When children’s minister Beverley Hughes asked me to chair a working group looking at the long-term vision for the care population, I did so with the clear conviction that we could set a target for reducing the population as a means of ensuring that children were not taken into care unnecessarily.
My mind was quickly changed.
Despite retaining what is rapidly looking like an old-fashioned faith in the capacity of targets to prompt change for the better (particularly in large dispersed organisations and between organisations in a dispersed system), I could not be sure that the pressure of a simple target might not encourage one or more – potentially many more – local authorities to avoid taking a child into care when that might clearly be the best option. I was particularly struck by the extent to which young people themselves were nervous about setting a target.
It is significant that the care population has seen a marked drop since the mid-1970s. Between then and 1993, the care population in England fell from about 95,000 to about 50,000 and has climbed since then to about 60,000. So, if there was a tendency for care to be over-used in the 1970s, that vulnerability is now much reduced.
Although this suggests a limited scope for reductions, this does not mean there is no scope.
There are two main levers for change, the first being to improve support to families. My working group concluded that the challenge of improving outcomes for children in care had led to a reduced emphasis on the need to support vulnerable children in their families. To illustrate, in 2005-6, local authorities spent more than £2bn on children in care – three and a half times the sum they spent on family support services. We concluded that a redistribution of that investment over time would lead to more successful outcomes for children.
Second, we concluded that more could be done to support family and friends care. All the research points to placements with family and friends resulting in more stability, while children report greater satisfaction. However, arranging and maintaining such placements is often not straightforward.
One young person told us: “Social services were going to put me into care. It was me and my nan that stopped them. My nan wanted me to live with her and so did I, but no one helped with money and my nan was a pensioner. So she was very poor and I had to get a job after school to help my nan get money for food and extra bills.”
Another said: “My neighbour had a spare room where I often had to spend the night when my dad got in late drunk. The neighbours moved house and said I could live with them. It took seven months of paperwork and I lived in a poor children’s home where I was bullied by other kids. If a child and family want to live together why does it take so long to arrange?”
Having a speedier approvals process for potential family and friends carers will help. And placing a requirement on all local authorities to develop supportive policies for supporting family and friends is key, as is making effective provision a necessity in achieving beacon status. Meaningful involvement of children and young people in shaping the services they receive is critical too if this is to work.
We were confident that, with better arrangements for family support and for family and friends care, the population of children in care would fall further, without the need for a numerical target and all the risks that this would carry.
The care population has been relatively stable for the past 20 years. The only significant increase over the next 10 years will come if disabled children in 24/7 placements are included statistically. Scope for making big reductions, like those made by the downsizing of residential care during the 1970s and 1980s and the parallel expansion of foster care, is infinitesimal.
Fostering has been a major UK success story over the past 20 years. The de-segregation of children in the care system from
other children remains a key policy, as evidenced in proposals to give them priority to the point of override in school admissions.
Looking abroad for exemplars of a lower care population is no more than superficially plausible. Japan has one-third of the number that we do, and France and Denmark roughly double. However, the thresholds for becoming a looked-after child are different, and comparisons are fraught with methodological uncertainty. There may be some pointers from Japan and Sweden, which invest proportionately more in child and family health and community services.
There are few magic solutions available to planners or operational teams. The number of adoptions from care is expected to decline slightly over the next few years. The number of children needing special guardianship will be small. Focused family intervention programmes could lead to a small reduction in numbers.
Two areas warrant long-term attention. One is inter-authority variation. The postcode lottery for care means that rates of looked-after children range from 27 per 10,000 children in Merton, to 44 per 10,000 in Kent, 116 per 10,000 in Islington and 154 per 10,000 in Manchester. Even allowing for some complexities in making comparisons, it means that where a child lives in the UK affects their likelihood of ending up in care and their parents’ chance of losing a child.
The media’s focus on high-profile potential miscarriages of justice in relation to parents whose children are compulsorily removed could equally be expressed as miscarriages of justice in relation to children who are left far too long in dangerous family
environments. Few of those managing or researching the care system find extensive numbers of children who shouldn’t be there.
Another area for continuing concern is the over-representation in the care system of children from ethnic minorities. Racial and cultural inequality is as unjustifiable as postcode inequality.
It is impossible to say what the size of the care population would become if these chronic imbalances were removed, but dealing with these issues is more important than focusing on the absolute size of the care population at any one time.
While the care population has been relatively stable, the groups within it change subtly over time. The number of children whose parents misuse drugs or alcohol is increasing, with few specialist programmes in place that are vital if children are to be looked after safely at home. Services for unaccompanied asylum seekers, meanwhile, are available in only a few areas.
Having said that, the best looked-after children teams do an amazing job at looking after the interests of such a diverse group of
children and young people, each of whom has unique needs, wishes and feelings.
The verdict: “no” to a planned reduction in numbers; but “yes” to concerted national action on some specific issues.
Anthony Douglas is chief executive of family court service Cafcass and was a member of the Care Matters working group on the future of the care population
Full report of the working group on the future of the care population, plus the three other working group reports and the government’s response
This article appeared in the 2 August issue under the headline “Policies not targets”
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