Neglected children happier in care than in stable reunion

Children who have been neglected and emotionally abused are happier in care than in a stable reunification with parents, according to a study commissioned by the previous government.

Children who have been neglected and emotionally abused are happier in care than in a stable reunification with parents, according to a study commissioned by the previous government.

Researchers from the social policy research unit at the University of York followed 3,872 children in seven local authorities in 2003-4 for three years. They found that even those children whose reunifications had endured had lower levels of well-being than those who had not returned to their birth parents. “This was especially so for neglected and emotionally abused children,” the report stated.

This finding could not be explained by greater difficulties among children who returned to their families. The researchers concluded: “This suggests, overall, that remaining looked after is likely to enhance the well-being of maltreated children.”

This association was the strongest for neglected children and emotionally abused children, even if the perpetrator of the neglect had since left the family home or children were returned to a different parent. “This may reflect the pervasive and chronic nature and effects of this form of maltreatment,” the authors said.

Intensive services helped to stabilise reunions but there was little evidence that they improved children’s overall well-being in the family home.

The research will strengthen the argument of some charities, notably Barnardo’s, which has argued that more children should be taken into care earlier.

In their recommendations for policy, the researchers said there was a high risk of failure attached to reunification and such decisions should be taken with considerable caution.

“Most children had a relatively long exposure to harm before becoming looked after, had experienced multiple forms of maltreatment and a high number of other adversities,” they said. “At this stage there is a need for decisive early intervention and provision of services (identifying written goals, timescales and consequences) in order to support families, and speedier decisions to reduce the likelihood of further damage to children.”

Reunifications should take place slowly over a planned period, giving time for everyone to be involved and services to be provided to parents to help them make changes.

Repeated attempts at reunification should be avoided. The children in the study whose reunions were unstable had the worst overall outcomes and about one-fifth had made two or more returns home.

The authors said variations in local authority care pathways and decision making needed investigation. Their research found that some authorities, and even teams within those authorities, were more successful than others at providing children with permanent and stable placements. “The more we understand about how these differences occur, the greater the potential will be for shared learning,” they wrote.

“In overall terms, most children had settled quite well in care, had good relationships with those supporting them, were doing reasonably well at school and were not getting into great difficulty.

“Compared to those who then went home, those who stayed were also more likely to be settled and doing well at follow-up.

“Although the care system is rightly criticised for its weaknesses, this study has shown that for many maltreated children it can provide an opportunity for children to feel safe, to re-shape their lives and take advantage of opportunities that had previously been closed to them.”

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