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Greater stability needed for children in care

It is more common for children to have a change of social worker in a given year than to have the same worker for the whole of that time, a report by Barnardo’s has found.

On 31 March 2019, the Stability Index showed that:

  • One in 10 children in care experienced two or more placement moves in a single year.
  • This did not improve from the previous two years.
  • Over one in five children in care experienced two or more placement moves over a two-year timeframe.
  • Nearly one in three children had two or more placements over a three-year timeframe.
  • In 2018/19 1.8% experienced four or more placement moves, and 0.8% experienced five or more moves.

Due to the pandemic, the latest Stability Index was not able to obtain data on social worker moves but in the 2019 report there is evidence of high rates of social worker mobility. 60% of children in care, experienced at least one change of social worker in 2017/18, and just over a quarter of children experienced two or more changes.

“The older a child is on entry into care increases the risk that a child will experience multiple moves. Nearly one in five (18%) of children aged 12-15 who recently entered care experienced two+ placement moves in 2019, at least double the rate for children of the same age who entered care aged 0-4 (7.4%) or 5-11 (9.3%),” the report ‘Pillar to Post’ by Barnardo’s reveals.

Rates of mid-year school moves, however, are generally highest amongst younger children in care. The report attributes this to some effort being made to avoid school moves for older children during the critical exam years – even if placement changes do happen during this time.

However, teenagers who enter care later (aged 12+) do still see high levels of school moves. Almost one in five (8.9%) of this group moved school mid-year in 2018/19 more than any other cohort of children in care.

Just over one in 10 children in care enrolled in state school during 2018/19 moved school during the year and this decreased slightly from 12% in 2015/16.

Unsurprisingly, the report highlights a strong link between children who have experienced two or more placement moves in a given year and those who move schools in the same year. Children who experience two plus placement moves are nearly twice as likely to move school in the same year, compared with other children in care.

Children are also more likely to have two or more placement moves in a year if they came into care with the agreement of the birth parents (orders made under s20 of the Children’s Act) rather than a full care order.

Multiple placement moves are also more common for children who have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), particularly for those who do not have a Statement or Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).

However, while there is little research into links between ethnicity and placement moves, the evidence available suggests there is no difference in placement moves based on a child’s ethnicity.

“Unlike placement moves and school moves, the risk of having multiple social workers in a given timeframe is not linked to personal characteristics but primarily to local workforce issues. This is more common in authorities with high rates of agency social workers and high rates of vacancies and turnover. The 2019 index also showed that change in social worker is generally higher in local areas with lower Ofsted ratings,” said the report.

Barnardo’s highlights that changes of placement, school or social worker will not always have a negative impact on children and sometimes moving placement will be necessary to meet a child’s needs, to allow them to make a fresh start and in extreme cases to keep them safe from people who pose a threat to their safety. This includes cases of sexual and criminal exploitation.

However, overall the evidence suggests that where it is possible stability is good for children in care and forming long lasting relationships can bring important benefits.

Barnardo’s highlights a 2018 paper in the British Medical journal which provides a comprehensive look at the experiences of adults who had been adopted and compared them to those who grew up in foster homes and residential care.

It found:

11.3% of women who had been adopted had a degree compared to 3% of the women who had been looked after.

20.1% of women who had been adopted had faced high levels of financial difficulties compared to 33.2% of women who had been looked after.

15.5% of women who had been adopted reported ever having had a mental health problem compared to 25.9% of women who had been looked after.

Instability, and in particular frequently moving home, can have a negative impact on children and lead to poorer longer-term outcomes. Frequent changes can negatively affect children’s attachment and emotional wellbeing.

Lynn Perry, Chief Executive of Barnardo’s said: “We know from our direct experience supporting thousands of children in care across the UK, that one of the greatest challenges they face is instability. For far too many children, being in care can feel like being ‘bounced around’ a system, with frequent changes of home, school and social worker. This makes it extremely hard to build the long-term, trusting relationships we know children need to thrive.”

Children in care generally do less well educationally than their peers not in the care system. At the end of key stage four the average child in England has a progress eight score of 50.9, compared to an average score for a looked after child of 23.2. There is some evidence to suggest that instability is one of the reasons behind this, although this has not been researched recently.

Pillar to Post recommends:

  • All children in care should have access to placements in their local communities that meet their needs. This includes high quality residential care for children who need it. This will require increasing capacity in the residential care sector by providing funding for the development of innovative, trauma-informed models of care.
  • The mental health support for children in and leaving care should be improved. All children entering care should have a mental health assessment (just like they have a physical health assessment) and every local authority should have a mental health lead for children in and leaving care.
  • It should be easier for all children to access an independent visitor so they have a consistent, trusted relationship throughout their time in care and beyond. Independent visitors should be made available to all children in care and care leavers and national quality standards should be introduced for this service.
  • Action should be taken to tackle loneliness and isolation for children in and leaving care. There should be a requirement for all local authorities to have a clear commitment to tackling loneliness and isolation amongst this group.
  • There should be a better understanding of what ‘works’ to achieve stability, the impact of instability, and the experiences of children in the care system.

Lynn Perry concluded: “The report makes a number of recommendations which we hope will be taken forward by the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care and will inform the Government’s response. In future we want children in care to experience greater stability and be supported to develop strong, trusted relationships which will help them on their journey into adulthood.”

Pillar to Post

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