Plan to shut children’s homes prompts warning of crisis

Essex Council's plans to close its mainstream children's homes have left many nervous about the wider implications for residential child care.

Essex Council’s plans to close its mainstream children’s homes have left many nervous about the wider implications for residential child care.

The proposed closures of seven homes – to be decided at a cabinet meeting later this month – should save around £1m a year, according to Sarah Candy, cabinet member for children’s services.

The savings are “just a secondary advantage”, said Candy, who claimed the homes no longer meet the needs of looked-after children. Only 36 of the 64 council-owned beds are full, while 180 children are in residential placements overall.

“Most children needing residential placements in Essex have complex needs that cannot be met by our mainstream homes,” said Candy. “While the temptation would be to place children in beds we are already paying for, we are child-led, not bed-led.

“If our in-house provision cannot meet their needs we look elsewhere. That’s very expensive. By releasing money locked into these homes we can invest in other things, like early intervention services and specialist foster care.”

Although she confirmed the council would continue to commission external residential placements where appropriate, she said it hoped to place “as many children as possible” in family settings such as fostering or kinship care.

The 36 children have individualised care plans detailing where they will move if the proposal is approved. Candy added any moves would be handled “with the utmost sensitivity”.

The Conservative-led council would not be the first to close its children’s homes. Gloucestershire Council closed five in 2009.

Residential child care sources told Community Care this is the latest sign of a sector in crisis. One, who spent five years working for an outstanding-rated children’s home, said: “Although councils say they will continue to commission beds externally we’re not seeing any evidence of that. Referrals are down across the country as councils with slashed budgets look for cheaper options.

“It’s the government’s fault – you can’t cut costs on care without cutting vital support for young people. But in this climate, only the cheap survive. It’s very frustrating and it’s putting a tax on the lives of innocent young people.”

One children’s home manager, who wished to remain anonymous, warned closures would not solve problems in the long term.

“I know of children who’ve been moved to foster care, for financial reasons, but it’s broken down and they’ve ended up back in their children’s home.”

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