Of the 60,000 children in care, he said, 28% have special educational needs against a national average of 3%. They are five times more likely to move schools at Key Stage 4 and eight times more likely to be excluded than other children. Their risk of mental health problems is four times the national average and one quarter of adults in prison today have spent time in the care system.
Nowhere is the failure of the care system more evident than in the perilous state of children’s care homes. Despite an extra £230m being spent on children in residential care between 2001 and 2005, only a quarter of children’s homes currently meet 90% or more of the national minimum standards.
The white paper Care Matters: Time for Change published in June set out to address many of these issues and promised an improved and more stable system in which looked-after children would be offered a greater say in the kind of care they receive. The current bill for England and Wales is intended to take some of those proposals forward.
Concerns over omissions
Although the bill has been well received, there are several inclusions and omissions that have raised concerns within the profession, and with children in care and care leavers themselves. The most controversial is the proposal to pilot several social work practices, to which local authorities will be able to delegate some of their responsibilities for looked-after children and care leavers.
Modelled on GP practices, these autonomous units are the brainchild of social policy guru Julian Le Grand. They will hold their own budgets, pay their own staff and be made up of around 10 partners, most of whom will be social workers. About nine pilots are expected to be set up over the next two years, with the possibility of rolling the system out nationally if successful.
“The aim is to establish whether, by giving social workers more freedom and flexibility in their work, they can deliver a more personalised service and create more continuity for children in care,” Lord Adonis said.
But the prospect of independent social work practices has met with a mixed response. While chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers Ian Johnston has welcomed the approach, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services says that the resources going into the pilots would be better spent on existing children’s services.
The Local Government Association has expressed concerns that outsourcing responsibilities to the units could “weaken the accountability of councils”. And children’s charity NCH points out that such a system could restrict a local authority’s flexibility in allocating resources.
“Furthermore, there is no evidence that [social work practices] will resolve the issues of recruiting and retaining social workers, or why this model is better than empowering foster carers or key workers in children’s homes who are already much closer to the children and young people,” a spokesperson for children’s charity NCH says.
Speaking in the Lords, Baroness Molly Meacher, a former social worker and currently chair of East London and the City Mental Health NHS Trust, also expressed doubts about the new pilots.
“I realise that this is an attempt to overcome the endemic social work problems of high staff turnover, use of agency staff and complex team structures,” she said. “But those problems have been generated substantially by the blame culture and the volumes of regulations and guidance requiring ever more bureaucracy.
“The reality is that contracting work out to social work practices would involve yet more systems and bureaucracy and would divert more resources away from frontline social work. All the meetings and paperwork would continue.”
One proposal that appeared in Care Matters but which is not in the new bill, is the option for young people to stay on in care until the age of 21. Current legislation means that fostering services are not legally required to provide placements beyond the age of 16. The bill proposes raising the age to 18, but many foster carers were hoping it would go further.
“Regulation [on raising the age to 21] would mean that foster carers have the financial backing to continue fostering until a young person reaches 21,” says Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network. “Many find it heart breaking to watch young people being forced into independence before they are ready and able to cope. Some continue to provide a home and support at their own expense but this can put huge financial strain on foster carers.”
Tapsfield welcomes the bill’s inclusion of an independent appeals mechanism for foster carers who have had an allegation made against them. However he criticises the bill for failing to introduce registration for foster carers.
Another omission that has disappointed the NSPCC is the bill’s failure to guarantee access to therapeutic services for all young people who have been abused.
“More than 60% of young people in care will be victims of abuse or neglect,” says NSPCC director of public policy Phillip Noyes. “It is essential that they have access to therapeutic services to help them recover.”
And for all the bill’s promises to give young people more say in their care, there is a lack of provision for independent advocacy – something that has clearly annoyed the chief executive of the Children’s Society.
“The bill is missing an opportunity to ensure that the rights of all disabled children and young people in care are upheld,” says Bob Reitemeier. He explains that a statutory right to independent advocacy is a vital safeguard. “Without advocates, disabled children and young people often have no say over their care and treatment and no control over their lives.”
Le Grand plan for GP-style social services practices
Lewisham director Pettigrew defends practices
Blog: Social care practices, grounds for optimism
British Association of Social Workers
Association of Directors of Children’s Services
Local Government Association
This article appeared in the 13 December issue under the headline “Practise what we preach”