Episode 8 – Keeping the Promise

Last updated: 10/04/2024

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In this episode, featuring Chloe Riddell (the Promise Scotland) and Sarah Stewart (OPFS), we explore Scotland’s care system, the work of the Promise and the impact on family finances when children enter or return from care.

Discussions are based around recent research carried out by OPFS, which was sponsored by the Promise Scotland.

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Considering the really significant interlink between poverty and the care system, it's really important that we address and we listen to the voices of children and families and care experienced adults about what can be done to help them to feel financially secure.

- Chloe Riddell, Policy Lead, The Promise Scotland

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Podcast transcript

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): Hello and welcome to the One Parent Families Scotland podcast. My name is Philippa and I’m here today with two guests. I have Sarah Stewart, who works across the One Parent Families Scotland services. And I have Chloe Riddell who’s joining us from The Promise Scotland. And, she’s a Policy Lead. Welcome to both of you. Can I start off with you, Chloe, and just ask a fairly direct, blunt question if you like, and can you explain to me what is the Promise?

Chloe Riddell, The Promise Scotland: Yes, thank you, thanks for having me here. I am, um, Chloe Riddell I’m the Policy Lead lead at The Promise Scotland. The Promise Scotland is an organisation that was set up to help support, um, the change that set out in the Promise. The Promise is one of seven reports published as the independent care review concluded in 2020. Um, the independent care review came about because Scotland has known for a long time that the care system isn’t working. It, comes at a real cost, a human cost, because of the impact on children, young people, adults, families, care experienced adults, and the financial impact about the way that we’re spending money, because we know that the way that money is spent doesn’t really support people in the way that we’d like to. So the Promise was published after a root and branch review of the care system, which heard from over five and a half thousand, um, voices, um, from across all 32 local authorities, including children, young people, families, adults with lived experience of the care system, members of paid and unpaid workforce. The kind of core component of the Promise sets out an ambition that all of Scotland’s children, young people, will grow up loved, safe and respected. And it has five core foundations, voice family care people and scaffolding. So I lead on the Policy Lead kind of development, different areas, the different levers and mechanisms that government and local areas will use to help, um, keep the Promise And I also lead on our family support work stream, which is one of our four focus areas within our strategic plan.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): Sarah, can you just tell me about your role in One Parent Families Scotland, what your experience has been and how it came to be that you got involved with the work of the Promise?

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: Certainly. So have, uh, 24 years, over 24 years experience as a social worker, predominantly in local authority, but during the last five, six years have been within the third sector. With regards to my role in OPFS, I was previously the service manager for Dundee. So that was solely looking at developing and delivering services to single parent children and families within Dundee just recently taken over a new role as Head of Service.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): Congratulations.

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: Thank you. And that will oversee across all five service centres that we deliver across Scotland.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): And how did it come about that OPFS, or you specifically, got involved with the work of the Promise?

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: I think one of the things that the Promise had sort of approached us, one of the key sort of areas is the Promise Scotland are very much interested to find out more about the interaction between poverty and the care system and how Scotland can keep its Promise to the children and families at the point where the state steps in. One of the areas that was a gap in that learning was really understanding what happens to families’ finances when children are either taken into care, accommodated and what are maybe actually some of those cliff edges leading up to that immediate removal. And then subsequently, whilst also considering any reunification or children returning home. Part of what previous research has sort of identified that certainly when families rely on Social Security benefits, family poverty is likely to be exacerbated when a child is taken into care. And um, this is in effect, broadly speaking, because the Social Security system contains rules that prevent, in effect, double funding, in that if the state is responsible for the care of a child, then the benefit system reflects that by withdrawing money from the parents. Similar rules exist in relation in a degree when a child might be away in being looked after, such as a residential home or residential school due to disability, or the rules are more punitive as a result of those children in very different situations.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): What are we talking about when we’re saying a child is ‘accommodated’ or ‘looked after’?

