How social workers can reduce risks for children placed out of area

Tougher requirements on councils and children's homes are needed to reduce the risks to children from out-of-area placements, finds Louise Hunt.

Social workers looking to place a child in residential care usually find their options are limited in their own area. Despite best intentions, sometimes the child ends up being placed hundreds of miles away from their home and consequently at increased risk of running away and a target for sexual exploitation.

The government is resolved to address the issue and in a speech in February, children’s minister Edward Timpson promised to consult on ensuring senior managers took more responsibility for out-of-area placements. However, there are as yet no concrete proposals on how this might work. The government also intends to publish revised statutory guidance on children who go missing from residential care although, again, there is no publication date for this yet.

Ofsted will also, in the future, be inspecting councils on how they fulfil their duties when it comes to safeguarding children in care who have gone missing. The inspection body will also be allowed to share information on the location of children’s homes with the police.  And from next year, the government will pilot data collection systems more aligned with how police collect data on missing children.

Timpson also said their needed to be clarification on the roles and responsibilities of the authorities and children’s homes to ensure a “real shared responsibility for safeguarding”.

Council failings

The need for the overhaul was stressed in last summer’s report of the all-party parliamentary inquiry into children who go missing from care, chaired by Ann Coffey, MP for Stockport, who is calling for urgent action to reduce the number of out-of-area placements.

The report found that the large numbers of children placed away from home suggested “serious failings on the part of many local authorities” to meet their duty to take steps to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children within their area.

The physical distance between responsible social worker and child in out-of-area placements often meant their involvement was reduced and monitoring was difficult. Communication breakdowns between placing authorities and host authorities meant it was difficult to identify how many children go missing.

Although there is a duty on the responsible local authority to notify the host local authority of children being placed in their area, evidence to the inquiry shows this is still not routinely happening.

Lack of information sharing

“It is a major bugbear,” says Jenny Whittle, Kent council’s cabinet member for specialist children’s services. “We constantly have to ask for an up-to-date position because often [the responsible authority] don’t tell you when they have placed a child in the county or when they are removed. A third of the councils haven’t given us this information.’

Kent currently has 1250 looked-after children placed from outside the county, compared with 1800 of its own looked-after children. Whittle believes the county, which has many private residential homes in coastal areas where property is cheaper, is often seen as “an easy option” by the many London authorities that place children there. The problem, she says, is that for social workers it often engenders an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude. 

Whittle would like to see a system introduced whereby councils report annually to local safeguarding children boards on how many children they are placing out of area and the reasons for doing so. “It would help to build a picture on how children’s homes are being commissioned; raise questions if they are not getting the right mix and provide information on why children are running away,” she says. 

Councils in the North West also take in disproportionately high numbers of looked after children from other areas. “In Stockport there are more children from out of the area in care than our own children. We have two major national voluntary organisations providing care and over 30 small private homes,’ says Andrew Webb Stockport director of children and young people’s services and incoming president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS).

Tougher requirements on providers urged

Webb agrees that compliance with the duty on placing authorities to notify host councils can be patchy but thinks levels of compliance are going up. “Often it is more likely to be a time delay. I would like to see this supplemented with more onus on the care provider to provide information,” he says.

“There should be a requirement for residential care homes to let their local authorities know who is coming and when they have been discharged,” Webb adds. “That seems to be good practice and gives the host authority the chance to get real-time information. Children’s homes need to have a relationship with the local area. In Stockport we hold regular meetings with independent providers, which includes looking at the data on missing children and we have a multi-agency approach to sexual exploitation which kicks in if they are at risk.’

Debbie Jones, outgoing ADCS president and director of children’s services for the London Borough of Lambeth, is optimistic that the new measures the government has announced will reinforce accountability.

New category of ‘absent children’

But one of the most significant changes, she says, will be the introduction of a definition of “absent” as opposed to “missing”. After a telephone risk assessment, police and other safeguarding agencies will only get involved in missing children reports when care homes or parents have recorded and monitored patterns of concern. The idea has come from a joint pilot between the police and the government and will be adopted nationwide in April of this year.

Webb, who has experienced the new system, says it is much more sensible than the current situation where every missing episode is treated the same way. “It puts the onus on the care placement to decide why a child has gone missing,” he says. “Any good care provider should be able to make that call. The new measure will help to concentrate resources to where they are most needed.”

Ultimately, it is hoped that all the current improvements will focus minds on how best to commission residential care so there are fewer out-of-area placements and fewer children who go missing.

Better commissioning

While there will always be a need for specialist out-of-area placements, such as for a disability or a specific safeguarding issue such as trafficking, Jones says everyone is agreed on “the need to minimise last-resort placements”.

“ADCS has done a heap of work looking into better commissioning of residential placements,” she adds.

Ann Coffey MP, who is due to report shortly on her further work into the commissioning of out-of-area placements, says: “I think the reduction in the number of out-of-area placements can only really be tackled by local authorities working together using their purchasing power. But the proposal to make seniors officers more accountable for out-of-area placements is a welcome step in the right direction.”

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