Selling adopters and less residential care – how children’s social care will be cut

How do England's councils plan to curb their spending on children's social care in 2013-14? Tristan Donovan investigates

Picture credit: Design Pics Inc/Rex Features

Local authorities across the country are now finalising their budgets for the coming financial year, and in the process picking out measures to cut back spending even further.

To find out how this is affecting children’s social care services, Community Care examined the detailed savings proposals of 18 randomly selected local authorities, including two from each region.

While there were common approaches to savings among adult social services in the councils we examined, the picture in children’s social care is rather different. There are relatively fewer cuts on the table and many of the authorities seem to be looking for savings from other types of children’s services, such as education or youth work.

The 18 councils we looked at are also taking distinct approaches to squeezing their children’s social care bills. The most commonly mentioned approach was to save money by keeping children out of residential care, where possible, but even then Buckinghamshire’s plans rule out further cuts in this area on the grounds that it would compromise children’s safety.

But that’s not to say there aren’t some noteworthy cost-cutting measures on the table – not least Bristol’s plan to re-engineer how it handles child protection referrals. The authority is creating a single team to handle referrals from professionals and the public.

Bristol’s plans for handling child protection referrals

The First Response Team is expected to save the city £29,000 in 2013/14 by bringing together social workers, police and health to form a multi-agency team that will handle all safeguarding enquiries and assessments. The savings will come from the improvements in efficiency a single team would bring, compared to different teams in different agencies doing much the same work. This measure can also be achieved, Bristol says, without harming the level of response to child protection concerns.

“At a time when Bristol, like all other authorities, has challenging saving targets, we’ve taken the opportunity to be creative and look at how we can be more efficient while maintaining high quality, accessible services for local people,” explains a council spokeswoman. “Initiatives such as First Response will identify vulnerable children earlier and get them the support they need.”

And moves to introduce First Response are already well underway. From this month the council will begin testing out the model, which has been partially inspired by similar work in Devon and South Gloucestershire. The six-month test team will only bring together police and social workers at first. Health professionals will join later down the line so the team can begin to take on relevant functions in special educational needs and signposting for disabled children.

But while the team will refine the detail of how this multi-agency approach will work in practice, the council is already developing plans for rolling it out across the city. The new approach is likely to be in place throughout Bristol within the next two years.

While Bristol is uniting its child protection under a single roof, Southend-on-Sea is looking at moving some of its social services activities outside of the council by creating an independent adoption agency.

Southend-on-Sea’s plan for adoption sales

Although the authority has yet to provide Community Care with more detail, the proposal presented to councillors says the move should generate an income of £300,000 a year from the sale of adopters recruited in the Essex town to other councils.

While councils have been trading adoptive families with each other for some time, Southend hopes to make more money by hiving off its recruitment and training function to a voluntary organisation, which can charge up to £27,000 per adoptive couple. The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) says the plan chimes with the government’s adoption reforms.

“The government is in the process of bringing in various reforms to the adoptions system in England and one of the things they are suggesting is that adoption agencies operate at a larger scale and more closely with each other,” says Chris Christophides, trainer consultant for BAAF.

“Some authorities have more fertile grounds for recruiting adopters. Until recently adopters who live in areas where there were fewer children up for adoption were waiting some time for an adoptive child,” he said. “Conversely, some local authorities with a higher number of looked-after children, but fewer adoptive families, were having to operate more widely in their recruitment of families and enter inter-agency agreements to find adopters.”

The plan could bring benefits to looked-after children in Southend, even though the authority would be selling its adopters to other areas, says Christophides.

“One of the difficulties I imagine Southend has is that because it is a small unitary authority they are not able to place children from Southend with their adopters because of the close proximity of birth and adoptive families. Using this model Southend could sell adopters and then use that money to buy adoptive families from further afield to place their own children.”

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