Industry News: Thousands of children in care being ‘failed by the state’ because of a broken residential care home market
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 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:
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:
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, 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.
“Only last month, a High Court judge wrote to me after an extremely vulnerable child in care could not get a suitable care home place anywhere in the country, even though the courts had found that their life was in danger. These shocking cases used to be rare but are now routine, and I am worried the whole system is becoming immune to the devastating effect this is having on children who may have previously been abused and neglected, or have serious mental or physical health needs. These children are being failed by the state.
“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.
“There are many tireless staff who provide excellent care, and many children in care are happy and doing well. But over the last five years, I have seen the system left to slip deeper into crisis, seemingly unable to stop some of the most vulnerable children from falling through the gaps, and buckling under financial pressures. Nobody seems to have a grip, despite repeated warnings from myself, Parliament and the National Audit Office.
“The Government needs a strategy to fix problems that it already knows exist. It must also launch the independent review into children’s social care promised in the Conservative manifesto.”
The most vulnerable children are being "failed by the state" and a broken residential care system, the children's commissioner for England has said.
Greater use of private provision has led to a fragmented, unco-ordinated and irrational system amid "significant profits", said Anne Longfield.
The system has been allowed to slip deeper into crisis, she said.
The government said an independent review of children's social care would begin "as soon as possible".
Ms Longfield has published three reports detailing the plight of children the system "doesn't know what to do with".
She said the government has failed to respond to previous warnings that thousands of these children are in danger of becoming victims of criminal and sexual exploitation.
Older children were found to be living in "disgusting" conditions akin to a prison cell, one of the reports said.
It described how one 17-year-old said her accommodation was filthy and smelly, with just one working shower - covered in mould - between 14 children and young adults.
"Elsewhere children have told us they have not even been provided with the means to eat or sleep - things like duvet covers, plates or cutlery," the same report said.
All three reports highlight a shortage of children's home places, resulting in:
"Only last month, a High Court judge wrote to me after an extremely vulnerable child in care could not get a suitable care home place anywhere in the country, even though the courts had found their life was in danger," said Ms Longfield.
"These shocking cases used to be rare but are now routine, and I am worried the whole system is becoming immune to the devastating effect this is having on children who may have previously been abused and neglected, or have serious mental or physical health needs."
Profit and debt
One of the reports analyses how, over the past decade, as demand for care has grown and local authority provision has failed to keep pace, private provision has expanded.
The researchers found the majority of private provision was rated good or outstanding by Ofsted, although smaller providers were more likely to have lower ratings than either larger providers or local authorities.
Some providers are owned by private equity companies and carry "significant amounts of debt" which could "risk their stability", says the report.
"Both the government and councils have failed in their responsibilities by leaving it to the market," said Ms Longfield.
"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."
Iryna Pona, policy manager at the Children's Society, said the reports were enormously worrying but not surprising.
"The Children's Society is very concerned about how children in care are being failed by the very services who are supposed to be caring for and protecting them," she said.
The Local Government Association, which represents councils across England, says it shares the commissioner's concerns about the risk of businesses running children's homes going bust as adult care provider Southern Cross did, almost a decade ago.
"Providers should also not be making excessive profit from providing placements for children," said Judith Blake, who chairs the LGA's Children and Young People Board.
A Department for Education statement said: "The education secretary has been clear that no child should be denied the opportunity for a loving, stable family life, or be bounced around the care system in accommodation that does not meet their needs.
"We have also set out that children under the age of 16 should not be living in unregulated homes.
"Our bold, broad and independently led care review will launch as soon as possible, and will support improvements in the children's social care system."
You can listen to the podcast on SoundCloud here
The Become Advisory Group has created a podcast reflecting on their experiences of the COVID-19 lockdown and what they’ve learned about themselves.
The group are care-experienced young adults from across England who play a vital role in our work and ensure we and other organisations are listening to lived experience in the most meaningful ways.
In this episode, Sam Turner (Policy and Participation Manager) talks to Alice, George, Kayleigh, and Leanne about various aspects of lockdown life, including what they’ve found challenging, coping mechanisms, positive aspects, and what they’re most looking forward to as we move out of lockdown. They’ve also produced some ‘wellbeing tips’ (below) which we encourage you to share.
