Special report: Looked after children in Wales continue to rise

Structural change


New official figures show that the number of children looked
after by local authorities in Wales is continuing to rise. There
were 4, 431 children in care on 31 March 2005 – one per cent higher
than the level for the previous year and 10 per cent higher than in
2002, reports Amy Taylor.

The figures have prompted many in the social care sector to ask
what could be behind the increase and what can be done to try to
halt the trend.

Penny Lloyd, professional officer for Wales at the British
Association of Social Workers, said that the rise is likely to be
down to a number of issues and that the changes in practice faced
by Welsh social workers over recent years could be partly

“If you get involved in structural change and reform then
staff take their eye off the clientele and part of their brain is
focussed on what’s happening,” she said.

Lloyd added that in such situations the amount of time staff
spent on preventive work is reduced.

Absence of support

Although social workers in Wales have been faced with upheaval
with some Welsh local authorities moving into merged
children’s social services and education departments and then
back to separate services, arguably this have been even greater for
professionals in England due to the advent of children’s

Lloyd said that while there hadn’t been an equal rise in
the number of children being looked after in England, figures
coming through for this year might show an increase as a result of
the reforms.

New Asset  
Garthwaite: problem is
          of support

Tony Garthwaite, director of personal services at Bridgend
Council, said that in his area the increase in looked-after
children had been even higher than the national average.

He puts the increase down to the council insufficiently
investing in an appropriate range of preventive services in the
past arguing that social workers’ access to such provision 
is critical to enabling children to stay at home.

“The greatest single problem is the absence of alternative
family support that enables us to do that,” he said.

Financial implications

Jayne Isaac, public policy officer for Wales for NCH Cymru, said
there are effective family support services in Wales but that
statutory agencies needed to develop a more strategic approach to
identifying where such services are needed and who they should be

As well as the humane aspect of not wanting to take children
away from their families looking after large numbers of children
has big financial implications for local authorities

Garthwaite says that his looked-after children budget is
constantly overspent. He explains that the cost of caring for the
youngsters, such as through foster carers or in residential homes,
is now decided by independent providers who set the ever increasing
market rate.

Minimal rise

For Lloyd social workers’ fear of being held responsible
for children being harmed and their subsequent desire to avoid
risks could also be fuelling the figures.

A lack of risk taking is difficult to pin down but Lloyd says
that based on conversations she has had with child protection
social workers there seems to be more of a view that if they have
carried out an assessment and there is a risk to a child that they
then might go down a care route.

The Welsh Assembly has indicated that figures on the number of
children looked-after in Wales for this year seems to be coming
down.  Lloyd says that this is due to professional’s
recognition that the figures were too high and attempts to try to
deal with this. Garthwaite also points out that an increase of one
per cent is minimal compared to those in some of the previous years
and therefore the rising trend is slowing. Maybe the next set of
figures could be the ones to show the beginning of a decline.

Performance statistics from: www.wales.gov.uk/keypubstatisticsforwales/

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