The number of children in local authority care under section 20 arrangements has fallen to its lowest point in seven years, government statistics show.
Looked-after children statistics, published today by the Department for Education, showed 16,470 children lived in the voluntary care arrangements at 31 March 2017, compared to 19,350 at the same point in 2015. This is the lowest number of children cared for under the arrangement since this dataset was first published in 2010.
Section 20 practice came under increased scrutiny in 2015 when the president of the family courts, Sir James Munby, issued guidance to try to stamp out “misuse and abuse”’ of the arrangement, which does not require a legal order and is done with the consent of the parents.
Since that time, the number of children in section 20 arrangements has fallen to pre-2013 levels, despite the number of looked-after children overall reaching its highest level in more than 30 years.
In total, 72,670 children were living in care at 31 March 2017, a 3% increase on the same point in 2016.
At the same time, the number of children leaving care due to adoption continued to be below peak 2015 levels, falling 19% in the two years since.
Local authority use of adoption changed dramatically following Re B and Re B-S, two court rulings which told social workers that, respectively, adoption was only to be used when “nothing else will do”, and to use the balance-sheet approach to decision making.
The number of children leaving care via special guardianship orders (SGOs) also fell slightly in the latest year. The use of SGOs had been increasing prior to this new set of figures, though new regulations were introduced in 2016 following a review of the practice.
In total, 3,690 SGOs were made in the year to 31 March 2017, compared with 3,860 the year before.
The number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in local authority care had risen again, the statistics said, with 4,560 in care at 31 March 2017, a rise of 6% in a year and of 134% from 2013.
Responding to the figures, Sue Armstrong Brown, chief executive of Adoption UK, said the fall in adoptions was likely a “hangover from the confusion over the Re B and Re B-S rulings”.
She warned: “This autumn the number of children needing an adoptive home may outnumber those coming forward to provide that home. Clearly we need to do more to recruit potential adopters, whilst retaining the rigorous assessment that’s part of that process.”
Recruitment for adopters had “dropped off” following a reduction in placements, Armstrong Brown said, but she said more needed to be done to recruit adopters for harder to place children.
Carol Homden, chief executive of children’s charity Coram, said: “Over the last few years, many children waiting for adoption have been placed in the families they need. What appears to be a fall is therefore part of an underlying success. But certainly we need to do more to ensure that children have the same chances no matter where they live.
“The continued rise in the number of children who are looked after demonstrates the need for prospective foster carers and adopters to come forward. These are the people who change the lives of this vulnerable group of children.”