Chloe Riddell, The Promise Scotland: So the care review talks about the care system as a really complex system. In fact, I know that Fiona Duncan, the chair of the Care review, never liked talking about the term ‘care system’ because it’s so fragmented, it’s multipurpose, it’s multifaceted, it’s an entity which doesn’t lead to very easy definitions, but it’s not really a system. It provides a really enormously wide variety of support arrangements for children and young people, and for families in a highly diverse range of circumstances, including a vast array of organizations. But, um, children can experience care at home, um, they can be away from home, away from their families, they can be living in foster care, in kinship care, so with friends or family, uh, either in informal or formal arrangements, or they can be living in residential care, uh, secure care. And of course some children are adopted, are in residential care. So the Promise talks about needing to think much more broadly about what the definition of care experience is. So most of the time it’s not residential care. I think the most recent statistics show that only about 10% of children, and, um, making sure that we’re including all experiences of care within that definition.

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: So I think the Child Poverty Action Group has a very clear children’s handbook, Scotland, that really gives real detailed information about the benefits that are m most effective. These are child benefit, Scottish Child Payment and means tested benefits such as tax credits, universal credits, housing benefit, children tax credit and disability related benefits. So a wide range of benefits that are impacted. In addition to that, each benefit has a specific rule dictating when that entitlement stops and if a child becomes looked after/ accommodated, the rules are not consistent and they are different across the different benefits. So for example, if we consider one of the examples within the report, it identifies a lone parent who’s under 25, so already impacted. With regards to that young person’s reduced payment, had one child under five, received universal credit, child benefit and Scottish Child Payment. The total income for that family whilst caring for the child is £164.47 per week. When the child becomes accommodated and looked after by the local authority,  immediately the universal credit reduces by £56.44 a week. And then after eight weeks, the child benefit and the Scottish Child Payment also stopped, resulting in a further reduction of £46.80. So by the end of eight weeks, the net income, um, net of housing costs have fallen from £164.47 to £61.23. And that’s a drop of £103.24 a week.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): That’s a big drop. So basically they’re facing a cliff edge at that point.

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: Absolutely. And I think there’s also unintentional consequences, because particularly with universal credit, parents need to understand that you’re having an assessment period, so the child might be removed towards the end of that assessment period, which means that the three weeks prior to that, that money may need to be actually paid back. It would be considered as an overpayment and then other financial implications. Childcare costs cease immediately. We heard from, um, parents that talked about still being charged for childcare despite the children not, um, being in care, because they had to give four weeks notice. We also heard with regards to the amount parents are allowed to earn can then be impacted as a result of the changes of universal credit, tax credit and child tax credit, as soon as a child is removed from home, they’re no longer counted as part of the household. So all these impacts have a devastating impact on that parent because their outgoings don’t significantly change. They’ve still got the same similar bills, but with £103 in the example we gave, £103 pound drop is a cliffhanger.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): And, from the parents that you spoke to, Sarah (because you were part of the research, speaking to parents that were affected by this drop in benefits, a change in family finances), what was the emotional impact on them?

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: I think most parents we spoke to talked about how they were aware money would stop. All of them, however, said they didn’t realise that the ceasing of sort of  benefits, they weren’t aware of timescales and they also weren’t aware of the dramatic drop and actually what that impact was. I think one of the standout ones was a parent in Dundee. She really spoke about being really eternally grateful to a duty social worker who she had actually phoned leading up to Christmas. She was in a relationship, but that relationship was very abusive, and it was also financially abusive to her, whereby she had saved up money to attend a Christmas contract and to take gifts along. Her partner taken that money, leaving her in a very sort of distressed state. She phoned up the duty social worker, explained the situation that she had no presents and would also struggle to get to see that child at Christmas. The decision that was made by that duty worker was to provide £50, and what the parent had said that although they felt incredibly ashamed and um, distressed, they actually recognized the enormous impact that this decision and payment had. They were able to go out and buy a gift, they were able to go to contact and they were able to see their child, a really emotive period. And um. I think that really stood out for me, it’s about parents wanting to do all we can, even despite being in situations where they’re unable to care for the child at that time being supported, and even that support, it was £50 but it had such a profound effect on this parent who really said that this had saved her. In that situation, parents also talked about getting into debt, and the emotional impact that that had, and housing costs often led to parents being unable to remain in their homes and moving to smaller properties, or worse, being homeless, and sofa surfing. And it’s certainly when thinking about the changes in home situation that uh, sometimes prevent the children from being able to return home. I think one of the things, the key things that stood out when we spoke to parents was parents feeling quite unsupported and isolated, and one parent talked about having quite intensive support prior to decision being made, but then that support melted away overnight and that they had overwhelming feelings of guilt, shame, but really impacting on them emotionally and that’s of turmoil with regards to everything that’s going on and, uh, finance being the last thing on their minds.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): We’ve also taken a kind of practical approach as a result of the discoveries that we’ve made. And, the practical approach has been to develop two guides to help practitioners who are supporting families (could be social workers, health visitors). But, we’ve also developed a guide for parents to help them, to inform them about the changes that will happen if their child becomes accommodated. The guides, I should say, are available on our website to download.

