The number of looked-after children in England was continuing its year-on-year rise on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic, Department for Education figures show.
The number of children in care reached 80,080 in March 2020 – up 2% on the previous year – with the rate of looked-after children rising to 67 per 10,000 children – up from 64 in 2018 and 60 in 2015, the DfE figures showed.
However, for the third consecutive year, the number of children starting to be looked-after during the year fell, with 30,970 entering the system in 2019-20, down 3% from the 31,770 in 2018-19 and a peak of 32,940 in 2016-17. Andy Elvin, chief executive of fostering and adoption provider TACT, said this suggested greater – and welcome – stability in the care system.
Since the pandemic started, fewer children still have been coming into the system, according to successive DfE stocktakes of the children’s social care system’s response to Covid-19. These show that, from April to November, the number of children entering care was 29% lower than in the average of the equivalent period in 2016-18.
However, a small but growing number of authorities have reported growing numbers of children in care since the pandemic started because of even fewer children leaving the system, the result of reduced direct work to support reunifications with family and delayed court hearings.
Long-awaited care review
The DfE statistics come with ever-greater focus on the state of the care system, following a string of reports highlighting the insufficient numbers of placements driving use of unregulated or unregistered services, children being placed far from home and severe pressures on the secure care system. These have spurred growing clamours for the government to launch the care review it promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto.
These pressures were highlighted in the DfE figures. As in 2019, while 73% of children were placed within 20 miles of home, 20% were not, despite local authority’s duty under section 22C of the Children Act 1989 to provide placements, as far as is reasonably practicable, near to the child’s home.
Missing incidents were reported for a similar proportion (11%) of children than in 2019, though the number of missing days rose by 10%, to 81,090. Missing incidents were even more concentrated than previously among children placed in secure units, children’s homes and semi-independent settings, who accounted for 56% of incidents, up from 50%.
The figures also showed that the proportion of 17-year-old care leavers in accommodation deemed suitable remained below two-thirds of the group, at 65%, up from 63% last year, though for 24% of this group there was no information on the suitability of accommodation. Ten per cent were deemed to be in unsuitable accommodation, down from 13% last year, with the suitability rates remaining better for 18-year-old (91%) and 19-year-old care leavers (85%).
The number of adoptions continued to fall, down 4% from 2019 to 3,440, compared with a peak in 2015 of 5,360. There was also a 4% drop in the number who left care through a special guardianship order, who numbered 3,700.
The proportion of care leavers not in education, employment or training (NEET) remained stubbornly high, accounting for 27% of 17-year-olds (as last year), 31% of 18-year-olds (up from 30% in 2019) and 39% of those aged 19-21, the same as last year. Among the 17-year-old group, information on their NEET status was not known for 24%.
System ‘left to slip into crisis’
In response to the figures, Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said: “Many children in care receive the love and support they need from dedicated professionals. But the system has also been left to slip into crisis, unable to stop some of the most vulnerable children falling through the gaps, struggling to keep up with a changing cohort of children and rapidly running out of money.
“With more and more children entering the care system and many children being placed in unsuitable accommodation, it is more important than ever that the government launches its review into the care system so that it can start to fix the problems it already knows exist.”
This was echoed by Katherine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of children in care and care leavers charity Become, who said: “With growing numbers of children in the care system and more entering at an older age and with complex needs, today’s statistics from the Department for Education demonstrate once again that the system is no longer fit for purpose and, why the government must urgently bring forward its promised review of the care system.”
She raised particular concerns about the growing number of children leaving care on or after their 18th birthday, with 35% doing so this year, up from 32% in 2019 and 31% in 2018.
‘Aged out of care’
She added: “A key concern for Become is that the number of young people being ‘aged out’ of care at 18 continued to rise, setting these young people back from entering into adulthood with the care and support that most young people take for granted.
“Since the period these statistics relate to, we know that many local authorities have followed government guidance that no one should have to leave care during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we start to think about emerging from this crisis, it is vital that we hold onto the learnings from this period, and ensure that no young person is left facing a damaging ‘care cliff’, forcing them into independence before they feel ready or supported.”
TACT chief executive Elvin raised particular concerns about the volume of missing episodes – particularly in the context of the risk of becoming involved in county lines activity – and criticised the lack of information on 17-year-old care leavers’ accommodation and NEET status.
Kinship Care charity Grandparents Plus questioned the 4% drop in the numbers of children leaving care through SGOs given “a growing body of evidence that well-supported kinship care is a positive alternative to children growing up in the care system”.
End ‘disparity in support’ for special guardians
In the context of the numbers leaving through SGOs exceeding the number of adoptions for the second year running, the charity’s chief executive, Dr Lucy Peake, called for action to end “the disparity in support for children subject to SGOs and their carers in relation to adoptive families”.
Family Rights Group chief executive Cathy Ashley welcomed the rise in the number of children placed with family or friend carers, which increased to 14% of looked-after children, compared with 13% in the previous two years, however she said this remained too low.
She added: “There are steps that government could take now in order to safely avert some children needing to come into care. The Care Crisis Review, which we facilitated in 2018, found that lack of resources, poverty and deprivation are making it harder for families and the system to cope. We would urge the government to explore the recommendations set out in the Review, for the sake of children, families and society.”
Association of Directors of Children’s Services president Jenny Coles also urged a switch in focus – backed by investment – towards prevention, adding: “Only through long-term national investment in early help can we ensure that children are not taken into care when they could have stayed with their family and had their needs been met earlier.”