We recently co-convened a seminar with the Nuffield Foundation, aiming to understand the reasons for the continuous rapid growth in care applications, and indeed in the number of children and young people coming into care. We concluded there was no single underlying reason but rather a number of factors over the last decade which have led to continuous upward pressure. These include:
- the media reporting of the Baby P case late in 2008
- more general criticisms of local authorities resulting in more risk averse decision-making but also better reviewing and less drift for children
- and recent case law leading to fewer voluntary agreements with parents to look after their children, and more use of formal routes into care via family courts.
Even local authorities like Essex who have reduced their numbers of children in care through investing in early help and managing risk at home, have seen numbers increase again recently because of demographic pressures. Though we also heard from some local authorities who are managing to reduce their number of care applications. In 2016 for example, Hertfordshire reduced their number from 132 to 107, a fall of 19%. Their number of child protection plans halved, from 1032 to 530. Their school attendance was up by 36%. Some present wondered about the long-term outcomes for children who are stepped down from the edge of care, and the need for more targeted research into vulnerable groups. Looking at the right ‘big data’ was another theme of the day.
As with most complex problems, it was easier to diagnose the problems than identify clear solutions. Being in care is a safe haven for many children. For others, particularly older children, successful permanence may mean achieving stability for a short but significant period of time, say a year or eighteen months, to halt ‘a race to the emotional and psychological bottom’. We do need to make cases smaller and to make sure that children can continue to live at home where risk can be managed there. It is wholly unethical to be in care because of a postcode lottery effect because you live in an area where risk at home is not being managed well. Finally, being in care is only as good as the care plan in place and the placement for the child. Too many of those fall short of the levels of care and reparative parenting vulnerable children need.
Our challenge is to tackle these major public policy and resourcing issues at a time when the public spending outlook remains grave and there is no end to the current pressures in sight. Despite this, the seminar was positive. It was not a counsel of despair but a group of senior leaders determined to make changes where possible to improve the service children receive.