Published by: Child & Family Social Work, December 2019
Social workers are required by law to try to return looked-after children to their parents wherever possible and appropriate. The most common destination for children leaving care in the UK is back to their parents. However, children who return to their parents often end up going back into the care system.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia wanted to find out what factors are associated with “stable reunification” with parents, which they define as not re-entering the care system for at least two years. They studied 2,208 looked-after children from one large local authority in the UK, who entered care between 2009 and 2015. The researchers found 802 – 36 per cent – of the children were returned home during that period. The time between entering care and returning home ranged from one day to six months with the average being 53 days.
Children aged between 12 and 17 when they went into care were significantly more likely to be reunified with their parents than younger children – 42 per cent for older children compared with 32 to 35 per cent for younger children. Those in care for reasons other than abuse or neglect were significantly more likely to return home than those who had been abused or neglected – 40 per cent compared with 33 per cent. The level of deprivation in a child’s home did not appear to make a difference to the likelihood of returning to parents.
A care order is granted by a court and gives the local authority parental responsibility and the power to remove a child into foster care. Under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 local authorities can also take children into care with parents’ agreement. Children who went into care under Section 20 were slightly more likely to be returned to their family than those on care orders – 39 per cent compared with 32 per cent. However when the researchers looked at the child’s last recorded legal status, those accommodated under Section 20 were significantly more likely to return home – 56 per cent compared with 15 per cent on care orders. Children who had their last placement with foster carers were significantly more likely to be reunified (47 per cent) than children who had a different type of placement (22 per cent).
Three quarters of the children who were reunified stayed with their parents, while a quarter re-entered care. Older children were less likely to experience a stable reunion than younger children – 67 per cent of 12- to 17-year-olds experienced a stable reunion compared with 80 to 81 per cent of under-12s. Children from less-deprived homes were more likely to experience a successful reunification than those from the most deprived homes – 60 per cent compared with 48 per cent. Children entering care on a care order had significantly more stable reunions than those entering care under Section 20 – 83 per cent compared with 72 per cent.
The more care placements a child had, the less likely they were to be successfully returned to their parents. More than nine in 10 – 91 per cent – of children experiencing very few or no changes in placement had a successful reunion with their parents compared with 67 per cent of those who experienced two or more changes per year. The longer a child stayed in care, the higher the likelihood of a stable reunification, with those spending around two and a half years in care most likely to stay with their parents. Children from a non-white background were 1.8 times more likely to have a stable reunification than white children.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE
The study shows reunifications failed on average four months after children had left care. Researchers say this is a reminder not to close cases quickly but to provide ongoing support.
The fact the research suggests reunions are more likely to be stable for children who spend longer in care may be a warning against the aim for children to remain in care for as short a time as possible. It is vital the problems that led to the need for care are adequately resolved before reunification takes place, stress the researchers.
- Reunification of Looked-after Children with their Birth Parents in the United Kingdom: A Literature Review and Thematic Synthesis, Lyndsey Carlson and others, Child & Family Social Work, June 2019
- Reunification from Out-of-Home Care: A Research Overview of Good Practice in Returning Children Home from Care, Elaine Farmer, Bristol University, January 2018
- Factors Associated with Re-Entry to Out-of-Home Care Among Children in England, Louise McGrath-Lone and others, Child Abuse and Neglect, January 2017