Most commonly, children are taken in care because they are experiencing or are at risk of abuse or neglect. These children share the same hopes and dreams as their peers. I want all children in care to be supported to achieve these in the same way as any other children – a loving, stable home, a brilliant education, and grown-ups who love them into adulthood.
The latest statistics on looked-after children published by the Department for Education show the numbers of children in care in England have continued to increase – with 33,000 children taken into care last year.
The total of children looked after stood at 83,840 at the end of March 2023, or about one child in every 140. There is no arbitrary number we can place on the number of children who should be in care. Every child who cannot live safely at home needs a loving, caring alternative.
Indeed, as my work has recently shown, sometimes children who should be coming into care are not, and are missing out on the legal protections it provides. My office’s recent report on homeless 16 and 17 year olds found that 61% of homeless 16- and 17-year-olds accommodated by local authorities are not coming into care as they should be.
Even when these children do come into care, 16 and 17 year olds can be placed in settings which do not legally provide care, just support. I urgently want to see universal standards in place, so that children can receive care wherever they live. When these children are taken into care, the accommodation they are placed in can be inappropriate and dangerous.
Among homeless children placed in semi-independent accommodation, the report found that many (at least 39%) were placed in mixed aged accommodation. This is a growing issue, with the latest statistics on all looked-after children showing that these unregulated placements (semi-independent living, or living independently) increased last year by 20% from 7,500 to 8,980.
What is essential is that all children who become looked after get the love and care they need, as a child, as they grow into adults. At a basic level this means having enough of the right kind of placements. Research by my office last year found, for example, that 20,000 children are separated from their siblings when they come into care, due to insufficient provision.
At the most acute level of need, my Help at Hand team find that there is still a real sufficiency issue for children with the most complex needs, who are often turned away from many children’s homes and end up deprived of their liberty in ad hoc arrangements. I’m pleased that this need, first identified by my team some years ago, is now being addressed through a Department for England and NHS England Task and Finish group for these children.
To get things right for children in care, and those leaving care, some much more profound changes are needed. The Government has set out its children’s social care strategy, which has some important ideas about improving early help so that children and families stay together, and increasing the sufficiency of placements. But this needs to go further, and faster.
Firstly, there needs to be a relentless focus on intervening earlier and better to support children to stay with their families. To get this right will need, among other things, a robust way to measure and understand if things are working. For example, at the moment it is not possible to tell at the national level if the outcomes of the 101,100 children on child in need plans are improving.
I have previously set out how the Department could improve its own outcomes framework for children’s social care here and how it needs to have a relentless focus on helping areas to improve.
The Department for Education needs a much more ambitious plan for ensuring placement sufficiency. The strategy has set up some pilots aiming to increase fostering, and for developing regional care co-operatives. But regional care co-operatives will not meet the needs of most children who should stay close to home and family networks. There needs to be not only a national plan for recruiting and supporting foster carers, but a realistic view of the level of investment needed to drive sufficiency.
There is an urgent need for a greater recognition of the complexity of the challenges looked-after children face and the level of care and support they need, now and in the future. To make sure their voices are heard, I encourage all looked-after children and all those who work with them to complete The Big Ambition survey, which is gathering the views and experiences of all children across England. I will take this evidence to decision-makers next year, to ensure that the Government hears these young people’s voices.