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Analysis of outcomes for children and young people 4 to 5 years after a final Care Order

1.1 Governments across the United Kingdom, including in Wales, are concerned about outcomes for looked after children, particularly as the number has grown, placing pressure on the whole system designed to provide or support substitute care. For example, StatsWales (2017) has reported that, in Wales, there was a 5% increase in the number of looked after children between March 2016 (5,665) and March 2017 (5,955).

1.2 Much UK-based research over the last 25 years has suggested that outcomes for looked after children are generally less favourable than for other children outside of the care system (Gypen et al., 2017), including in relation to their:

  • Mental health and emotional wellbeing.
  • Educational achievement.
  • Vulnerability to poor physical health and early pregnancies.
  • Economic and social disadvantage.
  • Involvement in crime or substance misuse both as children and adults.

    (Meltzer et al, 2003b; McAuley et al, 2006; Biehal et al, 1995)

However, some more recent studies have challenged this overall negative perspective. For example, Wade, Biehal and Sinclair (2010) suggest that many children in fact do relatively well in care, particularly compared with those of similar backgrounds who return to live at home. Research by Sebba et al. (2015) suggests that children looked after for at least 12 months do better at GCSE level than children in need who are not looked after.

1.3 Placement stability appears to be a strong, if not the only, indicator of better outcomes for children and, conversely, placement instability is associated with poorer outcomes (Stein, 2005) and Baginsky et al, 2017). Other influences on child outcomes are likely to include a combination of child and family-related issues such as exposure to maltreatment and/or disturbed attachment with natural parents that can undermine connections with subsequent substitute carers (Howe, 2005; Lindheim and Dozier, 2007), and systems-related issues such as the timing of the child’s removal from an abusive or neglectful home environment and entry into care (Wilkinson et al, 2017).

1.4 It is within this context that an Improving Outcomes for Children Steering Group was established in October 2015 by Welsh Government to support the development of a national approach to improving outcomes for children in care. Following the Assembly elections in May 2016 this was up scaled to a Ministerial Advisory Group, under the leadership of David Melding AM. The Ministerial Advisory Group is taking forward a broad programme of work including pilot projects, policy developments and areas of research to fill gaps in current understanding about what happens to children who become looked after, including this study which is intended to explore:

  • The placement journeys for children in care in Wales and how these compare over a medium term (4-5 year) period with the outcomes aspired to and outlined in the original Care Plans submitted to the court when a final Care Order is granted.
  • Factors associated with more positive placement outcomes over the same period of time.

The rationale for a 4-5 year period was that the dataset would be relatively recent in time (to reflect current practice) but would allow for sufficient time elapsed to analyse and report on outcomes. It is intended that this study will contribute to further improvements in the quality and stability of placements for looked after children in the future.

1.5 Whilst the overall statutory framework for children looked after and subject to a Final Care Order has remained much the same in the transition between the Children Act 1989 and the Social Services and Wellbeing Act (Wales) 2014, there have been a number of policy developments relevant to the time period with which we are concerned for this study (2012-2017), including in particular:

  • The introduction in England and Wales of a revised Public Law Outline (PLO) and care proceedings target timescales from April 2014 (these had also been piloted in some parts of Wales since September 2013).
  • A strategy launched in January 2016 to support improved educational ambitions and attainment for looked after children including through work with foster carers; and collective accountability across Welsh and local Government with schools.
  • ‘When I am Ready’ arrangements set up across Wales in 2015 to support looked after young people to remain living with foster carers beyond the age of 18 years, as care leavers.
  • The Welsh Government’s national strategy Prosperity for All2 which aspires to a good quality of life for all citizens and references the need for all services to be ‘ACE aware’, in other words take a more preventative approach to avoiding ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) which can have a devastating effect on development, and improving the resilience of children and young people.
  • Social care is one of the five priority areas within Prosperity for All, with actions to raise the educational attainment and improve the life chances of children in care, adopting a child centred approach, through the collaboration of education, social services and others.
  • The Programme for Government, Taking Wales Forward also commits to “examine ways of ensuring looked after children enjoy the same life chances as other children and if necessary reform the way they are looked after”.

1.6 The remainder of this report includes sections outlining the research methodology for and findings of this important study, and the authors’ conclusions and recommendations for Welsh Government and the Sector.