After listening, please let us know whether your experiences have been different and what you’re appreciating more right now. You can join the conversation on social media by finding us on Instagram at BecomeCharity, on Twitter at @Become1992 or on Facebook at BecomeCharity.
Some of the discussions in this recording might bring up certain feelings or emotions for you, particularly if you’re also someone with care experience. If you’re in care or a care leaver and you’d like some advice or support, or a friendly voice to listen, remember that we’re always here for you. From Monday to Friday (10am-5pm), you can call us on 0800 023 2033 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The number of care-experienced young adults contacting us for advice and support about their finances, housing situation, their mental health has more than doubled because of the pandemic. Some have just wanted to speak to someone about how they’re feeling because they have no-one else to turn to. If you would like to support our work, please donate to our emergency appeal.
We hope you enjoy listening!
On 24 June, the Independent Care Review (ICR) published an evidence framework, comprising of research and evidence collated and analysed throughout the review’s three years of work as it undertook a root and branch review of the care system in Scotland.
Between 2017 and 2020, the Care Review heard the experiences over 5,500 care experienced infants, children, young people, adults and members of the paid and unpaid workforce had of Scotland’s ‘care system’, and their vision for what needed to change. Their voice was the cornerstone of everything the Care Review did, providing the direction and benchmark for the research, data and evidence the review sought to gather, commission and scrutinise.
The framework explains the participation and engagement undertaken and the outputs of the Care Review’s commissioning processes. The review’s work also drew on an extensive body of research from academics and researchers nationally and internationally, across all sectors, so the framework also lists a comprehensive bibliography of sources consulted.
This framework is intended to help navigate the vast amount of research engaged with and undertaken, and to signpost to relevant reports, documents, websites and organisations, to facilitate a more in depth look at a range of issues which were highlighted during the different stages of the Care Review.
The Review formally closes its doors on 30 June 2020, and from 1 July it will be superseded by The Promise, a new oversight body responsible for making sure that Scotland implements change for the care system.
The Promise will be chaired by Fiona Duncan, who also led the Care Review. It will initially be incubated within the Scottish Government but, like the Care Review, will operate independently. Over the next few months, The Promise will appoint a team to support the change programme and recruit an oversight body. At least half the members of this new body will be people with lived experience of Scotland’s care system.
To be kept up-to-date with The Promise, follow @ThePromiseScot on Twitter or the new website which is being developed at www.thepromise.scot
The number of children needing foster care has risen by 44% during the coronavirus pandemic, creating a “state of emergency”, a children’s charity said.
Meanwhile, the number of people looking to become foster carers has fallen by almost half over the same period, Barnardo’s added.
There were 2,349 referrals to the charity‘s fostering services between 1 March and 23 April this year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, up from 1,629 in the same period in 2019.
And just 161 people inquired about becoming a foster carer during the two months, down 47% from 302 across the same period in 2019.
The charity says vulnerable children who may have experienced neglect or abuse are in a state of emergency as they wait to be placed with foster families.
The Barnardo’s chief executive, Javed Khan, said: “The coronavirus pandemic has hit vulnerable families the hardest, with many reaching crisis point. This has created a state of emergency, as more children than ever need a safe and loving foster family, while fewer adults are coming forward as potential foster carers.”
The charity says the Covid-19 outbreak has increased pressures on families who are experiencing job losses, deepening poverty and worsening mental health.
Children have also been in lockdown in homes where domestic and sexual abuse is taking place.
At the same time, the number of inquiries from people hoping to foster have dropped, with many people’s situations affected by the virus, and amid an uncertain future.
Khan said: “Today, there are hundreds of children who have been referred to Barnardo’s and are waiting to be placed with a foster family. If you’re over 21, have a spare room and the time and commitment to support a child in need, please do consider getting in touch today.”
The charity is appealing for adults, including single people, people identifying as LGBTQ and those from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, to get in touch if they can help.
Foster carers will be supported by the charity with training and a dedicated social worker, and will receive financial support.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “Foster carers make a lifelong difference to the lives of the vulnerable children when they need it most. We encourage more people to come forward, both now and in the future, so there are enough foster carers available at the right time and in the right place to provide safe, loving homes for these children.
