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Protecting overseas children in informal care arrangements: A UK-based model for social work practice


This case study evaluated the effectiveness of the British model for safeguarding children from abroad in «private fostering» arrangements in England. Private fostering is the term used in the United Kingdom to describe an informal foster care arrangement, for example when a parent has made a private agreement for someone else to care for their child. The study identified safeguarding concerns that are specific to children from overseas. We offer recommendations on how gaps in service and legislation can be addressed.

Legislation. In England, the Children's Act and The Children (Private Arrangements for Fostering) Regulations 2005 outlines regulations on the assessment and monitoring of private fostering arrangements. The UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children also offers guidance for safeguarding children in alternative care arrangements. In England, parents and carers have a legal duty to notify social services if a child under the age of 16 (or 18 if disabled) is living with somebody other than their legal guardian or a close relative for a period of 28 days or more. A close relative is defined as a step-parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, grandparent, or half-relative in these categories. The regulations are the same for British children and for children from abroad residing in the UK.

Within 7 days of a notification, children's services complete a home visit to assess the suitability of the arrangement and investigate any child protection concerns. If the arrangement is deemed appropriate, then it is monitored regularly by a statutory social worker who conducts home visits every 6 weeks in the first year, and every 12 weeks in subsequent years. These visits are to monitor the arrangement and offer support to the family. A social worker continues these visits until the child reaches 16 years of age, or 18 if disabled.

Literature review. There is a lack of research into private fostering and no recent research specifically on children from abroad in private fostering arrangements in the UK. Many studies refer to the difficulty in identifying participants for studies (Owen et al. 2007). A research report by Shaw et al. (2010) is the only large study to reference the particular situation of children from abroad in private fostering. The report highlights the diversity in types of arrangements and also states that all children in unmonitored private fostering are highly vulnerable.

The Department for Education publishes annual statistics on private fostering in England. The most recent publication for the year ending March 2013 states that there were 2500 new private fostering arrangements in that year and 53% of these involved children from another country. This is the first year that the number of children from overseas surpasses the number of British children in private fostering. However, it is widely recognized that the actual number of children in private fostering is much higher than that reported. In 2004, the Department of Health estimated that there were 10,000 children in private fostering arrangements but the British Association for Adoption and Fostering believes that the number could be much higher.

Method. This study focuses on children from abroad who are residing in the UK in private fostering arrangements. A mixed-method case study was employed. The methods used include:

  • a case audit completed in 2011 that compiled information from the cases files of 19 privately fostered children from abroad who are being monitored by one Local Authority in London;
  • three narrative interviews conducted in May 2013 with privately fostered children from abroad who reside in London;
  • a focus group in June 2013 with four social workers from one Local Authority in London;
  • informal interactions with multi-agency professionals who work with children in different regions of the UK. These interactions took place between January and July 2013 during cross-country training sessions on the topic of overseas children in private fostering arrangements.

Findings. The case audit revealed that:

  • Children in this Local Authority predominantly came from Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Somalia, and Nigeria;
  • 42% of children entered the UK with an agent or unknown adult;
  • 58% of children entered into their initial arrangement for life opportunities;
  • 36% of private foster carers were described as Aunt;
  • 42% had 3 or more care arrangements in the UK;
  • 47% of children made child protection disclosures about the private fostering arrangement or an allegation against a private foster carer;
  • 42% of children had Indefinite Leave to Remain in the UK;
  • 100% had access to education and health;
  • 52% reported having contact with their parents overseas;
  • 84% did not have written consent from their birth parents for the arrangement;
  • 78% did not have anyone with parental responsibility for them in the UK;
  • 37% of records had police checks on private foster carers.

Other notable findings related to safeguarding concerns for children from abroad include:

Parental responsibility and contact with parents. Many children from abroad in private fostering have no one in the UK with parental responsibility for them. Social Workers said that parents are often difficult to contact. This means that they cannot verify the authenticity of the private fostering arrangement, obtain the parent's formal consent to the arrangement, or obtain consent for the carer to apply for a temporary guardianship. Many children say that they have no contact with their parents and do not know where their parents are.

Verifying the authenticity of arrangements. Social workers said that it is often difficult to verify the authenticity of stories about how children came to the UK and the motivation for the arrangement. Some families report that they found the child at a bus stop, even though it appears that they had already prepared a space in their home for the child. This makes it difficult to determine the motivation for the arrangement, to accurately determine the relationship of the carer to the child, and to assess the child's needs.

Risk of removal at adulthood. The immigration status of many children is not explored by the social worker. It is possible that children could remain in the UK during their childhood and become settled, only to be at risk of forceful removal at the age of 18, or of becoming vulnerable adults working illegally. The social workers noted that the Local Authority only has a duty to monitor privately fostered cases until the child reaches 16 years of age, after which they are unsure of the outcome for the child.

Abuse and exploitation. Social workers said that, in the majority of cases, children are well looked after. However, some children require a high level of emotional support due to traumatic experiences. In the few number of cases where there are child protection concerns, these can be severe and some cases have resulted in children being taken into formal foster care.

Recommendations. Although the regulations to protect privately fostered children are robust, they fall short by not addressing the particular needs of children from abroad. We recommend that 1) meaningful efforts be made to contact parents overseas, 2) if it is not possible to make contact with parents, these children should be treated as unaccompanied or separated children and efforts should be made to obtain a legal order for the carer, giving him or her temporary parental responsibility, 3) children without a settled immigration status in the UK should be followed by a social worker until the age of 18, rather than 16, and their immigration status should be addressed at an early stage, 4) background checks should always take place on the carer and all other adults in the household, 5) the child's wishes should always be sought.

Key references

Department for Education (2013). Private Fostering Arrangements in England: Year ending 31 March 2013. SFR 25/2013. England: Department for Education.

Owen, C., Jackdon, S., Barreau, S. and Peart, E. (2007). An exploratory study of private fostering. London: Thomas Coram Research Unit.

Shaw, C. et. al. (2010). Research into Private Fostering. Research Report DCSF-RR229. London: National Children's Bureau.

The Children Act 2004 (c.145). London: HMSO.

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