Looked-after children given poor support in distant placements

Hundreds of children are being placed in care miles away from
home because of poor planning by councils. Commission for Social
Care Inspection figures show that more than a quarter of the 61,000
children in care at 31 March 2004 were placed outside their

Many are relatively close by, sometimes in a neighbouring
authority. But too many are many miles from home, not for their own
protection or because of an assessed need, but because no local
place is available.

Far from home, they might then wait weeks for a visit from their
social worker. Pressures on children’s services are well-documented
and may go some way to explaining the difficulties workers face in
making visits, a problem highlighted in a report on safeguarding by
eight public sector inspectorates last month.

But the approach taken by some social workers may leave some
children wondering if they are out of sight and out of mind.

Not only can losing regular contact with their social worker
compound the disruption experienced by looked-after children but it
may mean that they have nobody to turn to if they have problems in
their placement. If the placing authority fails – as it often does
– to inform the “host” council about the placement then important
information about the child’s needs may be lost.

Torbay Council became so worried about the number of children being
placed in the area without its knowledge that it recently wrote to
every council in England warning that if they failed to inform it
about placements it would report them to government. So far it has
not had to do this. Nonetheless, such a move is a sign of the
rising tensions between host councils and placing authorities,
exposed last month in a report by Kent child protection committee
(KCPC) that showed 56 per cent of children in care had been placed
from outside the county.

The report, which has been submitted to the Department for
Education and Skills, says the county is struggling to cope with
large numbers of incoming children who are placing a strain on
already overloaded local services. It warns there could be “serious
consequences” for already vulnerable children.

KCPC claims councils, many of them in London, are spreading a myth
that children in care will be happy at the seaside. But it is more
likely that economic and social pressures are forcing some local
authorities to place children at a distance because they have no
other option.

Paul Fallon, director of social services at Barnet Council, says:
“There is no incentive to place children a long way from home.
There are no councils in London who want to do this. It costs more.
An independent fostering agency costs £800 a week, in Barnet
it is £400. Staff have to spend all their time visiting a
child when they would be able to visit two or three at home.

“It is better for children to be placed near home. Educationally
it’s preferable and stability is very important so they can keep in
touch with extended family. Everybody agrees that it should be
avoided. Some unfortunate language has been used about ‘dumping
children on the cheap’. But we do not have enough foster homes in
the borough.”

Fallon adds that property prices, which are higher in London, make
it difficult to recruit foster carers because those likely to
consider it are not in the right earnings brackets to have a spare

A home in London costs £288,507 on average, compared with
£95,277 10 years ago according to Land Registry figures for
the first quarter of this year.

Tax breaks on fostering allowances, pensionable fostering and
mortgage support are all measures the government could introduce to
help councils recruit and retain carers, suggests Fallon.

London councils may face particular problems, but authorities
elsewhere in the country are also struggling. Terry Jones,
assistant director of children and safeguards at Shropshire
Council, says the number of children placed in the borough by other
councils places demands on health, education and more specialist
services like child and adolescent mental health services.

The Commission for Social Care Inspection says some councils
struggle to place children locally because they have historically
given less attention to developing commissioning strategies for
children than for adults. It acknowledges the difficulties faced by
councils where local housing costs are high, but says the situation
varies according to whether authorities have developed strategic
commissioning arrangements for looked-after children or rely on
spot purchasing.

There are questions to be asked about why some councils routinely
handle child placements day-to-day rather than take a long-term
view of looked-after children’s needs.

Changing patterns in the type of provision for looked-after
children – notably the widespread closure of children’s homes in
favour of foster care – have proved difficult for some councils to

Ann Baxter, corporate director of children, education and social
care at Stockton-on-Tees Council, says: “They [councils] cannot
match the rates offered by independent fostering providers.
[Agencies] say they support foster carers more but I don’t think
that’s an issue. It’s about the economics.”

But John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice for the Child in Care,
dismisses this, pointing out that by failing to recruit enough
foster carers in the first place, councils can end up paying at
least three times more than they would have done.

A deputy manager of an independent fostering agency agrees, arguing
that some councils are able to offer their carers the same fees as
the agency. The broader problem, he says, is a lack of long-term
planning by councils and the poor treatment of foster carers.

“Local authority planning overall is dreadful. Many are large,
bureaucratic organisations that have forgotten their purpose and
have become very inward-looking, and more interested in process
over product.”

He adds that councils often apply arbitrary criteria when assessing
prospective carers, citing an example of an excellent carer who was
rejected by a local authority simply because she did not have
enough friends living locally.

Sandwell Council was criticised in its last CSCI inspection report
for an over-reliance on out-of-authority placements because of a
lack of capacity. The report said most families and foster carers
reported difficulties in getting in touch with their social worker
and having their calls returned.

The council said 22.6 per cent of its looked-after children were in
external placements. A spokesperson said: “We are acutely aware
that we have been too dependent on external placements and well
before the CSCI we were doing all we could to address the problem
and it is moving in the right direction.”

As a consequence of lack of planning some children find themselves
placed tens of miles from home and then, once they have become
settled, moved back to their home authority when a cheaper place is

Kemmis slams such a policy as “an appalling piece of practice”,
adding that he is hearing of an increasing number of cases. They
have prompted the DfES to produce an as yet unpublished report on
the issue, which is now being considered by ministers.

But one thing is clear: there are no simple solutions to the
problems. Rumours of a government-imposed 20-mile limit on
looked-after children placements will jeopardise those that are for
the benefit of the child or young person. In itself, it is unlikely
to be effective.

Without the capacity, councils would continue to place children
where space is available. Fallon says: “It does not matter what the
regulations say. If the CSCI approves independent fostering agency
placements they will be used.”

Pressure is mounting on the government to take action. As it stands
decisions are often being made about some of society’s most
vulnerable children on the basis of cost but it is they who can end
up paying the highest price.

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