“We have published guidance online for anyone interested in becoming a foster parent. During the pandemic we have also made it easier for councils and fostering agencies to identify potential placements, and to assess and approve new foster carers, so that children get the support they deserve without delay.”
The House of Commons Library has updated their briefing in response to some key questions regarding the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on separated families, maintenance arrangements and access to children in the UK.
The briefing addresses: whether children can move between the homes of separated parents; how parents should comply with a court-orders for contact; whether children can be visited in care/residential homes; alternatives to closed child contact centres; and where help and advice can be found.
Further details are available here
Industry News: Exploring experiences of life at home during lockdown for young people in care, carers and birth families
TACT and Research in Practice have developed three linked surveys – for young people in care, carers and birth families – to explore their experiences of life at home during lockdown. The surveys aim to explore how people have spent their time, experiences of home schooling and relationships with social care over the lockdown period.
The findings will be used to inform practice as we move towards exiting lockdown, so that we can learn the lessons of the past three months and retain anything that carers, birth families and young people in care found beneficial, and address that which was problematic.
The survey will run from 9-21 June and all responses will be anonymous:
Survey for young people.
Survey for carers.
Survey for birth families.
Please share widely with children in care social work teams, local authority foster carers, independent foster care providers, residential care homes, special guardianship teams, special guardians themselves and birth parent networks. The more widely the surveys are shared the more robust picture it will give of life in care under lockdown to allow learning for the future.
Children's minister says regulations relieving councils of certain duties during coronavirus being used 'infrequently' and there are 'no plans' to extend their use beyond September deadline
MPs have voted against a move to scrap contentious changes to legislation governing councils’ responsibilities to children in care.
A motion, led by the shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey, to annul a statutory instrument relaxing a range of duties safeguarding children and young people was defeated on 10 June by 260 votes to 123.
The amendments to regulations, justified by the government as providing important flexibility during the coronavirus crisis, were introduced in late April and enacted without sitting before Parliament for the customary 21 days.
Opponents, who include the Children’s Commissioner for England, Labour, significant numbers of children’s charities and the British Association of Social Workers England, argue the changes are unnecessary and may do harm to children, while some organisations claim they could pave the way for permanent weakening of children’s rights.
The children’s rights charity, Article 39, launched a judicial review this month seeking to quash the statutory instrument. On 11 June the charity said the government had been given until 22 June to respond.
“Judge granted our application to seek a quick response,” a statement from Article 39 on Twitter said. “This means we should hear in about a fortnight whether we have permission and a costs-capping order.”
‘No social worker would put children in harm this way’
During the debate preceding the vote on the motion, the children’s minister, Vicky Ford, failed to answer questions posed by Labour’s Emma Lewell-Buck, the former shadow children’s minister and an ex-social worker, around which local authorities had made use of the new flexibilities.
Lewell-Buck, the MP for South Shields, said she could not “imagine a single social worker, having been one myself, who would allow any child that they work with to be put at harm in this way”.
She reiterated the concerns of many opposed to the statutory instrument, that the changes it introduces mirror measures to deregulate children’s social care former Conservative administrations tried and failed to introduce under the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
Ford claimed the decision to introduce the amendments had been influenced by conversations with social workers who had said the system was faced with unprecedented stresses.
She said the government needed to respond to “the risk that local authorities may be unable to respond to significant pressures posed by Covid-19”, namely the combination of staff absences and an expected spike in demand as lockdown lifts.
Measures being used ‘infrequently’
Ford said the urgency of the situation had reduced the government’s ability to consult fully on the changes – a key bone of contention, with organisations including the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) saying they have not had active input.
She did not address questions posed by Lewell-Buck requesting more detail about the process leading to the drafting of the statutory instrument, and stressed that primary legislation had not been amended.
But Ford said the government was surveying local authorities monthly as to whether they were making use of it, and talking with other parties such as children’s charities in order to assess the impact of any such use.
She said the legislative changes were being used “infrequently” and that there were “no plans” to extend them beyond their planned 25 September expiry date, as is provided for by the statutory instrument.
“If there is a need to extend these flexibilities this will be on a case-by-case basis and subject to full Parliamentary process,” Ford said, adding that she would report back to the Commons before the summer recess.
