Only systemic change can solve failing care ‘market’

Andrew Webb
Wednesday, April 27, 2022

The mainstream press has recently exposed a litany of failings in children’s residential care.

Andrew Webb: "Some children will have their needs best met by residential care – but, sadly, not by the existing care sector."
Andrew Webb: "Some children will have their needs best met by residential care – but, sadly, not by the existing care sector."

We have been presented with a damning picture of callous profiteering in a sector that is “caring” for our most vulnerable children. It is not just journalists behind the spotlight: judges are becoming increasingly frustrated and vocal about the parlous lack of choice when asked to authorise locking children up; the chair of the government’s Independent Review of Children’s Social Care referred the sector to the Competition and Markets Authority; and the national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel has announced a review into safeguarding children with disabilities and complex health needs in residential settings.

It is not difficult to make the case that profiting from the lives of vulnerable children should be banned; and the regulatory activity of Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission frequently fails to protect children, but none of this is news to children’s services. In part, this is because there is no real ownership of the problem, or indeed of the quest for a solution: central and local government have both publicly wrung their hands and kicked the can down the road. There is little to be gained from poring over the policy imperatives of the last two decades or marvelling at the capacity of venture capital to spot opportunities for profit to better understand how we got here: our children need a systemic response, and they need it now.

It would be naïve not to acknowledge the perfect storm that has hit children’s services: decimated funding, growth in both volume and complexity of demand, and a pandemic…but councils keep writing the cheques for poor quality placements in spite of the evidence they have before them that they are unlikely to have lifelong benefits for the young people placed, thereby pulling even more money out of preventive services. All too often children become cared for because of insufficient family support services and many then enter residential care simply because there are insufficient suitably skilled foster carers. Hence the need for a systemic response.

Some children will have their needs best met by residential care – but, sadly, not by the existing care sector. It has been heartening to see the leadership shown by authorities collaborating on commissioning such as in the Liverpool City Region, and by the growing trend of councils opening their own children’s homes. Unless this is coupled with a radical review of the skillset required of staff, and the training and career development needed to attract and retain staff with the ability to make a lasting impact on our most troubled young people, this will never be enough. It cannot be beyond the strategic capacity and capital spending power of councils to work together to get some control of this “market” and ensure public funds are used to protect all children in care. Children should not have to wait for government or Ofsted to get their act together, nor for new legislation to make its way onto the statute books.

Andrew Webb is independent chair of the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies

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