NSPCC calls for much stricter assessment of children's needs and parents' problems.
Almost half of abused or neglected children who return home from care suffer further harm, the NSPCC is warning.
The charity claims that many returned children are finding their trust in adults shattered by their experiences, as documented in its report Returning Home From Care, published on Monday. Last year, more than 90,000 children were in care in England, the majority as a result of abuse or neglect. But some 10,000 returned home, compared with just 3,050 who were adopted.
The NSPCC report warns: "For too many children, returning home results in further abuse or neglect and often re-entry into care, causing significant long-term harm."
It cites academic research that found 46% of children who entered care as a result of abuse or neglect suffered further abuse or neglect if they returned home. Another study suggested the proportion was 42%.
The NSPCC's warning comes as the number of annual court applications to place children in care has exceeded 10,000 for the first time.
Between a third and a half of children who return home re-enter care or have to be accommodated again as a result of their experiences, according to the NSPCC.
The charity's report is based on interviews with social workers and more than 200 children in care. More than 70% of children consulted by the NSPCC said they were not ready to return home.
Tom Rahilly, head of strategy development for looked-after children at the NSPCC, said its report suggested that, in many cases, keeping vulnerable children in care was the right option. "Care does provide a safe and supportive environment for some of our most vulnerable children," he said. "The trauma caused to children who are abused, go into care, and are then abused again when they return home is unimaginable. Their trust in adults and their motivation to speak out is shattered."
One teenage girl who called the NSPCC's ChildLine said she was too scared to talk to adults because they "are nasty" and "can hurt you".
She said: "When I was little, my parents hit me, so I was taken into care. Then when I was a bit older, I went back to my parents, but things got worse, so I'm now in care again.
"I'm finding it hard being here and I want to go home, even though I know what will happen there. I'm afraid to leave my bedroom — when I go out of the room I get stressed and I can't breathe and struggle to eat. I don't want to talk to anyone because they might hurt me."
Another teenage girl who had recently returned home from care said: "I'm finding it very difficult. There's a lot of shouting and fighting. My social worker said that if I ever wanted to talk I could call her, but she hasn't returned my calls."
The NSPCC said the current focus on adoption was welcome, but fewer than one in 20 children in care are eventually adopted. "Focusing equally on the far higher number who return home would have a substantial impact on reducing repeated harm," the charity said.
The NSPCC argues that children should be returned only when there has been a comprehensive assessment of their needs and effective support provided for them and their parents.
It is calling for the government to publish full data on the outcomes of looked-after children who are returned home, in a bid to increase transparency and accountability. It also claims that there is a need to support problem families to tackle issues such as substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health issues and poor parenting skills both before and after the return of their children.
"Evidence shows that the wrong decision is being made in far too many cases," Rahilly said. "So it's vital that decisions to return a child home are taken cautiously and the risks to the child are assessed carefully. If parents' problems have not improved, the child must stay in the safety of care. And if a child is returned home, the concerns which led to them being removed in the first place must be addressed before they go home."
Last year, the government introduced a framework for children in care that requires local authorities to assess parents' suitability and set out the services to be provided to support them.
"It is right to keep families together where it is in children's best interests," said Tim Loughton, the children's minister. "It is wrong for local authorities to return children to potentially abusive households repeatedly, without being 100% sure they will be safe.
"We've toughened up the law, so local authorities must make a rigorous assessment of parents' suitability and set out the expert support they will provide, before sending a child home."
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