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Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, has published a set of reports showing how the children’s residential social care system is broken and is failing many of the most vulnerable children, in particular those who are most at risk of falling through gaps in the system and becoming victims of criminal or sexual exploitation. Today’s reports are the start of a series of interventions by the Children’s Commissioner this month on the issue of children’s social care.

The first report, The children who no-one knows what to do with, is the culmination of three years of wide-ranging research into children’s homes. It highlights the issues faced by certain groups of children in care for whom the system is not working, including:

The paper details the experiences of these children, including constant moves. One teenager talked of being placed 8 hours from her hometown and not seeing her Mum for months. Other children say they felt “dumped” in areas they had never heard of and could not identify on a map, only to then be isolated at home for months waiting for a school place.

The second report published today, Private provision in children’s social care’, explores the growth of private companies providing foster placements and children’s homes. It warns there is a clear lack of planning and oversight for the market, leading to an increasingly fragmented, uncoordinated and irrational market. Private provision accounts for 73% of the growth in the number of children in care between 2011 and 2019. The number of children in in homes provided by the private sector has grown by 42% over this period whereas local authority provision has not kept pace and has actually shrunk in some areas. The Children’s Commissioner argues that the responsibility for making the system work has fallen through the cracks: the growth in private provision may not have been a deliberate policy choice but it is a consequence of government inaction along with the options and funding available to local authorities.

The report finds that certain large providers are seeing a profit margin of around 17% on fees from local authorities, which can amount to over £200 million a year in total. It looks at how the companies providing these services are increasingly being owned by private equity firms and raises questions about the way some large private providers are financed, with high levels of debt that could potentially create instability in future. It also shows how opaque the system has become, with detailed and complex investigation needed to understand the ownership, accountability, profits, costs, and prices of different providers – and the situation changing rapidly.

As part of this research, the Children’s Commissioner’s Office spoke to children in care and care leavers about their experiences of the care they received from providers. Most were not concerned by who owned their care home, but they did care deeply about the care they receive and the people who give it.

The report shows that differences in the quality of care – as measured by Ofsted ratings – between local authorities and large private providers are generally small, but smaller private providers are more likely to have worse Ofsted ratings than large private providers. At the same time, however, the majority of children’s homes are rated “Good” or “Outstanding”, regardless of whether they are run by local authorities or the private sector.

The third report published today, The 2020 Stability Index”, is the Children’s Commissioner’s fourth annual study of the instability that children in care experience. This year’s update shows that:

Following today’s reports, the Children’s Commissioner is making a number of recommendations to improve the provision of children’s social care in England, including that:

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:

“These reports focus on the children that Government has been ignoring and seemingly doesn’t know what to do with: those in the care system systemically let down because there isn’t a good, safe, welcoming home for them.

“Only last month, a High Court judge wrote to me after an extremely vulnerable child in care could not get a suitable care home place anywhere in the country, even though the courts had found that their life was in danger. These shocking cases used to be rare but are now routine, and I am worried the whole system is becoming immune to the devastating effect this is having on children who may have previously been abused and neglected, or have serious mental or physical health needs. These children are being failed by the state.

“The growing reliance on private providers, some of whom are making millions, is another symptom of a system failing to prioritise the needs of children. Both the government and councils have failed in their responsibilities by leaving it to the market. Many homes run by the private sector are excellent, but there are not enough of them, and they are not always in the right places.

“There are many tireless staff who provide excellent care, and many children in care are happy and doing well. But over the last five years, I have seen the system left to slip deeper into crisis, seemingly unable to stop some of the most vulnerable children from falling through the gaps, and buckling under financial pressures. Nobody seems to have a grip, despite repeated warnings from myself, Parliament and the National Audit Office.

“The Government needs a strategy to fix problems that it already knows exist. It must also launch the independent review into children’s social care promised in the Conservative manifesto.”

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