One in four fostered children in the UK had two or more placements last year, while hundreds lived in seven placements in 12 months, Action for Children have revealed.
More than 14,500 children in foster placements had two or more placements between April 2014 and March 2015, a Freedom Of Information request carried out by the charity found. This was nearly a quarter (22.7%) of the 62,954 children who were in foster care last year.
The charity warned that moving children regularly between foster homes was likely to have a negative impact on their mental health, as the moves can lead to poorer social skills and education outcomes, and harm future employment prospects.
In total, 3,083 children had three placements during last year, while more than 250 vulnerable children had seven different placements, the request to local authorities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland found.
Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive of Action for Children, described how, for foster children, moving home meant leaving a family, friends, school and “everything that’s familiar”.
“It is impossible to imagine the damage to a child or young person, who has already had the toughest start in life, to have to move several times a year until they find the right foster carer,” he said.
Local authorities in England and Wales are under a duty under The Children Act 1989, as far as is practical in the circumstances, to ensure that foster placements do not disrupt a child’s education or training.
Government guidance states that children and young people “should not move to another placement” unless it is agreed by statutory review, is clearly in the child or young person’s best interests and has taken into account their wishes and feelings.
“The exception is when remaining in the placement is clearly impractical, or significantly compromises the welfare of others in the household. In some cases placements can break down because people find they are not well matched and do not get on well,” it states.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that, since 2010, it had put in place “comprehensive and far-reaching support” for foster care.
“We have also invested £44 million so that children can stay with their foster parents until age 21 [through the Staying Put programme], and changed the rules so that for the first time long-term fostering is recognised as an important placement in its own right,” the spokesperson said, adding that the department was working with councils to recruit more foster carers.
Cause for concern
Alison O’Sullivan, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said any level of instability was “cause for concern”, but it was important to see the figures in context.
“Over the past decade there has been a steady increase in the numbers of children in care, with overall increases of around 40% and, according to the key government measures, placement stability remains strong,” she said.
She added: “Each placement is different and each faces its own challenges because families are complex and foster families are no different. Research indicates that more placement choice leads to greater placement stability. So undoubtedly our greatest collective challenge is the constant recruitment of high-quality foster carers who are able to meet the needs of children in care.”