Cost is being prioritised over need for children in care

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Despite £2.5 billion a year being spent on supporting children and young people in care, too many are not getting the “right placements first time” and progress is not being made to tackle the issue.

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) also finds 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”.

The care system is facing increasing year-on-year demand and as of March 2013, local authorities in England looked after 68,110 children – the highest level for 20 years.

In 2012/13, a total of £1.5 billion was spent by local authorities on supporting children in foster care and a further £1 billion on residential care, while average spending per-child ranged from £131,000 to £135,000 (residential care) and £29,000 to £33,000 (foster care).

The report highlights that 75 per cent of children in care are fostered and that 62 per cent of children in care are there because they have suffered neglect or abuse.

However, despite the expenditure, the report emphasises that academic outcomes for children in care are still poor. In 2012/13, only 15 per cent attained five or more GCSEs at grades A* to C including English and maths, compared to 58 per cent for children not in care.

The NAO says that there has been no improvement since 2009 in getting children into the right placement first time and close to home. One of the DfE’s objectives is to “improve placement stability” and it measures the number of placements a child has in a year and whether they are placed within 20 miles of home.

As of March 2013, 34 per cent of children in care had had more than one placement during the year and 14 per cent of foster children and 34 per cent of those in residential care were placed more than 20 miles from home. The figures have not improved since 2009.

The report also reveals that local authorities are basing decisions on children’s placements on short-term affordability

It states: “Local authorities and providers we interviewed told us that services are often procured on the basis of cost. There is only limited use of commissioning to achieve specific outcomes, such as educational attainment or healthcare.”

The report says that in 2013, 34 per cent of all care leavers were NEET at age 19 compared to 15.5 per cent of 18-year-olds in the general population.

It adds: “Unless their needs are correctly assessed and met effectively, there are significant long-term costs of children not getting the right care. Effective commissioning based on good assessments of children’s needs and information on the demand for and costs of care for them could lead to better outcomes for the children and for society.”

The NAO is concerned that the Department for Education (DfE) has no indicators to show whether the care system is effective and has urged it to use the new “Innovation Programme” – launched earlier this year by the DfE to discover what works in commissioning for children in care – to help rectify this.  

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “Most children are taken into care because of abuse and neglect. But too many of them are not getting the right placements the first time. If their complex and challenging learning and development needs are not correctly assessed and tackled, the result is likely to be significant long-term detriment to the children themselves as well as cost to society. 

“No progress has been made in the last four years. If the DfE is to break this pattern, then it needs to use its new Innovation Programme to understand what works, especially in terms of early intervention.”

Commenting on the report, Enver Solomon, director of evidence and impact at the National Children’s Bureau, said: “It is vital that placements and packages of care are always secured on the basis of the needs and preferences of the child and not simply the cost of providing care. There also needs to be a much greater focus on promoting a child’s emotional wellbeing and resilience.”


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