Children in care

Supporting the wellbeing and aspirations of children in care, and supporting care leavers to achieve their full potential

The Children’s Commissioner has a particular responsibility to children in the care system. Our Help at Hand service responded to some 1,200 enquiries last year. We also run a digital platform, IMO, which serves as a meeting point for children in the care system and care leavers, offering opportunities and gifts to support their wellbeing but more importantly, a way for them to make themselves heard.

We will continue to produce the Stability Index in 2019-20, including for the first time showing changes in social worker in all local authorities and focusing new analysis on the schools attended by children in care system; exploring why these children are less likely than others to attend good or outstanding schools

Help at Hand

Our Help at Hand advice and assistance service for children in care and the very vulnerable continues to grow, responding to over 1,200 enquiries last year. Among the typical cases we resolved were helping a care leaver whose local authority had failed to get her immigration status established/recorded to remain at university; getting proper education for a young disabled boy at home; and keeping two teenage sisters with the foster family they loved.

Children in the care system are still too often threatened with financially-driven moves, or made the victims of poor planning and decision-making. We are here to help put it right. We have helped homeless teenagers, excluded children, and young offenders leaving secure units with nowhere to go. Both children and the professionals trying to help them contact us for help, and we intervene with local authorities or other services to get them the support they need. The cases that come to us inform the Children’s Commissioner’s wider priorities and help sharpen the focus of our policy and evidence work.

We also have published a report highlight ongoing issues observed by the Children’s Commissioner’s Help at Hand service regarding advocacy and what is provided by local authorities.

Stability index

This analysis contains the 2020 update to the Stability Index: the Children’s Commissioner’s ongoing project measuring levels stability for children in care. This update focuses on the cohort of children who were in care on 31 March 2019.

In previous years, this work has examined rates of stability for children in care across three domains: placement changes, school changes and social worker changes. The 2020 update, however, only covers placement and school changes; it does not include analysis of social worker changes, because of the disruption caused by COVID-19 pandemic.

Private provision in children’s social care

Over the last decade, the challenge of providing capacity to care for the most vulnerable children has increasingly fallen to the private sector as the demand for care has grown and local authority provision has not kept pace, or even shrunk in some areas. There were over 11,000 more children in care in 2019 than there were in 2011 – 73% of those additional children were cared for by private organisations. Over the last decade, we have seen expansion from both smaller providers (who might own one or two homes) and major private equity investment.

This report reviews the market for provision in children’s social care and focuses on private provision, given its growth and consolidation in recent years. It explores the profits made by private companies and what their involvement means for children. It also raises questions about the way some large private providers are financed, potentially creating risks and instability for the functioning of the market – and ultimately for the children in their care.

Unregulated accommodation

Thousands of children in care are living in unregulated independent or semi-independent accommodation. These settings are not inspected and children living there often go without regular support from adults. This accommodation can range from a flat to a hostel or bedsit, and in the worst cases caravans, tents and in one case even a barge. These looked after children are entitled to ‘support’ but not ‘care’, and as a result are too often being left to fend for themselves, with minimal support, for all but a few hours a week.

The Children’s Commissioner’s ‘Unregulated’ report shines a light on the experiences of some of these children. While the Children’s Commissioner’s Office did hear from children about high quality settings and the support they received from staff, they also heard some shocking stories, including from children with mental health, self-harm or drug issues who became victims of exploitation and abuse while living in unregulated accommodation.

Living 'out of area'

There are over 30,000 looked after children living ‘out of area’ in England. This is 41% of all children in care and has risen by 13% since 2014. Over 11,000 of these children are more than 20 miles from what they would call home, with over 2,000 further than a hundred miles away.

This happens for a number of reasons. It may be that children need to be kept safe from criminal gangs or sexual predators who pose a serious threat to them. Often, however, it is simply because there is nowhere suitable for them to live locally. Numbers of older children going into care have risen year on year leaving cash-strapped local authorities without enough places for them to live. Many children therefore end up going to live in children’s homes run by private companies, often operating in cheaper and less ‘desirable’ parts of the country.

Children living far away are likely to have more complicated and fragmented histories. They are more likely to be older children, more likely to be living in children’s homes than children placed in their local areas, and more likely to have experienced multiple moves while in care. Being so far away from their hometowns can be another trauma for children who have already had difficult upbringings.

Digital hub

IMO went live as a digital platform in June 2018 and is supported by generous donations from, among others, the BBC, Google, Victoria & Albert Museum, Headspace, Birchbox and Tastecard, IMO serves as a meeting point for children in the care system and care leavers, offering opportunities and gifts to support their wellbeing but more importantly, a way for them to make themselves heard. It is our aim to raise society’s ambition for children in care, hence we want to make IMO a platform for great job, university and apprenticeship opportunities for care leavers. All content on the site is created or curated by looked after children or care leavers, and includes blogs, vlogs, animations and podcasts. Regular user-led campaigns and competitions are run on the platform, including a writing competition sponsored by the AA with a first prize of 40 hours of driving lessons.

Voices of children reports

Talking with children is at the heart of our work and we have published a range of studies shining a light on the experiences of children including children in care.

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