Today (27 November) the National Audit Office released its report Children in Care. The report provides an assessment of the effectiveness of the Department for Education (DfE) and Local Authorities in meeting the needs of looked after children.
The headline assessment is worrying. It says that ‘The DfE cannot demonstrate that it is meeting its objectives for children in foster and residential care’. The consequences of this are poorer care and greater cost.
More detailed analysis shows where the principal concerns lie. One issue which TACT has consistently raised as having a huge impact on children in care is quality and suitability of placement. The report says that ‘Local Authorities often base decisions on children’s placements on short – term affordability rather than on plans to best meet the child’s needs’. Poor placement results in breakdown, and the report shows that 34% of children had more than one placement in the previous year. Eleven percent had thee or more moves. Short term cost based decisions greatly affect placement success, stability and, ultimately the life chances of the child. As the report points out 34% of care leavers are NEET at age 19 (compared with 15.5% of all 19 year olds). The estimated cost of a young person being NEET is £56000/year.
TACT has also frequently expressed concern that, while broadly supportive of government initiates around adoption, the emphasis placed on adoption was leading to other forms of care being treated as less important. This belief is borne out by the report, which states that the DfE recognises that ‘in recent years it has prioritised managing local authorities performance on adoption over foster and residential care’
A consequence of this is that the DfE lacks the indicators to properly evaluate the effectiveness of the care system. Another common theme in recent times has been that the DfE has worked hard and with a genuine desire to improve outcomes for looked after children. However, the gap between policy and practice has remained wide with, for example, TACT social workers frequently expressing concerns that in areas such as delegated authority, the use of Special Guardianship Orders and placement decisions, local authorities are too frequently making decisions that are not in line with central policy, practice or guidance.
The report makes a number of recommendations, such as the DfE developing bettering indicators of care efficiency, working more closely with local authorities on effective commissioning practice and improving placement commissioning by developing a national standard contract for foster carers.
TACT argues that more needs to be done to ensure that children in care have the best possible chance of enjoying successful and stable placements, helping them towards success after leaving care.
Whenever possible children should have a choice of care placement and the opportunity to meet carers before a placement is agreed. This is consistently the message we receive from young people placed with TACT.
All decisions made by local authorities and other agencies must be made with full awareness and compliance with children’s rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Act 1998.
Local Authorities should always seek to work in constructive partnership with independent agencies so that suitability of placement, rather than cost, is the prime consideration.
As the report points out, without action the cost not only to the public purse but critically to the long term welfare of children placed in care, is far greater than any short term saving.
Find out about TACT’s involvement in the Care Inquiry that looked at how society can best provide stable and permanent homes for children in England who cannot live with their birth parents.
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