Commissioner says children in care being failed by broken residential care home market
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, has released reports showing how the residential social care system is ‘broken’, failing many of the most vulnerable children.
‘The children who no-one knows what to do with’ reports on three years of research into children’s homes, highlighting the issues faced by groups of children in care for whom the system is not working.
The report found that more than 8,000 children have three - or more - different homes within a single year, while 13,000 end up in unregulated homes some point during the year.
More shockingly, it found that there were hundreds of children who need a place in a secure children’s home but cannot get one anywhere in England.
The report said there are not enough places available, meaning some local authorities are “left ringing round for lastminute, over-priced, possibly inadequate placements” which leave children ‘stuck in limbo’.
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.Some children even reported finding knives and class A drugs behind sofas.
Arguing that these groups of children have been ‘ignored by national Government’, the Commissioner said there was a ‘strong consensus’ about the solution:
- Small, flexible and local children’s homes which can keep children close and adapt to their needs.
- Specialist secure and semi-secure homes with a very high level of clinical and therapeutic input for the children with the highest level of need.
- Good-quality supported accommodation for 16-17 year olds who prefer it, which is clean, safe, stable and provides a decent place to live.
- Foster care to provide loving, stable and sometimes long-term homes for children in care, especially older ones.
- Specialist foster care, to help meet the needs of children with complex emotional or behavioural problems.
Read the full report:
The second report, ‘Private provision in children’s social care’, warns there is a clear lack of planning and oversight, 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 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’ and that the growth in private provision may not have been a deliberate policy choice but a consequence of government inaction.
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 also looks at how the companies providing these services are increasingly being owned by private equity firms, raising questions about the way some large private providers are financed, with high levels of debt that could potentially create instability in future.
Read the full report:
Following the release of the reports, the Children’s Commissioner has made a number of recommendations to improve the provision of children’s social care in England.
She recommends that councils should prioritise using their capital budgets to increase their children’s home capacity and collaborate more in terms of commissioning to make better use of their power as purchasers to shape the market.
The Commissioner also called for a central, national body to be set up to be given a responsibility for assessing current and future levels of need for care provision, both locally and nationally.
Also recommended it that the Government launches the Care Review, promised in the Conservative Party manifesto, with an independent chair and a remit to consider the broad structure of children’s care provision and build a system that is ‘more transparent, accountable and outcome-oriented’.
She also advises that the Department for Education or Ofsted collect ‘standardised, detailed and timely information’ on services and prices across all providers in the care sector, so that local authorities could compare prices to ensure they are not paying more than other areas for the same quality of provision.
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.
“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.”