The shape and purpose of residential child care for some of our most vulnerable children could be set for a generation in forthcoming government announcements, which are in response to a high-profile parliamentary report on runaway children and news reports concerning child sexual exploitation.
The announcements follow some terrible incidents but change should be considered in the calmest possible way in case rushing to judgement makes things worse.
You know the sector well, having shadowed the brief for many years in opposition and having been the Minister for the last two years. You have often gone on record as praising the positive role that residential child care can play.
I have been involved with residential child care over four decades and the new media and political interest in the plight of looked after children is very welcome but we must look at the whole system in the round.
Sadly, there is an inclination to round on children’s homes, most of which are private or voluntary, because local authorities have largely vacated the sector, and social workers, frustrated by the inability to innovate in a municipal system, believed they could do better for looked-after children in independent settings.
Children’s homes are too often asked to perform miracles, following failures elsewhere in the system. For two years providers have been advising Government of these difficulties but have been ignored. You now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to end this disconnect and announce not just an enquiry into children’s homes but also into what is happening in fostering, schools and mental health services. They are interconnected.
We must stop using our children’s homes as a last resort. The reality from official figures is that serial fostering placements lead to young people arriving at a children’s home too late, at 15½, and then staying for seven months. Only one-fifth stay longer than a year.
Most children who are taken away from their birth parents will thrive in fostering or adoption - and the adoption process should be eased. But there is a minority of such children for whom these options are not viable. They are best cared for in a children’s home. If they arrive too late, then the home will have a much harder task in helping turn their lives and prospects around.
Action has been demanded on the number of children who are placed outside their home areas. You have has signalled that you will be issuing instructions to local authorities regarding placing children at distance. However, geography alone cannot include the complexity of a child’s needs. Most looked-after children need relatively ordinary care and will find that a placement in or near their local community suits them well. But creating a universal rule about how locally children should be placed would undermine a key principle of the Children Act which is ensuring the ‘most appropriate’ placement for a child.
Placement needs to be led by social work assessment combined with listening to young people. Young people frequently say that a longer distance allows them to retain their own individual identity, while reassessing what it means for them to be a member of their family. They find they can belong to two places. Some young people need local placements and others more distant ones. What we need therefore is sufficiency and diversity. There may well be a correct or ideal proportion of local placements, but no one knows what that is. It is certainly not 100%.
Children’s homes need to be supported in providing the specialised and intensive resources that are required locally, regionally and nationally. Moving children is sometimes essential. Staying local whatever may mean denying a child specialist care or sufficient psychological safety.
Providers have invested in research reviews (www.icha.org.uk Research Review- Stability, Continuity and felt Security Research Review - Placement at distance from home ) into distance as a factor in placement, and also stability, continuity and ‘felt security.’ These and other views should be part of the evidence base for the Government.
Children’s homes are a small part of the care system. They are the most scrutinised and have vastly improved in the last decade. This is not to deny that there are some problems but they are not the norm, however sensational the headlines may be on occasion.
It doesn’t make sense to focus on this part of the system alone. You could be bold and announce that the whole system needs analysis and reform.
Children’s homes providers are saying that children’s services need to change so that they use children’s homes positively. You could take a leaf out of Scotland’s book where the government has already taken steps in its National Residential Child Care Initiative to make its children’s homes the first and best choice for young people who have high level needs.
Providers can do nothing about this. It is up to local authorities to take on their parenting and child care responsibilities. Legally these are their children.
What parent would not want quality and choice? Why then do local authorities emphasise a procurement market mentality where too often cost overshadows care decisions over where a young person is placed?
You will be remembered for these announcements. You can join the pantheon of names associated with groundbreaking legislation or be another politician young people prefer to forget. We need your leadership, Tim. Developing good homes is a shared responsibility. You need to act now to bring providers, commissioners, councils and government officials together with a common purpose of raising standards across the sector and allowing children’s homes to play a positive role.
Providers stand ready to play our role in developing a decent policy for looked after children, building on its strengths and eliminating its defects.
Chief Executive Officer, Independent Children’s Homes Association