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: Yeah. So we returned to a number of parents who contributed to this research, and shared the guides with them. And the parents reported that they felt the guides were really helpful, they were really clear. And what they did like was all the information was in one place. It also signposted them very clearly to key agencies. So again, giving that sort of information that, uh, is available and easily available, it’s accessible to them. Um, one of the parents has said very much about reflecting that when your children are taken into care, you are so emotional, um, you have so much to worry about, you have lots of questions. And as we said, money is probably the last thing that is on your mind. So having this information would at least let parents know and it’s awareness of what may happen and, uh, also what should they do to avoid problems. Also, what we also did with the guides was share it with some of parents who weren’t involved. And, we had one parent that was previously care experienced and I think it was very stark for them. They had said that part of their reflection as very much about. That they had never thought about how their mother’s money would have ended and that she would have actually lost quite a considerable amount of money. And, um, part of her reflection was very much about thinking about maybe did this play a part in how her contact with me wasn’t very good. She very much reflected on thinking about how it was sad to think after all these years that she thought her mother couldn’t be bothered or that they didn’t actually want to see her when it was maybe just a case of that they couldn’t afford to get to the contact. That’s extremely profound for, uh, someone who had went through that as a child and thought very much about the impact and being able to actually realize. We also had parents that were quite surprised that this hadn’t been thought of before.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): What recommendations did they come up with?

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: So parents offered a number of recommendations. Some of the parents talked about retaining some or all their benefits while the child was accommodated until a decision had been fully made about either reunification or to permanently accommodate that child. Alternatively, parents being able to access maybe a fund, so as part of maybe discretionary payment. So we heard earlier on about that, uh, parent who that 50 pound was so impactful. So can we look at ways of supporting parents, particularly to ease financial burdens of expenses incurred by contact, travel costs, things like that? Parents really talked about fast tracking so that, uh, reinstate enough benefits or having mechanisms that actually support the transition and fully support and consider the transition for reunification. And, um, they also talked a lot in addition to the financial issues, but parents mentioned the need for ongoing emotional m and practical support after, ah, their child had been taken into care. We heard earlier about parents know how saying support melted away. Parents feel very overwhelmed, judged, and, um, very much of that shame and stigma. So lots of the parents talked about having support for them. So maybe advocacy or thinking about other ways that might be able to support them better.

