Think-tank Demos has conducted an exhaustive study of the care system for children. Jo Dixon reports
KEY WORDS: looked-after children ❙ care leavers ❙ early intervention ❙ fostering and adoption
Authors: Celia Hannon, Claudia Wood, Louise Bazalgette
Title: In Loco Parentis, published by Demos, 2010, 300 pages
Aim: In Loco Parentis aims to show how the care system might be reconfigured to improve outcomes and experiences for looked-after children and suggests recommendations to better support them while reducing the financial costs of care.
Methodology: A literature review is combined with primary data, including interviews with UK policy, practice and academic experts; case studies from across England; focus groups with children in care, care leavers and foster carers; and quantitative analysis of the costs and experiences of care.
In Loco Parentis documents the development of the care system over time and suggests that while it can be beneficial to some looked-after children, there are serious flaws inherent within the process and the experience of entering, living in and leaving care that are damaging to young people and costly to society.
The authors report that delays in bringing some children into care, instability in care and early transitions to independent living can impact on the healthy development and progress of care leavers, resulting in poor mental health and well-being and an increased risk of unemployment, homelessness and social exclusion. The report sets out a case for reforming the system, so that children’s services can provide more young people with a positive care experience that reduces the financial costs of care.
The report highlights findings from recent studies showing that despite considerable developments in policy and practice many care leavers continue to be disadvantaged. But the perception of the care system as “failing” is described as simplistic, and the stigmatisation of care has fuelled the movement towards avoiding or delaying bringing children into care, which in turn can undermine its chances of helping them.
Provision depends on the culture of each local authority. It is highly variable and there is more scope for the state to act as a “parallel parent” – where corporate parenting and birth parenting “should not always be seen as mutually exclusive”. This could be demonstrated through early intervention and a tapering of support, which ranges from family support services and interventions such as “support care”, where vulnerable children receive a time-limited series of short breaks to avoid the breakdown of their home situation, to entry into full time care – depending on the level of need.
An important finding is the potential costs of poor quality care. The authors, in collaboration with Loughborough University, modelled and compared the costs of a positive and negative care journey. The positive journey would last 14 years and cost about £23k a year, while the negative journey, characterised by delay and instability, would last seven years and cost £56k annually. The report notes that “higher expenditure alone does not necessarily generate a better care experience” and the additional cost to the taxpayer of the negative care experience is about £33k per child each year.
The authors make 19 recommendations for reform, including suggestions for improving stability of placements through stronger care planning guidance, to limit the number of failed family reunifications. They also suggest providing mental health training for foster/residential carers to enable them to manage challenging behaviour and difficulties.
The authors highlight links between poor mental health and behavioural problems, and unsuccessful relationships with carers and low stability of placements. To counter this, mandatory mental health assessments should be carried out for children entering care so that the right support is delivered at the earliest opportunity. They also recommend the promotion of resilience through positive experiences of care and education.
The report suggests there is a greater need for personal advisers to develop pathway plans with care leavers to help them prepare for independent living. It also suggests closer working between looked-after and leaving care teams, and greater awareness of the need for support to address the psychological consequences of leaving care.
The authors highlight early intervention as crucial to improving the life chances of children and young people in and from care and to reducing the social and economic costs of poor care experiences. Early intervention can refer to both the age of the child and in respect of the emergence of difficulties.
The report provides practical examples of early intervention including nurse-family partnerships, to help families of babies up to two years develop positive parenting skills. Other examples include SureStart, while support to address difficulties of those in care include the use of multi-dimensional treatment foster care, which works with the child and their carer to address difficulties and improve outcomes.
Further examples of early intervention include the use of family support services to prevent care or provide parallel parenting to vulnerable children. Several practice examples exist across the UK including the use of foster and residential unit placements to offer short breaks for children and adolescents both in and on the edge of care.
The report provides a thorough overview of existing knowledge on young people in and leaving care offering a detailed summary of the development of the care system, key policy and legislative changes. It is a useful source of information for social care professionals, social work students and foster carers, and complements existing research about the factors aiding positive progress in and after care.
It reiterates key messages for policy and practice managers of what works in improving outcomes by synthesising the evidence for early intervention, stability, transition preparation, delaying leaving care and providing continued support. It places a welcome emphasis on the importance of assessing looked-after children’s mental health and well-being needs, and its recommendations are largely reflected in emerging government policy.
The authors acknowledge that their recommendations might be difficult to implement in the financial climate in which local authorities are operating. However, there is little reference to other constraints or factors within the social care profession that can impact on the delivery of care, such as staffing, workloads and the retention and recruitment of carers.
The care system is in need of reform to de-stigmatise the experience, remove delays, improve stability and transition from care and offer more flexible and effective provision to families and children. Investment in high-quality care and earlier intervention would be less expensive for local authorities and the state.
For policy makers
● Make 18 the minimum age for leaving care, and enable return up to the age of 24.
For directors of children’s services
● Audit current strategies to assess mental health and well-being needs of children in and leaving care.
● Increased use of preventive approaches such as family support services and wider availability of short breaks for vulnerable children and adolescents.
For managers and social workers
● More speedy and accurate assessments to enable children and families to be offered the right level of support and avoid delay in entry and drift in care. This would require a review of timescales for assessment and court proceedings.
● Greater choice, effective matching of children and placements and ongoing support for children and carers to minimise placement breakdown. This would require sufficient numbers and availability of foster and residential unit placements and comprehensive assessments of children’s needs.
● Closer working between looked-after and leaving care teams to help smooth the transitional process for young people.
Jo Dixon is a research fellow at the Social Policy Research Unit, University of York
● Stein and Munro (2008), Young People’s Transitions from Care to Adulthood: International Research and Practice, Jessica Kingsley.
● D Forrester et al (2007), What is the impact of care on children’s welfare? A focused review of the literature, Welsh Assembly Government.
● Ward, Holmes, and Soper (2008), Costs and Consequences of Placing Children in Care, Jessica Kingsley.
● Cosis-Brown, Fry, and Howard (2006), Support Care: How Family Placement Can Keep Children and Families Together, Russell House Publishing.
● Dixon and Biehal (2007), Young People on the Edge of Care: The use of respite placements, Social Work Research and Development Unit, University of York.