It is well known that children in care require stability if they are to thrive. So why are so many councils still putting children through multiple placements? Anabel Unity Sale reports
The last thing a vulnerable child or young person in care needs is instability in the form of further moves. However, last month the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA) revealed that in 2007 a child in care had lived in an average of 10 or more different placements in more than two-thirds of English councils.
Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) statistics show that although the overall number of multiple placements had dropped across England between 2002-7, there were looked-after children moving 10 times or more in 108 of the 150 councils last year. And some local authorities maintained consistently high rates of moving children.
Such findings make for uncomfortable reading for those who work with looked-after children, especially as placement stability is a key government target. In 2004, the government introduced a public service agreement stating that by 2008 80% of children under 16 who had been looked after for 30 months or more should have been living in the same placement for at least two years.
Every Child Matters reiterates the importance of this public service agreement. It says: “Stability can make a positive difference to their [children’s] lives, giving them the opportunity to form strong attachments with carers and friends, maximising their resilience, and improving their chances of achieving positive outcomes”.
The latest figures were requested by the ICHA because local authorities do not have to publicly justify the moves. They were obtained from the House of Lords library at the behest of ICHA chief executive Roy Williamson who describes them as worrying.
“There’s a concern that a significant number of young people are moving 10 or more times and part of the reason it happens is because there is not a long-term view of their placements,” he says.
Residential placements fail for a number of complex reasons. An inadequate assessment of a child’s needs can result in a placement that breaks down quickly or, a failure may also occur because the needs of the child changes over time and the placement is not able to adapt sufficiently.
Another key factor is money, says Williamson. Good quality residential care is expensive to maintain, he says, so they move looked-after children to less costly placements before a child is ready to go.
This is an issue that John Kemmis, chief executive of the charity Voice, has also encountered. He says Voice’s helpline regularly receives calls from looked-after young people complaining about local authorities stopping their funding. “Councils think they can find less expensive placements so children are being moved from a settled foster home or residential home to a cheaper alternative,” he says.
Placements also break down because of a mismatch between what the child needs and what the placement offers. National Centre for Excellence in Residential Childcare manager Jonathan Stanley believes inadequate assessments and the failure to anticipate the developing needs of the child can result in placement failure.
One local authority identified in the figures as having high placement moves is Lancashire Council. In 2007, it accounted for more than one in five of the North West’s total number of children that had been moved between five and nine times. Peter Kemp, interim director of children’s integrated services, defends the council’s record. He says a few hard-to-place children account for the high number of multiple moves, distorting the overall picture.
He says Lancashire is one of the best-performing councils for children who have had three or fewer placements a year. It has also struggled to recruit foster carers to meet children’s needs.
“One of the issues for us is the degree of difficulties some children present when they are placed for the first time,” he says. The authority plans to address this, he says, by strengthening its child and adolescent mental health services so looked-after children can access it when they need to and by providing them with individual supported foster placements.
Resolving the problem of placement instability can be achieved by stronger commissioning and planning arrangements, according to David Derbyshire, head of performance improvement for Action for Children. He believes councils should ensure they keep children at the centre of their planning and for this to last until they are aged 21. He also advocates that providers of residential care and fostering should have plans in place that take into account looked-after children’s views, and for councils to be aware of them. “This way there is more chance of holding on to a child in the placement.”
Regan Metcalfe, former child in care
‘My way of coping was to become a self-harmer’
Megan Metcalfe, a 28-year-old from Lancashire, was taken into care when she was 10. Her father was a heroin addict and her mother could not cope with her behaviour. “I was answering back and coming in late,” Metcalfe says. “If I’d been that age in today’s society my experience would have been very different because support would have been given to my family so I could stay at home.”
Metcalfe knows first-hand the consequences of placement instability because, by the time she was 19, she had lived in 54 different care institutions around England and Wales. “It was crazy. In the first year I was moved from an assessment centre to a children’s home and then a residential unit. I didn’t understand what was happening and was told I could have weekend visits home but they abruptly stopped.”
Often moving with her belongings in bin bags she rarely unpack because she knew she would soon move. The longest time Metcalfe stayed in one location was between the ages 14 and 16 when she lived in a Bryn Melyn therapeutic home in Wales. Even then her time in the home was interrupted because of funding problems.
She says the impact of moving was “horrific” and her behaviour escalated. “I mirrored the behaviour around me and it was normal to barricade myself into a room. I became a prolific self-harmer, which was my way of coping and surviving the system.”
On many occasions she ended up in accident and emergency because of her self-harming and suicide attempts, and was once placed in a home for adults with mental health issues, which “terrified” her.
Her time in care gave her no life skills and she was not schooled, all of which she found frustrating. Moving around the care system taught her independence and how to adapt to different environments, but it also meant she found it hard to develop trusting relationships with people.
At 23 she decided to use her experiences positively and began training residential social workers in how to deal with young self-harmers. Now living in Manchester and in the first year of a degree in social work, Metcalfe wants to work with children and their families, before children go into care. She says people with personal experience of social care have a lot of insight to offer the profession.
This article is published in the 30 October 2008 edition of Community Care under the headline “Moving stories”