Chloe Riddell, The Promise Scotland: Yeah, I mean, the Promise is really clear that, uh, issues about poverty and the impact that poverty has on families should be openly discussed. We know that the research around children being overrepresented on the child protection register when families are living in poverty is really stark. So this research that, um, the promised Scotland asked OPFS to do is really exposing some of these tensions that, uh, probably a point that we didn’t know very much about. So when children and families are encountering the care system, this immediate drop in finance can be quite shocking. And the thing that’s really stuck is not just the, uh, financial impact, but also the emotional impact. I know that a lot of families that spoke to OPFS talked about feeling ashamed, feeling stigmatized, feeling like they couldn’t cope, feeling like they might give up. And obviously, all of that has an impact not just on a parent’s ability to keep in touch with the children and to maintain good, strong, positive connections, both in physical terms and times, in terms of getting to, uh, family time and, uh, meeting up with children, having positive experiences there, but also in terms of feeling emotionally like they’re able to connect and build that strong attachment, but also address the issues that led to a child being taken into care in the first place. So for us, it’s about thinking, what does this research mean and which are the system actors that can help to put into place the mitigations or to help families understand what’s going to happen. Um, so that we don’t end up with a situation where a family can’t be reunified because there’s no house available anymore or that there’s no funding available to maintain family time, for example.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): This is where the importance of the guide to practitioners comes along in terms of understanding the impact of poverty on, um, families.

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: Absolutely. And I think when we had our focus groups with practitioners, it was really about how they reflected and highlighted, actually how hard it is sometimes to speak to families about money. Having money or having no m money really impacts many aspects of the family’s life. We had one, um, sort of know, high parent, and I really reflected as a social worker as well. It’s about we really focus on children’s needs, we focus on parent capacity. But do we really actually fully consider those environmental factors and the interlinking of those environmental factors, particularly finances. So I think part of some of that reflections within those focus groups was being really clear about awareness raising about poverty across organizations, professionals working with families. Just hints and tips and information about normalizing discussions about money, um, and also about trying to actually hear parents, see parents, and hear children and families so that they don’t see discussions about finance as a threat, but being able to really, truly understand. And it is that clear focus. What’s happening within the family, what’s happening in that child’s world, those environmental factors, and the interlinking of those environmental factors, particularly finances. And I think that’s the thing is the financial, family’s financial status isn’t seen as integral to agency priorities, structures, models of practice. Those environmental factors are crucial to really, truly understanding what the child’s world.

Chloe Riddell, The Promise Scotland: And it’s really unsurprising that when you don’t have the supportive resources to turn to, that some parents are not able to be the best parents that they want to be and that their children deserve. Um, but there are lots of things that we can do to help parents, um, to make sure that that doesn’t happen. And there’s also, uh, a real acknowledgment and understanding that for some children, they will need to be in the care system.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): What obstacles, I suppose, are in the way of being able to reunite children with their parents?

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: I think one of the crucial things is when we look at reunification, is considering those financial aspects as part of your reunification plan. Um, we heard from parents that said, as part of unification plan, the child came back over a number of weeks, including overnight stay, but there was no financial support available. So as part of what we heard earlier, living off £60 a week, and trying to actually feed and clothe during that period and ensure that the child’s whole needs were being met was particularly challenging. We also need to think about when there is a phased return. The benefit system isn’t actually set up to support that. Um, it has very limited flexibility. It is possible to receive child benefit for a child who is looked after, but is not widely used. Part of that, uh, there’s other benefits that actually will only be reinstated if the child is living there full time and then there’s considerable length of time to get those benefits. It’s even more complex, I think, when a young person age 16 plus returns home from care and, um, there’s different benefits implications. For example, particularly if a young person is still in non advanced education, that can have a huge impact. And we did hear accounts where parents were really actually questioning if they could have financially, the child returned home, they wanted it, but actually it has such a huge impact on their current benefits and, uh, future benefits to enable them to actually have their teenager home. And again, that has a real impact on those relationships that have already been impacted.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): Chloe, if you were first minister, what would be your top three priorities if you were in Humza Yusaf’s position?

Chloe Riddell, The Promise Scotland : I think having looked at the research, having looked at the broader research around poverty, the most important thing is, one of the most important things is around addressing this persistent poverty that we know many children and families are facing. So a persistent commitment to ending poverty, mitigating its impact. This includes for care experienced young adults as well, um, and for care experienced young people who are leaving care. But considering, um, the really significant interlink between poverty and the care system, it’s really important that we address and we listen to the voices of children and families and care experienced adults about what can be done to help and are able to feel financially secure. Ensuring equitable access to early and ongoing help and support is a really key theme in the Promise keeping more children safely at home, where it’s safe, when it’s possible to do so. But this is around ensuring funding is long term, ensuring it’s sustainable, addressing some of those really complex issues about how funding is allocated, um, about ensuring that people are working together to make sure that the families can access holistic, whole family support, um, and then finally, I think the huge priority is supporting the workforce. We know that there’s really significant issues around recruitment and retention of the paid and unpaid workforce in Scotland, those working alongside care experienced children and adults. So supporting the workforce and nurturing the workforce should really be at the heart of Scotland service planning, alongside listening to the voices of children and young people and care experienced adults and families. So just a small list!

