1st August 2019

Explosion in number of older children going into care over last five years is hitting stability of the system

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has published the Children’s Commissioner’s 2019 Stability Index, an annual measure of the stability of the lives of children in care in England. The Index was launched in 2017 and shines a light on the number of times children in care move home placement, school or social worker.  For the first time, the Index publishes stability figures for each council.

This year’s Stability Index shows how 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. They 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.

It shows how the number of teenagers (aged 13 or over) in care rose by 21% between 2012/13 and 2017/18, while the number of 0-5 year olds fell by 15%, and how there has been a large increase in the number of over 16s entering care during the year. This number grew by 25% between 2013/14 and 2017/18 – much higher than for any other age group. As a result, nearly 1 in 4 children in care (23%) is now over 16. A further 2 in 5 (39%) are aged 10-15.

These changes over the last five years have transformed the children’s care model 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 are teenagers who are significantly more likely to have the following issues flagged up by social workers: child sexual exploitation (6 times more likely), going missing from home (7 times more likely), gangs (5 times more likely), trafficking (12 times more likely) and child drug misuse (4 times more likely).

Older children and teenagers who enter care also experience much higher levels of instability: they are around 80% more likely (compared to the national average) to experience two or more changes of home within a year.

The Children’s Commissioner is today warning that councils and the Government have yet to catch up with this new normal, which is contributing to instability in the care system.

The Children’s Commissioner’s recent work on local authority spending on children has revealed the costs to the system – with councils spending increasingly high amounts on a very small number of children with acute needs. A quarter (25%) of the amount councils spend on children now goes on the 1.1% of children who need acute and specialist services – such as children in care. In one local authority looked at by the Children’s Commissioner, ten children are costing 20% of the entire children’s services budget. These children tend to be the older children going into care in their teens.

This year’s 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.

The report also shows that:

  • Over a three-year period, more than half (52%) of children in care moved home at least once; 3 in 10 did so at least twice, and 1 in 10 experiences 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 – roughly 1 in 20 – experienced a home move, a school move and a change in social worker within the same year (2017/18). A further 1 in 5 (13,840 children) experienced two of these changes. Over two years from 2016/17 to 2017/18, 7,100 children experienced all of these changes; this works out to roughly 1 in 7 of those in care in both years.
  • More than 45,000 children in care – 3 in 5 – experienced at least one change of social worker in 2017/18, while more than 20,000 children in care – just over 1 in 4 – experienced two or more changes.
  • 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%. For social worker stability the variation is even wider: the proportion of children experiencing multiple changes of social worker in 2017/18 varies 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, the Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on today’s report, 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.

“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.”

Read the 2019 Stability Index report

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