Research into practice

The number of looked-after children and the use of care orders are gradually increasing each year, yet the UK has a deep-seated problem when it comes to foster and residential placements for these children: instability. Although there are no longer so many three-or-more placement moves per year – mainly because of targeted funding under the Quality Protects and Children First initiatives in England and Wales – frustration about the lack of choice of placements persists among looked-after children and those attempting to provide placements.

As well as placement stability, local authorities are also struggling to provide continuity of social workers, residential care staff, schooling and community networks. As one social services manager said, “We have 640 foster children. We probably have a care service that supports 550 children reasonably well.”

A recent study looked into the provision of stability and continuity for looked-after children.1 It comprised two elements: a critical review of existing research into effective interventions to promote stability for looked-after children; and a survey of social services departments across the UK to discover the types of initiatives being carried out to promote stability.

The search for research evidence was carried out according to strict criteria which meant that only 17 studies made the short-list. From these emerged evidence that the following factors positively affect stability:

  • Foster care by a relative.
  • Professional foster care.
  • Placing siblings together.
  • Individualised, multi-dimensional packages of support and care.

Many other ways to promote stability exist, but the study demonstrates how weak the evidence base is in this area, and that there is a shortage of UK studies.

The telephone survey sought the views of managers with responsibility for looked-after children in all Welsh authorities and one-fifth of those in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. It found much activity aimed at promoting stability. Innovative projects included 24-hour support for foster carers, “grassroots” foster-care recruitment, “virtual schools” and specialist health teams for looked-after children. Many of the managers were optimistic about developments in this field and felt services for looked-after children were at last receiving the input they deserved. However, the managers conveyed a consistent message of continuing difficulties in the following areas:

  • Social worker and foster carer recruitment, retention and quality.
  • Sufficient placements.
  • Inter-agency co-operation, particularly in relation to community mental health services and when placed in other authority areas.
  • Meeting the care, therapeutic, support and treatment needs of the most vulnerable looked-after children.

One voluntary sector manager said the biggest difficulties were “access to adequate, flexible foster care, tolerant educational provision and, above all, access to child and adolescent mental health services”.

Respondents noted it was not enough to have sufficient practitioners and carers. They must have the skills and experience to meet the needs of these vulnerable children. Ironically, many able social workers have been attracted away from fieldwork to work in the very projects designed to support their work.

There are clear signs, in the Choice Protects initiative and measures announced in the green paper Every Child Matters, that these difficulties are being recognised. Our study found a strong innovative culture in this area in the UK, but a much weaker culture of evaluating the impact of these innovations on children’s lives.

1 R Perez-del-Aguila, S Holland, A Faulkner, D Connell and Sara Hayes, Overview And Survey Of Effectiveness Of Interventions To Promote Stability And Continuity Of Care For Looked-After Children, 2004. Available from:  

Sally Holland is a lecturer at Cardiff University school of social sciences.

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