More than 70% of children who leave local authority care to live with their families do not feel they are ready to go home, according to research by the NSPCC.
In a report published today, the charity urged councils and the government to urgently review arrangements for monitoring children’s needs when they return home, revealing hundreds will suffer abuse and neglect as families struggle to cope.
Social workers told researchers that budget cuts have upped the pressure to return children home, saying effective and appropriate support is often not available.
They also said courts judge the balance of risk to the child, against parental rights, differently to social workers, making reunification more likely.
The report – based on interviews with social workers and more than 200 children – follows Bristol university research, which found 46% of children who entered care as a result of abuse or neglect suffered further abuse when they returned home.
Although the majority of looked-after children return home to their families, the NSPCC warned their needs are being overlooked.
“There has been very little policy and practice development in this area,” said Tom Rahilly, NSPCC head of strategy and development for looked-after children.
“There is a lot of focus on adoption but it’s the outcome for a minority of children. We are missing the big picture.”
The charity is urging the government to issue revised care planning guidance - setting out clear expectations of monitoring and support arrangements - and publish data about children's outcomes following reunification.
Care plans should remain open and actively monitored for a minimum of a year after a child returns home, the report recommended, while urgent work is needed to improve assessments about whether, and when, a child should return home.
The NSPCC also urged the new Family Justice Service to ensure judges receive training in child development and the implications of returning children home.
“Returning home must only be seen as the start of a process where the needs of the child come first and the situation is monitored closely on a continuing and long-term basis,” Rahilly said.
Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said it is right councils should monitor and provide services for children who return home, but added more data collection is unnecessary because there is already a "sufficiently robust legislative framework".
"Councils should assure themselves, and be able to assure inspectors, that children who leave care do so to a suitable environment, with the right ongoing support,” she said.
The NSPCC is working with Professor Harriet Ward and eight councils to develop new approaches to tackle the risks facing children who return home from care.
The impact on children of multiple returns to birth parents