‘Picking up where the last government left off’
In the wake of the vote, the Article 39 director Carolyne Willow said it was “deeply frustrating” that Ford had used much of her speech to talk broadly about her department’s policy and actions in the face of Covid-19.
“This was the opportunity for the minister to give precise information about why her department considered the global pandemic warranted a behind-closed-doors review of all children’s social care legislation, and why each of the safeguards had to be deleted or weakened,” Willow said.
“There was no such explanation – the repeated references to flexibilities, and the emphasis on primary legislation being untouched, is picking up where the government left off with the exemption clauses of 2016/17,” she added. “That was when the Department for Education first sought to distinguish between core safeguarding duties, and other legal protections.”
Willow said the government was drawing a “false distinction” that showed a lack of understanding of the law and how children’s social work has evolved since the 1940s.
Meanwhile Katharine Sacks-Jones, the chief executive of the Become charity for children in care and care leavers, said it was a “real concern” that the government was sticking with the legislative changes.
“Its’s vital they tell us more about what monitoring is taking place so that we can understand the impact they’re having on the safety and wellbeing of young people across the country,” Sacks-Jones said
Ben Twomey, the head of policy at the National Youth Advisory Service (NYAS) said: “We are deeply disappointed by the result of today’s vote in parliament, but want to thank the MPs who stood up today in defence of children’s rights.
“We will continue campaigning until this legislation is withdrawn and rights are restored to the children we work with,” Twomey added. “Statutory instrument 445 will remain under review until late September, during which time we urge the government to withdraw it at the earliest opportunity.”
Industry News: Children’s Commissioner and Labour join opposition to legislation reducing children in care duties
Anne Longfield and shadow minister for children say new regulations should be revoked, while Labour peer questions whether it is 'constitutional abuse' to reintroduce changes rejected in 2017 in pandemic emergency legislation
The Children’s Commissioner for England and Labour have joined a growing chorus of opposition to new legislation that removes or reduces local authority duties to children in care, ostensibly to relieve pressures relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement issued on Thursday, Anne Longfield said she was “extremely concerned” about the changes, which affect 10 sets of regulations and were introduced via a statutory instrument last week.
She added that she believed they should be revoked because there was not “sufficient justification to introduce them”. Following her comments, Labour’s shadow minister for children, Tulip Siddiq, said on Twitter: “I agree with the Children’s Commissioner for England. Having raised concerns last week and spoken to sector representatives, it seems like children may be put in harm’s way by these changes. They should be revoked.”
The new regulations suspend duties on social workers to visit children every six weeks, remove requirements for care plans to be reviewed six-monthly and relax standards governing children’s homes, fostering and adoption.
They attracted criticism from across the sector when they were published on 23 April.
The amendments came into force the next day without sitting before Parliament for 21 days, as is customary, and lapse on 25 September 2020. They can though be extended by a further statutory instrument.
An explanatory memorandum subsequently issued by the Department for Education (DfE) said the government had consulted with representative bodies.
The document mentioned the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Local Government Association (LGA), adding that the commissioner had been “informed”. The commissioner’s office moved quickly to clarify that there had been no actual discussion with the DfE.
An ADCS comment on Twitter also denied that the association – which has faced scrutiny over its role – had benefited from active input into which areas of legislation might be appropriate to relax for social workers during the pandemic.
Longfield’s statement went further, attacking the legislative changes for having been implemented “with minimal consultation” and without adherence to the 21-day rule.
The government has claimed waiting would have placed “extraordinary pressure” on local authorities and other providers trying to meet statutory obligation during the coronavirus outbreak.
“However, the reports I have been receiving from local authorities are that staffing for social care is holding up well,” said Longfield, echoing the accounts of many social workers with whom Community Care has spoken in recent weeks.
“It therefore appears that bringing in these regulatory changes to ease excessive strain on a depleted workforce, and to do so without the opportunity for public scrutiny, is not justified,” the commissioner added.
Government guidance on the use of the legislative amendments, which the chief social worker Isabelle Trowler said earlier this week was due imminently, had not been issued at the time this article was published.
In a related development, the statutory instrument also came under cross-party scrutiny in the House of Lords on Thursday.
