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Looked-after children: the silent crisis

Authors: Matthew Oakley, Guy Miscampbell and Raphael Gregorian

Children in care are some of the most vulnerable members of society. They have often suffered traumatic events which have led to them being placed in care and lack the family support networks that others might take for granted. On 31st March 2017, across England around 72,700 children were in care. This is equivalent to approximately 62 for every 10,000 under 18s in England and, on top of this, many more are classified as ‘in need’ or ‘at risk’ and may flow in and out of the care system; around 100,000 children flow through the care system each year.

The responsibility of caring for looked-after children (LAC) ultimately falls on Local Authorities, who provide a variety of different placements for LAC. For example, a child in care could be placed in a range of situations from permanent adoption with a family, through to living in a children’s home or secure unit, depending on their circumstances and needs. Local Authorities must, insofar as is reasonably and practically achievable, ensure that the placement fulfils criteria such as being near the child’s home, not disrupting their education, and allowing siblings to live together. They are also responsible as the “corporate parent”, with a commitment to act in the child’s best interests and provide safety and stability for them in their home lives.

The work of Local Authorities in relation to LAC is overseen by the Department for Education (DfE), the primary body responsible for child protection in the UK. The main method used for this oversight is inspections by Ofsted. In this capacity Ofsted assesses the effectiveness of Local Authorities in delivering and providing their statutory services, conducting reviews of each Local Authority at least once every three years. This includes an evaluation of third-party providers such as external providers of foster care.

The silent crisis

At first glance, the care system is effective at achieving its goals. It is widely acknowledged both that the majority of children in care experience more positive outcomes than they would have if there were not taken into care and that children in care often experience better outcomes than those in the wider group of “children in need”.

However, it is also an inescapable fact that children in care and those leaving care face a variety of lower outcomes compared to their peers. In education, only 14% achieved 5 A*-C GCSEs (including maths and English) in 2015, a figure dwarfed by the 55% rate nationally, and LAC are five times more likely to face exclusion than their peers. Children who are looked after are also hugely overrepresented in the youth justice system, and in 2015-2016 it was estimated that approximately 39% of the children in secure training centres had been in care, despite children in care accounting for around 1% of all children.

These outcomes follow children to adult life as well; almost 25% of the adult prison population has previously been in care, and children who have been in care reoffend at roughly twice the rate of children who have never been looked after. It is estimated that nearly half of all children in care had a diagnosable mental health issue in 2015, and the proportion of NEET care leavers between the ages of 19 and 21 was approximately 40% in 2017. Clearly, children in care are more likely to experience a subsequent lifetime of disadvantage.