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Children’s residential care is failing the most vulnerable children

There were 8,000 children living in children’s homes who experienced three different homes within one year, according to a report by the children’s commissioner for England today.

Anne Longfield has published three reports demonstrating how the children’s residential social care system is broken and is failing many of the most vulnerable children, in particular those who are most at risk of falling through gaps in the system and becoming victims of criminal or sexual exploitation.

The first report, ‘The children who no-one knows what to do with’ highlights the issues that certain groups of children in care are experiencing and for whom the system is not working. This includes:

- The 8,000 children who have three different homes within a single year

- The 13,000 children who end up in unregulated homes at some point during the year

- The hundreds of children who need a place in a secure children’s home but cannot get one anywhere in England.

It outlines how one teenager reported being placed eight hours from her hometown and not seeing her mum for months. Other children reported feeling “dumped” in areas they had never heard of and could not identify on a map, only to then be isolated at home for months waiting for a school place.

The second report, ‘Private provision in children’s social care’, examines the growth of private companies providing foster placements and children’s homes.

The report says: “There is a clear lack of planning and oversight for the market, leading to an increasingly fragmented, uncoordinated and irrational market.”

Opaque system

It warns that private provision accounts for 73% of the growth in the number of children in care between 2011 and 2019. The number of children in homes provided by the private sector has grown by 42% over this period whereas local authority provision has actually shrunk in some areas.

The children’s commissioner for England argues that the responsibility for making the system work has fallen through the cracks: the growth in private provision may not have been a deliberate policy choice but it is a consequence of government inaction along with the options and funding available to local authorities.

Certain large providers are seeing a profit margin of around 17% on fees from local authorities, which can amount to over £200 million a year in total. The report looks at how the companies providing these services are increasingly being owned by private equity firms and raises questions about the way some large private providers are financed, with high levels of debt that could potentially create instability in future.

The system has become ‘opaque’, the report adds, with detailed and complex investigation needed to understand the ownership, accountability, profits, costs, and prices of different providers.

While children in care and care leavers consulted for the report were not concerned by who owned their care home, they did care deeply about the care they receive and the people who give it.

The differences in the quality of care, as measured by Ofsted ratings, between local authorities and large private providers are generally small. However, smaller private providers are more likely to have worse Ofsted ratings than large private providers. At the same time, however, the majority of children’s homes are rated by Ofsted as “Good” or “Outstanding”, regardless of whether they are run by local authorities or the private sector.

Financial stability

However following the publication of the reports, children’s rights charity Article 39 said on Twitter: “When did we decide the 'care system' for children not living with their families (the majority of whom are the subject of a care order) should become a marketplace, let alone a broken one?”

Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “While the majority of children’s homes are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, councils have long been highlighting that we need more good quality provision, especially for children whose needs are more complex. A lack of such homes is helping to drive an increase in the use of unregulated accommodation.

“A varied market for homes for children in care can help councils to make sure children get the right homes for their needs, but fewer and fewer providers are now dominating that market. As our research earlier this year highlighted, much growth is fuelled by enormous loans, and councils have increasing concerns about the financial stability of many providers.

“We cannot risk a Southern Cross or Four Seasons situation in children’s social care. Stability for children in care is paramount if we are to help them to thrive and an oversight scheme is needed to help catch providers before they fall, and ensure company changes don’t risk the quality of provision.

“The government’s promised review of the children’s care system needs to be carried out as soon as possible and look at how the market for children’s social care placements is impacting on children’s outcomes. Providers should also not be making excessive profit from providing placements for children. What matters most is that children feel safe, loved and supported, in placements that best suit their needs and help them to live the lives they deserve,” she added.

Older children experience multiple home moves

The third report published by the children’s commissioner, “The 2020 Stability Index”, is the fourth annual study of the instability that children in care experience.
The report highlights:

- 1 in 10 children in care moved home at least twice in 2018/19, while 1 in 4 moved home at least twice in two years.

- Just over 11% of children care enrolled at school in 2019 had a change of school during the school year. These rates have generally not improved since 2015/16.

- 6,500 children in care had three or more home moves over the last two years, meaning they had at least four separate homes to live in over two years.

- Older children are more likely to experience multiple home moves.

- Rates are highest amongst 12-15-year-olds who have recently entered care: nearly 1 in 5 of this group moved home two or more times in 2018/19.

Failed by the state

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “These reports focus on the children that government has been ignoring and seemingly doesn’t know what to do with: those in the care system systemically let down because there isn’t a good, safe, welcoming home for them.

“Only last month, a High Court judge wrote to me after an extremely vulnerable child in care could not get a suitable care home place anywhere in the country, even though the courts had found that their life was in danger. These shocking cases used to be rare but are now routine, and I am worried the whole system is becoming immune to the devastating effect this is having on children who may have previously been abused and neglected, or have serious mental or physical health needs. These children are being failed by the state,” she added.

Ms Longfield makes a number of recommendations:

- The government should launch the promised Care Review with an independent chair and a remit to consider the broad structure of children’s care provision and build a system that is more transparent, accountable and outcome-oriented.

- The government must urgently set out a strategy to improve capacity, stability, quality and costs in residential care, in response to previous reports on these issues from the Children’s Commissioner, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.

- Councils should prioritise using their capital budgets to increase their children’s home capacity. They should also collaborate more in terms of commissioning, making better use of their power as purchasers to shape the market.

- A central body (whether DfE, Ofsted or a new regulator) should be responsible for assessing current and future levels of need for care provision, both locally and nationally.

- The DfE or Ofsted should collect standardised, detailed and timely information on services and prices across all providers in the care sector, including information on costs, as well as measures of quality and outcomes. Local authorities would also be able to compare prices against this database to ensure they are not paying more than other areas for the same quality of provision.

Deep crisis

Ms Longfield added: “The growing reliance on private providers, some of whom are making millions, is another symptom of a system failing to prioritise the needs of children. Both the government and councils have failed in their responsibilities by leaving it to the market. Many homes run by the private sector are excellent, but there are not enough of them, and they are not always in the right places.

“There are many tireless staff who provide excellent care, and many children in care are happy and doing well. But over the last five years, I have seen the system left to slip deeper into crisis, seemingly unable to stop some of the most vulnerable children from falling through the gaps, and buckling under financial pressures. Nobody seems to have a grip, despite repeated warnings from myself, Parliament and the National Audit Office.

“The government needs a strategy to fix problems that it already knows exist. It must also launch the independent review into children’s social care promised in the Conservative manifesto,” the children’s commissioner for England concluded.

Reports:

The children who no one knows what to do with

Private provision in children’s social care

Stability Index 2020


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