Most children in care experienced at least one change of social worker last year, report finds

Commonest source of disruption for looked-after children continues to be a switch in practitioner, with staff turnover driving but not fully explaining the trend

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More than three out of every five children in care experienced a change in social worker last year, a report from the Children’s Commissioner for England has found.

The 2019 Stability Index report, the commissioner’s annual study looking at the stability of looked-after children’s lives, found that 45,000 looked-after children had their social worker change at least once during 2017-18.

Meanwhile, more than 20,000 – just over one in four – had to deal with two or more changes of practitioner over the same period. Over the 24 months covering 2016-17 and 2017-18, more than half (55%) of children saw their social worker change twice or more, while for 32% it was three or more times.

Children in care continue to face a change in their social worker more frequently than changes to their placement or school, the report found, making it the number-one source of disruption in their lives.

Children quoted in the report spoke of how important it was to have a constant social worker and said frequent changes could be distressing and made life feel more chaotic.

Similarly to last year’s Stability Index (only the second time it had been produced) the report said workforce issues were partly to blame. The proportion of children who experience multiple social worker changes were higher in councils with higher rates of agency staff, vacancies and turnover.

The problem was also generally higher in areas with lower Ofsted ratings, the report found, with one in three children in care experiencing multiple changes of social worker in councils rated ‘inadequate’, compared with one in four children in those judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

But the report added that there was a “large amount of variation” in the levels of social worker instability, which could not be explained by workforce, child or placement factors.

“Together these factors only explain 11% of the variation across councils,” it said.

Rise in teenage population

The report also identified a significant rise in the number of teenagers coming into care, a group with more complex needs and potentially more expensive living arrangements than other age groups.

It found that between 2013-14 and 2017-18 the number of children aged 16 and over entering care increased by 25%, which was much higher than any other age group. This means that almost a quarter (23%) of children in care were aged 16 or over.

The report said the vulnerability of these teenagers was “stark” because they are significantly more likely to have experienced issues such as child sexual exploitation or trafficking, to have gone missing from home, to be involved in gangs, or be misusing drugs than younger groups.

The report also found this group of children were six times more likely than children under 13 to be living in residential or secure children’s homes, and nearly half were in privately-run homes. They were also 80% more likely to have two or more changes of home within a year.

Many councils were buckling under the rising cost of this specialist care, the report said, with one found to be spending 20% of its entire children’s services budget on just 10 children.

System ‘playing catch up’

Commissioner Anne Longfield said teenagers coming into care was now “the new norm” and it was clear that the care system was “playing catch up”.

She added: “The result is a care system that is struggling to cope and which in turn is not providing the stability that many highly vulnerable children need. All children in care have a right to expect that the state does all it can to improve their chances of growing up in stable and loving environments.”

Jenny Coles, vice-president for the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said local and regional efforts to minimise placement instability for children in care had been undermined by the government’s failure to implement a national strategy for recruiting more foster carers and addressing the nationwide shortage of residential placements.

She added that the reasons why children were coming into care older and their needs becoming more complex will vary, from greater professional and public awareness of child criminal and sexual exploitation, improved multi-agency responses to safeguarding, to the continued impact of the Southwark Judgement in relation to homeless 16 to 17-year-olds.

John Simmonds, director of policy, research and development at CoramBAAF, said: “The care system has been under increasingly high levels of demand while facing significant reductions in resources to address these. This reflects general government policy towards public services resulting in a move towards ‘survival mode’ for local authorities and other services. This is deeply troubling and requires an action plan of considerable urgency – with children and young people and their experiences at the centre of that plan.”

Residential care consultant Jonathan Stanley said the report showed how far the care system was from providing the “secure emotional base” that all children needed, and addressing this was “skilled work requiring investment financially, professionally and personally”.

This year’s Community Care Live 2019 boasts over 30 free learning sessions to equip you to face the key challenges in social work practice today. You can also sign up to any of our eight legal learning sessions to help ensure you have the legal literacy your role requires. Register now to ensure you don’t miss out. 

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