Care system struggling to cope

Author: Mark Gould

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A new report* by the children's commissioner for England reveals that the care system is struggling to provide appropriate foster care for children and young people with complex needs.

Commenting on the publication of the annual Stability Index, Anne Longfield, who was appointed children’s commissioner for England in 2015, warned that services were struggling to cope with the growth of teenagers in the care system because they were more likely to have vulnerabilities that required specialist support.

Compared with under-13s, teenagers in care are significantly more likely to be vulnerable to sexual exploitation, running away from home, gangs, trafficking and drug misuse.

“There are an increasing number of teenage children in the care system and too many of them are ‘pinballing’ around the system, changing home and family, school and social worker,” she said.

“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 10 children. This is completely unsustainable.”

The report reveals:

  • One in 10 children in care experienced two or more moves in 2017/18
  • 21% increase in the number of teenagers aged 13 and over in care between 2012/13 and 2017/18
  • 45,000 young people experienced at least one change of social worker in 2017/18
  • 52% of children in care experienced at least one home move over a three-year period

The research showed that older children and teenagers in care had much higher levels of instability and were about 80% more likely than the national average to have two or more changes of home within a year.

“It is clear that we have a care system which is playing catch-up,” Ms Longfield said.

“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.”

Councillor Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said councils are currently supporting record numbers of children through the care system. Last year, 88 children a day entered care, against a backdrop of unprecedented cuts to local authority budgets.

“As this report highlights, more children are entering the care system with complex needs, and it can be harder for councils to find the best possible placement, which can result in moves despite the best efforts of everyone involved. No child should be kept in an inappropriate environment simply to avoid another move.

“A national recruitment campaign for foster carers would help ensure we have a choice of families to place children with to best meet their needs. The government should also use the Spending Review to fill the £3.1 billion funding gap facing children’s services by 2025.”


*Stability Index 2019: Overview Report. Children's commissioner, 1 August 2019.

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