioural problems. These were often associated with instability, said Ms Browne.
She called for more resources for foster carers so more could be recruited and retained.
Foster care experts say there is an acute shortage of carers.
"Ideally foster carers should be treated almost as a profession. They should be paid and trained properly. It is a very demanding role," said Ms Browne.
"A lot of people drop out because it is too stressful and there are delays in allowances coming through."
Mr Buttle agreed and hoped government plans to give more support to children in care would help the situation.
But he added that more needed to be done to attract social workers into the profession, for example, by waiving fees for social work diplomas as they are for some other caring professions.
He said intake for diploma courses had dropped by 50% since tuition fees were introduced.
It is estimated that 68,000 children in the UK are in public care, with two-thirds in foster care.