The care system is shifting from predominantly babies and younger children being in care to an "explosion" in the number of older children and teenagers becoming looked after, the children's commissioner has warned.
As she published the 2019 Stability Index, Anne Longfield said the profile and needs of children in care has changed over the last five years, driven by a growing share of older children and teenage care entrants who have more complex needs and potentially more expensive living arrangements.
In fact, older children are six times more likely than children under 13 to be living in residential or secure children’s homes, and nearly half are living in privately-run accommodation.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “There are an increasing number of teenage children in the care system and too many of them are ‘pin-balling’ around the system, changing home and family, school and social worker. Often they have the most complex and expensive needs. In one local authority, 20% of the entire children’s services budget is being spent on just ten children. This is completely unsustainable."
The children's commissioner launched the Index in 2017 to show the number of times children in care move home placement, school or social worker.
This year's Stability Index reveals that the number of teenagers in care rose by 21% between 2012/13 and 2017/18, while the number of 0-5 year olds fell by 15%. There has also been a large increase in the number of over 16s entering care during the year rising by 25% between 2013/14 and 2017/18 – much higher than for any other age group.
Almost 1 in 4 children in care is now over 16 and a further 2 in 5 are aged between 10 and 15.
Over the last five years, the children’s care model has been transformed from one based on very young children living in foster homes, to one where more and more older children are entering care and needing more specialist homes.
These teenagers are more likely to have the following issues flagged up by a social worker:
- Six times more likely to experience child sexual exploitation
- Seven times more likely to go missing from home
- Five times more likely to be involved in gangs
- Twelve times more likely to experience trafficking and
- Four times more likely to experience child drug misuse.
Older children and teenagers who enter care also experience much higher levels of instability and are around 80% more likely, compared to the national average, to experience two or more changes of home within a year.
The Stability Index reveals that overall, at a national level, most rates of instability have not fallen since last year’s 2016/17 report. In 2017/18, 1 in 10 children in care experienced two more home moves during the year, 1 in 10 moved school in the middle of the school year, and just over 1 in 4 experienced two or more changes of social worker.
Furthermore, the report revealed that more than half of children in care moved home at least once over a three-year period, while 1 in 10 did so four or more times.
Less than 3 in 10 children in care experienced no change of home, no change of school and no change of social worker change through the year. Only 1 in 6 experienced none of these changes over two years.
Around 3,200 children in care experienced a home move, a school move and a change in social worker within the same year (2017/18). A further 13,840 children experienced two of these changes.
More than 45,000 children in care experienced at least one change of social worker in 2017/18. The proportion of children in care experiencing multiple placement moves in 2017/18 ranged from 4% to 20% across local authorities, while the proportion of children experiencing a mid-year school move ranged from 4% to 22%.
However, the proportion of children experiencing multiple changes of social worker in 2017/18 varied from 0% to 51%. In local authorities with higher rates of agency staff, higher rates of social worker turnover and higher social worker vacancy rates, children in care are more likely to experience multiple changes of social worker in a year.
Anne Longfield said:“It is clear that we have a care system which is playing catch up. The new norm is shifting so that fewer babies and very young children are being taken off parents who cannot cope. Instead it is teenagers who are being taken into care because they are experiencing issues such as criminal or sexual exploitation, going missing from home, and parents being unable to protect them.
“The result is a care system that is struggling to cope and which in turn is not providing the stability that many highly vulnerable children need. We should be alarmed that one in ten children in care moved home four or more times in three years. These children are being denied the chance to put down roots, to feel part of a family and to settle at school. It is not surprising that they are often the ones most at risk of exploitation.
“All children in care have a right to expect that the state does all it can to improve their chances of growing up in stable and loving environments," she concluded.
Jenny Coles, ADCS Vice President, said: “Achieving stability for every child in care is a top priority for local authorities as is ensuring children are safe and high-quality placements are available when and where they are needed. The number of children in our care has risen by 24% in the last ten years (ADCS Safeguarding Pressures 6) yet there has been no national government strategy to recruit more foster carers or address the nationwide shortage of residential placements, undermining local and regional efforts to minimise placement instability. The reasons why children are coming into care older and their needs are becoming more complex will vary, from greater professional and public awareness of child criminal and sexual exploitation, improved multi agency responses to safeguarding children rather than criminalising them and more unaccompanied asylum seeking children in our care to the continued impact of the Southwark Judgement in relation to local authorities’ responsibility for homeless 16-17 year olds.”