Children's commissioner: Broken residential care system failing vulnerable children

Joe Lepper
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The children’s residential social care system is broken and failing many of the most vulnerable children, the children’s commissioner for England has warned.

Children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield has released three new reports. Picture: Alex Deverill
Children's commissioner for England Anne Longfield has released three new reports. Picture: Alex Deverill

The findings come as part of a set of reports published by Anne Longfield into residential children’s care, with a focus on how it the system is supporting the most vulnerable young people, including victims of criminal and sexual exploitation.

One of the reports, the children who no-one knows what to do with, which involved three years research into children’s homes found that young people in residential care are blighted by multiple placements, lack of specialist support and forced to live in unregulated children's homes.

In the year to the end of March 2019, 8,098 children were placed in three different homes, 12,800 were placed in an unregulated home and there was a lack of secure children’s home places for 200 young people in need of this specialist support, Longfield found.

Among stories highlighted in the report was that of a teenage girl who was placed eight hours from her home and had not seen her mother in months. Other children complained of being “dumped” and left isolated for months in unfamiliar areas, far from home and waiting for a school place.

Longfield has also published her fourth annual study into the instability children in residential care face. Her 2020 Stability Index found that one in 10 children moved home at last twice in 2018/19 and one in four moved home at least twice in two years.

Around one in ten (11 per cent) of children had to change school in 2019. Longfield found that these rates had “generally not improved” over the last five years.

Some 6,5000 children in care had lived in three or more homes over two years, the index shows, while older children are most likely to face instability, especially those aged between 12 and 15 years old. One in five of this group moved home two or more times in 2018/19.

The escalation of private companies in the residential and foster care sectors is also criticised by Longfield in another of her reports into private provision in children’s social care.

This found that some care firms are seeing a profit margin of 17 per cent on fees charged to councils, amounting to more than £200m a year in total. Many of these private providers are owned by private equity firms with high levels of debt, sparking fears from Longfield around their long-term stability.

The number of children in homes provided by the private sector has grown by almost a half (42 per cent) between 2011 and 2019, while council run provision has shrunk, her report found.

This has left a “a clear lack of planning and oversight for the market, leading to an increasingly fragmented, uncoordinated and irrational market”, her report found.

Longfield 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.

“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.”

She urged the government to act on its manifesto pledge to launch an independent review into children’s social care and set our a strategy for how it plans to improve capacity and stability and control costs in residential care.

Councils should also have greater access to latest data on costs and should also use capital budgets to increase their children’s home capacity and collaborate more on commissioning to improve their purchasing power, she recommends.

In addition, Longfield urges the government to be clear which department, such as the Department for Education, is responsible for assessing levels of need for residential placements, locally and nationally.

Katherine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of care charity Become, said Longfield’s latest findings are “extremely worrying”.

“Too many young people are being moved regularly, placed into unregulated accommodation or far away from their support networks. We know that this is incredibly disruptive to their welfare, mental health and education, leaving them feeling isolated or worse, vulnerable to criminal or sexual exploitation,” she said.

Coram Voice’s head of policy and practice development Linda Briheim-Crookall added that children need a care system that helps them “to flourish, by designing services and providing support focused on what wellbeing is to them”.

Meanwhile Local Government Association children and young people board chair Judith Blake backed Longfield’s focus on the need for a better range of homes.

She said: “Councils have long been highlighting that we need more good quality provision, especially for children whose needs are more complex.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said that the government’s care review “will launch as soon as possible” and pledged to “support improvements in the children’s social care system".

He added that the government has already announced plans to ban the use of unregulated homes for children under the age of 16.

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