Sarah Stewart, OPFS Head of Services: Sarah, what about you? I think really echoing a lot of what Chloe says, I think that investing within that sort of early help and, um, really investing with regards to longer term investment, I know through experience about short term funding really impacts actually pace of work, impacts impact. I think part of the message is very much about further research and the cost of implementing anti poverty measures for families affected by changes of their benefit. Is there other ways that we can do it? Is there other research that we can undertake to fully understand how we mitigate against these cliff edges and truly support families and children where it is safe to do so? Things put forward within the report, but the recommendations is very much about looking at the Scottish Child Payment and, uh, whether that should be changed to a standalone benefit and not dependent on eligibility of UK benefits, because that could offer some additional flexibility. One of these, we could look at an enabling, rapid reaction to the change resulting from consultant with claimants organization that would actually promote a fairer system, um, that puts the views of parents at the heart of any decisions and changes. So, for example, um, very much about thinking of those cliff edges in the benefits that increase poverty for family and affecting the care system. And I think the final thing is about very much invest in financial inclusion services so they’re truly integrated to that whole family support and that every family should have and be offered a financial health check and being able to support with regards to not only money management, understanding with regards to what is the impact, how is that, uh, affecting our children and families now, but also in the future.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): And Chloe, what’s next for the Promise?

So, as you probably are aware, plan 21-24 is kind of reaching the end stage. So the oversight board has been really concerned about some of the parts of Plan 24-30. It says that the Promise can still be kept by 2030, but that some of the aspects of Plan 21-24, um, are not likely to be met. So the Promise Scotland is supporting Fiona Duncan in her work to look at plan 24-30 and what that means, especially in light of that assessment, um, from the M oversight board, and also in light of this really extraordinary financial climate that we find ourselves in, and the complexities of, um, financing more broadly. We know that work to devise plan 24 to 30 will, um, be focused on a set school principles that it will remain rooted in the needs and aspirations of the care community of children and families and adults. And it will provide a single shared plan which sets out a route map to keep the Promise by 2030. So there’ll be opportunities for people to contribute to that over the coming weeks and then it will be published in June. But we know that the priority areas, those areas that I’ve already mentioned, the importance of collective leadership and addressing the funding challenges, um, and addressing how we deliver transformational change in the context of this extraordinary environment that I mentioned before. But there’s also lots of good progress. It’s important to mention that as well, aside from the kind of planning and the thinking and the reflecting that we’re doing around plan 24-30, thinking about the progress that has been made, we’ve talked about the Scottish child payment, um, the pathfinders that have been announced, the work around the care leavers payment, um, and the work that is happening in local areas, by the third sector, by health boards, by all the different people, the communities and the care community, who are coming together to look at what the Promise says and to achieve its conclusions. Um, and there’s a lot of positive work that’s happening, as well as the challenges, um, that we’ve identified. And the next step really for us is thinking about how we can sequence some of the announcements that have been made, some of the Policy Lead areas, how we can make sure that there’s a coherent journey towards 2030 that’s set out and plan 24-30.

Philippa Kemp (OPFS): Thank you very much, and thank you both for taking part in the podcast. It’s been really interesting to talk to you both to get the different perspectives on The Promise.  If you want to get hold of the practitioner guide, our research and the parent guide, you can do so by going to opfs.org uk. And if you just search ‘The Promise’ you’ll be able to download the guide as pdfs from there. And that’s the end of our podcast today. Thanks for listening. Until next time.