Many children placed in residential care outside their home local authority feel “at best let down and at worst abandoned” by social workers, research has found.
A report published today by the Children’s Commissioner’s office, based on data analysis and conversations with children in homes around England, found most interviewees were critical of practitioners who “rarely visited, were hard to get hold of, and made promises that were not kept”.
“We heard about important visits being made by unknown duty social workers rather than the allocated social worker, which added to children’s feelings of being ‘dumped’ and forgotten about,” the report said.
It added that many children placed at significant distance from their homes found it hard to get help from independent reviewing officers (IROs) and other advocates with responsibilities for upholding their views.
The Department for Education (DfE) should place greater requirements on IROs to visit and contact children placed out of local areas and ahead of switching placements, the report said among a series of recommendations.
These also included a call for children in out-of-area placements to be made a specific subject in the government’s proposed review of the care system, and for the residential care market to be reviewed, with financial incentives offered to councils placing children locally.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the review must be “wide-ranging [and] independent, and lead to concerted action and improvement”.
“The present system does provide love and support to thousands of children, but there are many others who are living vulnerable lives, many miles away from anyone they know,” she added.
Rise in distant placements
As of 31 March 2018, the Children’s Commissioner’s report said, 41% of all children in care were placed outside their local area. Of that group, numbering 11,352 children, 40% were placed more than 20 miles from their home postcode.
Almost 3,000 children were placed more than 100 miles from home, the report said, adding that this total was up around 20% from 2014.
What children said
Researchers for the children’s commissioner’s study visited 15 children’s homes around England. While some interviewees, especially younger children, spoke positively about their experiences, many had negative comments that related to their location.
“My social worker just dumped me here and drove off,” said one teenager, with another complaining that practitioners kept changing without “handing stuff over”.
As well as feeling distant from and unsupported by professionals, some had lost their place on CAMHS waiting lists when they were moved, in some cases leading to further delays in them moving back to somewhere nearer home. “I’ve been waiting for therapy for a year now,” said one 15-year-old. “It destroys you inside.”
Others found the distance from loved ones “isolating and saddening”, while still others felt they had been placed far from their families as “a form of punishment for past misdemeanours”.
The research included analysis of the extent to which 106 individual local authorities were sending looked-after children elsewhere, and receiving children from other areas.
The London boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hammersmith and Fulham sent the largest proportion of children out of borough relative to the numbers from other councils that they accommodated.
But the Isle of Wight (709), Manchester (701), Liverpool (525), Surrey (463) and Milton Keynes (414) placed most children in different local authority areas overall.
Meanwhile 24 areas were accommodating as many, or more, children from elsewhere as they were placing beyond their boundaries.
Kent and Lincolnshire both received more than four times as many children as they sent out of area.
They and the rest of the top-five receiving authorities – the Isle of Wight, Essex and Leicestershire – between them took on 3,342 children from elsewhere.
Residential care overspend factor
The cost of privately provided care placements, many of which involve moving children into cheaper regions where homes are concentrated, are a key reason why so many local authority children’s service departments are facing massive overspends this year.
Reasons for their use range from simple lack of local capacity to the need to accommodate children with very specific needs, or who are at risk of exploitation within their home borough. Some local authorities have complained recently of residential placement costs rising by up to a third over the past three years because of demand – something provider bodies dispute.
A number of councils have recently published proposals for increasing local in-house residential capacity, some of which have noted the strain placed on social workers who must travel long distances to visit children they work with, and the negative impact on relationships. At least one has considered recruiting an IRO based in a distant region of the country, because it is placing so many children there.
The Children’s Commissioner’s report found children placed out of area were slightly more likely to experience multiple changes of social worker than those who stayed within their home local authority area.
“Social workers of course have demanding caseloads and extensive paperwork, especially at moments when children transition into care,” the report said, acknowledging the difficulties practitioners face in maintaining relationships. “It is, however, important to acknowledge that children are experiencing these actions (or lack of) on a very personal level; the competing demands on a social worker’s time are irrelevant to them.”
Too many children were not visited by their allocated social workers, it found. Meanwhile many had also never met an IRO and so remained confused about the roles of professionals employed to safeguard their rights.
‘Robust advocacy arrangements essential’
Jon Fayle, one of the co-chairs of the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers (NAIRO), said he welcomed the report’s “recommendations to protect the interests and rights of these particularly vulnerable children”.
“It is important that IROs should pay particular attention to children placed away from their home,” Fayle said.
“It is also essential that robust advocacy arrangements should be available to them, since it may be that the commissioning arrangements with the local authority’s advocacy provider do not cover out of borough children,” he added. “The IRO should ensure that an effective advocate is available.”
‘Government has overlooked its own role’
Responding to the report, Rachel Dickinson, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), said it was “obviously desirable” for children to be placed close to home. But she added that, as noted by Sir Martin Narey’s review of the residential care system, that the ‘right’ placement was more important than its location.
“As the number of children in our care increases, so too does our need for high quality placements, in the right places,” Dickinson said, adding that the government had at times, “overlooked its own role in tackling the issues raised here”.
“Placement sufficiency continues to be a key issue for virtually all councils across the country but there is no national strategy to recruit more foster carers, to increase capacity in children’s residential homes or to address geographic mismatch of placements,” Dickinson said.
“ADCS will fully engage with the government’s upcoming review of the care system, which we hope will address our concerns around placement sufficiency and the changing nature of the placement market more generally,” she said. “The role of private equity firms and the level of profit being generated by some companies from the care of vulnerable children is wholly inappropriate and the level of risk now apparent in the system is very concerning.”