Latest government figures show that there are 72,000 children in care in England.
A recently published report surveyed 2,263 people that had been taken into local authority care. The responses revealed that for the majority (83%), being in care was a positive experience and had enhanced their wellbeing and improved their lives. However, the findings also highlighted areas that required improvements, such as communicating why the person has been taken into care, frequent changes in social workers and the feeling of not being listened to and decisions being made without consultation.
To explore the challenges facing the care system and the children and young people it is designed to support, Open Forum Events are pleased to be hosting the Looked After Children: Improving Life Chances conference.
The number of children entering care is at an all-time high with 90 young people entering the system every day. The majority of cases are due to parental abuse and neglect, however, household issues, such as poverty, poor housing and substance misuse are significantly contributing to the figures. There are claims that austerity, changes within the benefits system with the introduction of Universal Credit and the slashing of essential children and family services are partly responsible for the record number of children now living in care.
Compared to their counterparts, children in care face a plethora of added issues. This vulnerable group are more likely to suffer abuse, become homeless, be teenage parents, be a young person not in education, employment or training (NEET), have mental health issues and be victims of exploitation. The challenge, regardless of the added risks and possible problems, is that these children and young people are offered the same opportunities to succeed in life as their peers.
The Looked After Children: Improving Life Chances conference will offer delegates the opportunity to be fully briefed on the current situation within the care system and gain an update on the latest developments in terms of policy and funding. Guided by a line-up of expert speakers, the agenda will address some of the major child protection issues facing those entering the care system and examine the support needed to ensure that looked after children receive the best possible care and can look forward to a bright future.
Making the decision to take a child away from their family and place them in local authority care is never easy for all involved, however, for the young person it can be exceptionally difficult, distressing and obviously life-changing. Being a ‘looked after child’ presents a host of different scenarios that invoke a variety of responses.
The number of looked after children is increasing and the current figure is at an all-time high. The causes for the burgeoning numbers are numerous and complex, however, the squeeze on council budgets is thought to be compromising the provision of essential services, such as children’s centres, early intervention initiatives and support networks to identify vulnerable families and children at risk. This accelerates the direct involvement of children’s social services and the possibility of children being placed in local authority care. In 2016, three-quarters of English councils exceeded their budgets for children’s services with an overspend of £605m.
The government has responded by announcing a £20 million improvement plan for children’s social services to support vulnerable children. Funds have also been allocated to speed up and improve the adoption system and also to support young care leavers to transition from care to independent living.
Children in care are four more times likely to suffer from mental health conditions than their non-looked after peers. Dealing with a traumatic or chaotic upbringing, in which they may have experienced abuse or neglect, bereavement, disability or serious illness in one or both parents and possibly be from a disadvantaged background can certainly impact on wellbeing. Going into care can also be the cause of major and traumatic upheaval, impacting on emotional stability. Unfortunately, the mental health needs of these vulnerable children are often going unnoticed and unmet.
Child protection is a major consideration for looked after children. Whilst some children will have experienced abuse before entering care, there is a small proportion who experience abuse or neglect whilst in care. It is also estimated that 20 to 35% of children that are sexually exploited are in care and are also at risk of being exploited in other ways. such as drug mules by 'county lines' gangs.
A report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, "How the Home Office considers the ‘Best interests’ of Unaccompanied Asylum-seeking Children", has recently been published following an inspection in late 2017. The report looked into how the best interests of unaccompanied children are considered during the processes and decision making relating to their claim for asylum. It concluded that there were consistent and regular failures in Home Office practice and made several recommendations for improvement.
There are many ways in which the lives of young people experiencing the care system can be improved.
Providing the support and safeguarding to enable families to stay together, rather than transferring the child to the care of the local authority is hugely beneficial. Improving the adoption and fostering processes and providing support for prospective parents can also help to provide stable, loving environments in a timelier manner. Promoting the opportunities for kinship care, where children can live with extended family members, will again offer children the chance to live in a family setting.
Leaving care can be a daunting prospect for young people. There is a danger they fall between the gaps in service provision, making them more likely to become homeless, become a NEET or an offender. In February, Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi announced up to £5 million for three new Social Impact Bond projects to support care leavers into education, employment or training. He also announced the delivery partner for the Care Leaver Covenant, which offers a platform for organisations to pledge their support for young people as they face the challenges of leaving care.
The Looked After Children: Improving Life Chances conference will explore all the issues and discuss the way forward to ensure that the life chances of a child or young person in care are not diminished because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Children in care have the same right as any other young person to feel safe, secure and happy. Their hopes for the present and expectations for future success should not be diminished because of the circumstances in which they find themselves.
Ninety children a day entered care in 2016, with a record number of children now in the care system. The Local Government Association official figures show the total number of looked after children reached a new high of 72,670 in 2016/17 - up from 70,440 the year before. What factors are driving the increase?
The Chelmsley Wood Reading Den is a library-based resource of books, audio-CDs, and DVDs, specifically chosen to support the needs of looked after and adopted children and young people and their carers and parents. Delivered in partnership between the Solihull Library Service and Solar, the emotional wellbeing and mental health service for children and young people in Solihull, the Reading Den aims to offer specialist resources in an accessible and non-stigmatising setting. These resources include books to educate and inform foster carers and parents, as well as books for children and caregivers to read together to help nurture relationships and support children’s emotional wellbeing through facilitating conversations about thoughts feelings and experiences, both ordinary and more difficult.
A recently published report looked into the Home Office’s handling of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and in particular at how it ensured that the ‘best interests’ of the child were properly considered throughout the asylum process. The report has made several recommendations to ensure improvements are made within the current system.
This Leading Change Adding Value project aims to reduce unwarranted variation in the commissioning and service delivery to improve the health outcomes for looked after children. The primary areas of concern in relation to children being able to;
• Access timely and quality health services wherever they are placed
• Care at transition when they move out of LAC status
• Addressing unwarranted variation of LAC compared to peers who aren’t LAC
Supporting vulnerable families and intervening early can help stem the flow of children that are being taken into care. Being allowed to stay within the family not only benefits the child enormously but can relieve the pressure on overstretched council servcies and mitigate some of the future societal issues related to being brought up in care.
Providing stable, family orientated loving care, outside state-run residential facilities, is preferable and most beneficial for looked after children. To achieve this, whether on a permanent basis through adoption, temporary measures such as placements with foster carers or awarding guardianship to extended family members, there needs to be improvements in the processes and better support provided.
At 18, young care leavers are more likely to not be in employment, education or training, be socially excluded or homeless or have come into contact with the criminal justice system. Making the transition to independent living can be challenging and there is a danger of these young people slipping through gaps between services. Support is needed to ensure care leavers have the necessary skills to successfully move on with their lives.
Vulnerable children, including those that are in the care of social services, are targeted by criminal gangs to undertake criminal activity such as the criminal enterprise called ‘county lines’, where children are used to distribute drugs, supplied by large city gangs, to rural and coastal areas. Backed up by funding, the government has announced plans to develop a new National County Lines Coordination Centre to tackle the issues.
What is it like to be a child taken into care? Whilst professionals and statutory bodies make decisions in good faith, it is the children and young people who are most qualified to describe their experiences and explain their needs and wants.
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