Family reunification hampered by lack of specialist teams, strategy and resources, finds study

Most councils would like to do more to support family reunification, both on principle and to save money, but they lack national policy direction from government, say NSPCC and Action for Children, on back of research

Two professionals in discussion regarding a young woman
Photo: Valerii Honcharuk/Adobe Stock

A lack of specialist teams, strategy and resources are hampering councils’ efforts to reunify children in care with their birth families, a study has found.

While most councils would like to do more to support reunification – both on principle and to save money on care placements – the government wasn’t supporting them to prioritise it, said the NSPCC and Action for Children.

The children’s charities issued these messages in a report published yesterday (17 January), based on a survey of 75 of the 153 English councils.

Research findings

The research found:

  • Over half (56%) of councils did not have a reunification policy or strategy.
  • One in five (19%) had a standalone reunification team.
  • Two in five (39%) were using or analysing data on whether children stayed with their families or re-entered care after reunification.
  • Almost four in five (78%) would like to provide more pre-unification support than they did currently.
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) would like to offer more post-unification support.
  • The most common reasons for prioritising a child for reunification were: the child wanting to return home (93%); placement breakdown (89%); previous experience of reunification within the family (89%).

Most common route for leaving care

Reunification is the most common route for children in England to leave care, accounting for 27% of cases in 2022-23, according to Department for Education (DfE) data.

However, a third of reunified children re-enter care within six years (Goldacre et al, 2022), with unplanned reunifications most likely to break down (Action for Children and University of East Anglia, 2022), according to research cited in the charities’ report.

The NSPCC and Action for Children said their research suggested that returns home were “too often failing” because families were “not always getting the
support they need to make reunification work”.

Councils reported offering a range of pre-reunification support, including financial aid (provided or commissioned by 97% of respondents), parenting support (76%), therapeutic support for children and young people (76%) and support for parents to address substance misuse issues (75%).

Barriers to providing more support

However, most (78%) said they were not providing as much support as they would like. Of this group, 69% cited funding constraints and 65% recruitment and retention issues as barriers to providing extra support.

The research found a similar picture with post-reunification support. Almost all councils (94%) provided this, in most cases, for at least a year, offering services including financial, parenting and therapeutic support, along with services to address parental substance misuse.

However, 63% said they would like to offer more. Of this group, 79% cited funding constraints, 71% a lack of specialist services to commission and as barriers.

Lack of reunification teams and strategies

Respondents highlighted the importance of specialist multidisciplinary teams in supporting reunification. However, just 19% of authorities had a standalone reunification team, the charities found.

While most councils (74%) were using a reunification tool or framework to guide practice, most (56%) did not have a dedicated strategy on the issue, while just 39% were analysing data on the stability of family returns.

The charities said that councils’ desire to do more was both based on supporting the principle of children living with their families where possible and on their need to save money on expensive care placements.

However, they said government was not supporting authorities to prioritise reunification, while there was  “little applicable evidence on which local authorities can base their thinking”.

Reunification ‘absent from policy discussions

The NSPCC and Action for Children claimed that policy recommendations on returning children in care to their parents had been “absent” from discussions about the DfE’s children’s social care reform programme, Stable Homes, Built on Love.

The DfE’s draft strategy, issued in February, had just two references to reunification. This was despite its focus on supporting children to stay with their families, or with kinship carers, and for family networks to design solutions where children were at risk of being removed.

“If we’re serious about reducing the number of children in care across the country, we need to give local authorities the help they need to improve support for reunifying families,” said Action for Children’s head of policy and research, Joe Lane.

“It’s the right thing to do for children, and it’s the right thing to do for cash-strapped councils, struggling with the high costs of homing children in care.

Call for national reunification guidance

The charities called for the government to develop national reunification guidance recommending evidence-based approaches to assessment, planning, support and monitoring, with summaries of the learning shared with councils.

To support this, the DfE should commission evaluations of existing approaches to identify what works in supporting reunification and promoting stability. In relation to this recommendation, the DfE has asked evidence body Foundations to Foundations to “scope the potential for building the evidence base around successful reunification and local authority practice in this area”.

The charities also recommended that councils be obliged to provide the department with data on the characteristics of reunified families and children, including their care journey, the nature and duration of support provided pre- and post-reunification, stability and post-reunification outcomes.

DfE response

In response to the report, a DfE spokesperson said: “We are committed to reforming the whole children’s social care system to better support families – with more early support, reducing the need for crisis response at a later stage, and plans backed by £200m to test and refine our approach.

“Local authorities are required to have a plan for every looked after child’s development, which for some children, will include family reunification where that is most appropriate for them.

“Where reunification takes place, we expect local authorities to set out what support and services will be provided and make sure that the child and parents understand who to contact for support.”

For the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), health, care and additional needs policy committee chair Nigel Minns said: “Our focus is on ensuring that children have the care and support they need.

“Where it is the right thing for a child to return to their birth parents after a period of being in care, it is important, as the report notes, that this is carefully planned and the right support is in place to enable children and their families to remain together safely.”

Call for better evidence base welcomed

Meanwhile, Foundations’ chief executive Jo Casebourne said the evidence body strongly supported the call for the development of an evidence base on what worked and its effective dissemination to councils.

“Together, these can ensure that councils are able to provide families with the support they need to enable children to return home,” she added.

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