Highland Council must “radically rethink” its fostering arrangements after new figures revealed children are routinely placed hundreds of miles from home.
The shock figures show that one child was sent nearly 500 miles to a foster home, seven others were placed more than 250 miles away and 11 were relocated more than 200 miles.
Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch MSP Kate Forbes last night condemned the situation, describing it as a “matter of great sadness”.
Ms Forbes, who obtained the data using freedom of information, said: “It is difficult enough for any child going through the fostering and adoption process, never mind being placed 500 miles from home.
“Whilst I fully understand there will be times when it is a risk for a child to remain near their own home, Highland Council should not be sending children to another country.
“This has all sorts of repercussions, such as different school systems that will likely disrupt their education, not to mention the costs and staff time for mandatory social work visits.”
Although Highland Council last night insisted it had not to have sent anyone outside Scotland, relocating 484 miles from anywhere on the mainland would place them in another UK nation or eight other European countries.
When pressed on where the child was relocated to, the authority could not say – but stressed a number of factors are taking into account when rehoming a child.
A spokeswoman said: “We have not placed any children out with Scotland and would endeavour to identify suitable placements in Highland at the earliest opportunity.
“It is not always a negative that children are placed at a distance from their family and home town due to their assessed needs.”
The number of new foster carers recruited has fallen from 13 in 2016 to just five last year, the council disclosed, sparking calls for more to be done to recruit carers.
As it stands, there are only 51 carers in Highland Council while 324 children are in need of placements within foster care, residential care, independent agencies and kinship care.
Highland Council pays the lowest allowance for foster care in Scotland, only £77.69 per child under four – while neighbouring authority Argyll and Bute pays almost three times the amount at £196.71.
Urging the local authority to “radically rethink its foster care arrangements” and consider paying carers more, Ms Forbes added: “It is evident that Highland Council needs to review its own foster care arrangements, and that should include recruitment drives, fairer allowance rates and rebalancing costs of sending children out of area.
“If anybody is concerned by these figures, then perhaps now is the time to consider whether they could become a foster carer in the Highlands.”
Highlands and Islands MSP David Stewart said ideally children should not be sent far from home for foster care but there may be complex reasons behind such a move.
A Highland Council spokeswoman added: “Highland Council is ambitious to recruit more carers as we know that this is the best thing for children in the Highlands.
“Our fostering and adoption teams work closely with independent fostering agencies in and out with Highland.
“We recognise that hands-on support for carers is as important as the rate of allowances but also that we would like to bring our allowances into line with other councils at the earliest opportunity.
“Fostering allowances are not set at a national rate but are at the discretion of individual councils and there is considerable variation. There are additional and discretionary allowances that Highland pays depending on individual circumstances.”
Anyone considering fostering can visit www.highland.gov.uk/fosteringandadoption to find out more.