‘Serious reform’ is needed to cut the number of children in care placed out of area, MPs and peers have said.
The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on children in care and care leavers said new legislation and binding targets may be needed to tackle the adverse effect of being placed far from home.
Reporting on an inquiry into improving the care system, the APPG said a consistent theme of the evidence it heard was the disruption out-of-area placements caused to friendships, family relationships, education, employment and children’s sense of belonging.
The inquiry heard evidence that the lack of placements for children in care, poor commissioning practices and increased private provision, which removed local control over placement locations, were all factors behind one in five children -16,720 in 2021 – being placed more than 20 miles from home.
Held last year and based on the evidence of over 300 people, more than 130 of whom were care experienced, the inquiry was focused on how to support children in care and care leavers retain connections to the communities that mattered to them. It is designed to influence the government-commissioned Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, due to report this spring.
New legislation and binding targets mooted
The APPG said that reducing the number of out-of-area placements required improved commissioning and procurement by councils but said the government may have to go further by placing binding targets on authorities and introducing new legislation.
The report also called for a national residential care strategy – backed by funding to build new homes – to ensure there were enough placements to keep children and young people close to the communities that mattered to them. The government has allocated £259m to build new children’s homes from 2022-25.
More generally, the APPG called on the government to provide a long-term, sustainable funding settlement for children’s social care and early help, including to enable councils to effectively plan their provision to meet need.
The report also highlighted the of multiple placement moves on children’s ability to put down roots, and develop relationships, in a place. The group said 7,230 children in care moved more than three times in 2021.
“Knowing whether you’re going to be in a placement long-term can affect your connection with your community,” said one of those who gave evidence. “If you’re constantly moving around, you’re not going to be able to form those relationships and you’re going to struggle to form other relationships with people.”
Multiple social worker changes
This problem was compounded by instability in the workforce, leading to multiple changes of social worker for children in care.
One young person told the inquiry: “It can be really hard to trust professionals, I’ve had many social workers/leaving care workers leave.
I once had 4 social workers in 11 months, it’s not easy to trust when you’re so used to people leaving.”
To address this, the APPG called for a national recruitment, skills and retention strategy for the workforce, including foster carers, to tackle current shortages, reduce turnover and improve career progression.
The inquiry also heard about the “abrupt drop-off in support” many young people experienced when they became care leavers, which also had a detrimental impact on their connection to their communities.
‘Jarring’ isolation felt by care leavers
The report said the isolation felt by care leavers was “especially jarring”, given the turbulence of their care experience. Few of those who gave evidence felt the care system supported young people to reconnect with home communities where they wanted to, or strengthen connections with new communities where they did not.
The APPG said the current “cliff-edges” at ages 18, 21 and 25 needed to be reduced, with the system providing a core level of support for all care leavers into adulthood.
The inquiry also heard that a critical precondition of making community connections was having a secure sense of identity, encompassing a young person’s ethnicity, religion, culture, gender, sexuality and nationality.
However, the report said that children in care and care leavers were not given enough space to understand who they were and navigate their intersectional identities, and too often faced stigma and prejudice, whether from peers, professionals or the public.
‘I felt I had to wear a mask’
One young person said: “When I was in care, I always felt like I had to wear a mask to whatever placement I was in, to fit in with that family. And then that breaks down, but you’ve been living that way for a certain time, and then you’ve got to move into another placement and wear another mask and then that breaks down, and you don’t have a sense of identity or a sense of community. These are things which carry on with young people as they go into their adult lives.
Who am I? Where do I belong? What is my community? What is my identity?”
Among recommendations to tackle this, the APPG said that all children in care needed access to high-quality life story work, to help them build their identity and improve their wellbeing, and that Ofsted should not award any council a good or outstanding judgment without this.
Councils should also provide resources for care-experienced people to access peer communities and also develop relationships outside the care system, for example through hobbies or volunteering.
The report also called for a national public awareness campaign, co-designed by care-experienced people, to combat “pervasive stigma”, while there should also be mandatory training for professionals designed to reduce prejudice, it said.