More and more looked-after children are being placed far from home, with increased risk of lower wellbeing, according to research issued today.
Children in care and care leavers charity Become published the findings today as it launched a campaign, #GoneTooFar, to end inappropriate placements far from home in England.
Children who had experienced multiple placements were more likely to be moved while more children from England are being placed outside the country, according to data Become obtained from the Department for Education (DfE) through freedom of information requests.
While the charity said that sometimes a distant placement was appropriate for a child – for example, to keep them safe from exploitation – children were more often being moved because of a shortage of suitable placements in their local area. This compounded the trauma they had already experienced in their lives, said the charity.
Young people feel ‘lonely, isolated and stigmatised’
“We hear time and again from the young people we work with that they’ve been made to move – often without warning – to an area they don’t know, far away from everything that matters to them,” said Become chief executive Katharine Sacks-Jones.
“Being moved can disrupt a child’s education, life outcomes, and relationships – including with brothers and sisters who might live miles away. Poor transport links can make it difficult or even impossible for a young person to get to school or college, see their friends or stay connected to their community. Young people tell us how lonely, isolated, and stigmatised it makes them feel.”
Increasing numbers placed far from home
Both the number and the percentage of children in care in England placed more than 20 miles from home increased every year from 2012-21, while numbers also increased from 2021-22, found Become.
As of 31 March 2022, 16,970 children (20.7% of the care population) were placed more than 20 miles from home, compared with 10,540 (15.7%) a decade earlier.
Children experiencing multiple moves were at greater risk of a distant placement, with 29.9% of those in their third or subsequent placement living more than 20 miles from home, compared with 20.6% of those in their first.
Children placed far from home also appeared to have lower wellbeing than their counterparts. Strengths and difficulties questionnaires, which all children in care aged 4-16 should complete every year, showed that 32.4% of those placed 20 miles from home were found to have cause for concern, compared with 27.7% of other looked-after children.
Become also found that the number of children placed outside England rose by 22%, from 2018-22, from 690 to 840. Of this group, 540 were in Wales, 270 in Scotland and 30 outside the UK.
The increasing number – and proportion – of children being placed more than 20 miles from home comes despite councils being under duties to place children within area (section 22C of the Children Act 1989) and take steps to secure sufficient accommodation for them within their boundaries (section 22G).
Government action to tackle placement shortage
In its draft strategy to reform children’s social care, published in February, the DfE acknowledged that, due to a shortage of placements for children in the right places, “too many end up far from home and far from the people who are important to them”.
It has allocated £259m from 2022-25 to build more children’s homes, while the strategy included a pledge to invest £27m in recruiting and retaining foster carers over the next two years.
Beyond that, its key proposal to tackle the insufficiency of children’s care placements is setting up regional care co-operatives to take over commissioning responsibility from individual local authorities, who will be their members. RCCs, which will be trialled in two regions from next year, would be much better able to forecast need, and commission sufficient placements, in the right places, to meet it, the DfE has said.
In its response to the Become report, a DfE spokesperson said: “Every child deserves to live in a safe and stable home and local authorities have a responsibility to place children in an environment that is in their best interests, usually within 20 miles of their home.
“We are investing £259m to create more placements for children in high-quality and safe homes, while developing a new model for care placements to keep more children close to home networks.”
Charity urges end to inappropriate distant placements
However, Sacks-Jones said the government needed to go further.
“Without urgent action this problem will continue to get worse,” she added. “We need a national commitment and strategy to keep children close to the people and places that matter to them. All children in care deserve the love and stability they need to heal and thrive.”
Become called for the DfE:
- To publish a national strategy to work towards the ending of placements more than 20 miles from home inappropriate, defined as being due to a lack of appropriate care close to home. This should include actions setting out how this would be achieved, including investment in recruiting foster carers, building children’s homes and improving the forecasting of need.
- To set up a data collection requiring councils to report on the number of such inappropriate placements.
- Require councils to publish sufficiency strategies, updated annually and setting out how they plan to reduce the number of inappropriate placements far from home and an evaluation of the effectiveness of their actions.
- Publish an annual report on inappropriate distant placements, setting out what support it is providing to reduce numbers and an assessment of the effectiveness of this support.
‘The placements we need simply do not exist’
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) also said more action was needed from government, in its response to the Become report.
“Any increase in the number of out of area placements must be viewed in the context of a 35% increase in the number of children in our care since 2008, a shortage of foster carers and placements in residential children’s homes, as well as a mismatch between the location of these placements and need,” said Nigel Minns, chair of the association’s health, care and additional needs policy committee.
“Local authorities are working hard to overcome the sufficiency challenges they face by investing in their own children’s homes and in campaigns aimed at recruiting and retaining more foster carers, but this alone cannot solve the problem, nor will a response that looks at commissioning practice only.
“The placements we need simply do not exist. We urgently need a comprehensive placement strategy which addresses shortages across all types of placements to meet the needs of children and young people. We also need the government’s support in addressing the increasing costs of placements and profiteering on the backs of vulnerable children.”