In an exchange with Baroness Berridge, the minister for the school system, Labour peer Lord Howarth of Newport questioned whether it was a “constitutional abuse for the government to have used the emergency coronavirus legislation to make a major and hugely controversial policy change of a nature that has been explicitly rejected by parliament in 2017”.
Critics of the statutory instrument have pointed out that many of the ways in which duties have been removed or reduced mirror proposals the government attempted – and failed – to introduce as part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
Many fear that those measures have now been introduced via the back door under the new secondary legislation.
Article 39, the children’s rights charity that has led opposition to the changes, has invited individuals and organisations to publicly register their objections.
Law firm Irwin Mitchell is also preparing a legal challenge to the new regulations on behalf of Article 39, the legal journalist Catherine Baksi said on Twitter.
In response to peers’ questions, Berridge said the measures were “a minimal change to the procedural requirements in relation to children’s social care” and were “intended to be a temporary measure to enable the limited flexibility that local authorities need at this time” to prioritise resource.
Meanwhile children’s minister Vicky Ford, in a letter to the Guardian, described the changes as “allowing [social workers] to make pragmatic decisions through minor, temporary amendments to regulations, while always keeping children’s safety paramount”.
“I hope these flexibilities will not have to be used,” Ford said in the letter. “But it is my responsibility to those who care for our most vulnerable children and families to provide the necessary tools to make the right decisions during these challenging times.”
Changes to protection system condemned as ‘deregulation on steroids’
Changes to legal protections for children in care, introduced by the UK government as an emergency response to the coronavirus crisis, have been condemned as “deregulation on steroids” by children’s rights campaigners.
Activists described the decision to relax 10 key sets of regulations, developed over decades to protect the most vulnerable children in society, as an “outrageous assault on safeguards” and warned that children would be harmed.
One of the key relaxations, which came into force last Friday, is the removal of the requirement for a social worker to visit – or even telephone – a child in care every six weeks, reducing it to “as soon as is reasonably practicable”.
The requirement for a six-monthly review of a child’s care, introduced following the manslaughter of the 12-year-old Dennis O’Neill by his foster carers in 1944, has been similarly relaxed, and adoption and fostering panels which allow for independent scrutiny have become optional.
The government says the measures are temporary – expiring on 25 September – and will allow overstretched children’s services greater flexibility, but there are fears that the coronavirus crisis is being used as an excuse to relax children’s social care duties and the expiry date could be revoked.
Labour’s Tulip Siddiq has written to the children’s minister Vicky Ford calling on the government to publish data to show the impact on vulnerable children. Her Labour colleague Emma Lewell-Buck has posted a series of parliamentary questions to find out more about the process which led to the amendments. “They are using this pandemic to experiment with vulnerable children,” she said.
The measures were introduced by the government as part of emergency coronavirus legislation, via a statutory instrument. Campaigners are concerned there was no public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny and they say many of the changes have been proposed by the government before.
Carolyne Willow, the director of Article 39, a charity that campaigns for the rights of children in institutional settings, said it was “deregulation on steroids”.
She said: “This outright assault on safeguards protecting the most vulnerable children is outrageous. Safeguards are there to protect children from harm, so it goes without saying that these changes forced through without any public consultation or parliamentary scrutiny will harm children.
“The government has produced no evidence to back up its claim that changes to 10 different sets of regulations are in response to the pressures of lockdown. It has also conveniently omitted to mention that this is the fourth time since 2016 that ministers have tried to impose mass deregulation in children’s social care.”
Enver Solomon, the chief executive of Just for Kids Law, added: “At this time of national crisis, in its role as corporate parent the government should be going the extra mile for every child in care. It’s astonishing that isn’t the case and truly shocking that instead government has chosen to weaken the support offered to some of the country’s most vulnerable children.”
There is growing concern about vulnerable children during lockdown. Schools have remained open to them, as well as children of key workers, to provide some protection but the numbers attending are small. Latest figures show 10% of children “in need” and those with education, health and care plans are turning up at school – up from 5% earlier in the pandemic.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “While the vast majority of statutory duties remain unchanged, we have reviewed our regulations to allow some temporary flexibility, to be used where absolutely necessary, to help reduce pressure on the system and enable children’s services to continue to support vulnerable children during the coronavirus outbreak.”
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