Thousands of children in care being ‘failed by the state’

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 8,000 children who have three different homes within a single year
  • The 13,000 children who end up in unregulated homes at some point during the year
  • The hundreds of children who need a place in a secure children’s home but cannot get one anywhere in England

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:

  • 1 in 10 children in care moved home at least twice in 2018/19, while 1 in 4 moved home at least twice in two years. Just over 11% of children care enrolled at school in 2019 had a change of school during the school year. These rates have generally not improved since 2015/16.
  • 6,500 children in care had three or more home moves over the last two years, meaning they had at least four separate homes to live in over two years.
  • Older children are more likely to experience multiple home moves. Rates are highest amongst 12-15-year-olds who have recently entered care: nearly 1 in 5 of this group moved home two or more times in 2018/19.

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:

  • Councils should prioritise using their capital budgets to increase their children’s home capacity. They should also collaborate more in terms of commissioning, making better use of their power as purchasers to shape the market. This does happen but needs to be far more widespread, and better guided by the needs of children.
  • The Government must set out quickly a strategy to improve capacity, stability, quality and costs in residential care, in response to previous reports on these issues from the Children’s Commissioner, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee.
  • A central body (whether DfE, Ofsted or a new regulator) should be responsible for assessing current and future levels of need for care provision, both locally and nationally. It should also be charged with monitoring what provision is in place, to provide oversight and assurance that the right provision is available in the right areas at the right price. If additional funding is needed to ensure this, then this body should determine how much and ensure that government provides it.
  • The Government should launch the Care Review promised in the Conservative manifesto with an independent chair and a remit to consider the broad structure of children’s care provision and build a system that is more transparent, accountable and outcome-oriented.
  • The DfE or Ofsted should collect standardised, detailed and timely information on services and prices across all providers in the care sector, including information on costs, as well as measures of quality and outcomes. Local authorities would also be able to compare prices against this database to ensure they are not paying more than other areas for the same quality of provision.

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