Prevention the best way to stop looked-after children services becoming “unsustainable”

(Title Image: ITV Wales)

Public Accounts Committee
Care experienced children & young people (pdf)
Published: 20th November 2018

“Care experienced children are often the most vulnerable children and public services must provide them with the specialist support they need. Throughout this inquiry, we have kept at the forefront of our minds that this is about real children and real experiences.

 

“Whilst we are clear that many professionals are dedicated and provide high-quality services under difficult circumstances it is also obvious that services for care experienced children are under significant pressure and face serious challenges.”
– Committee Chair, Nick Ramsay AM (Con, Monmouth)

1. The Welsh Government should closely monitor the outcomes of children who’ve been in care

Children who’ve been in care generally face more challenges in their lives than other children including a higher risk of going to prison, becoming homeless and/or developing mental health problems, a higher rate of economic inactivity and lower educational attainment (the gap in performance between looked-after children and all children was greater than that of those eligible for free school meals) and university attendance.

“Social services were quick enough to take me away from my family but didn’t give them the help they needed to keep me at home”
– Anonymous, former looked-after child

One thing children in care told the Committee they wanted was stability – sudden changes in social workers and placements were likened to a “broken promise”; one former looked-after child said they had up to 40 different social workers in 12 years.

The Committee was told that children often don’t feature highly in official targets for social services.

2. The Ministerial Advisory Group is doing positive work, but is working too slowly and lacks transparency

After the 2016 Welsh General Election, a Ministerial Advisory Group was established – chaired by David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central) – to look at preventative measures to stop children being taking into care and improving outcomes for those who are already in care.

The Group was seen as a positive, bringing together 30 different organisations around one table. However, the WLGA expressed concerns about the pace of the work; it’s taken over a year for the Group to be tasked with developing new performance indicators which were described as “an insurmountable task”.

The Committee recommended that the work of the Group be properly published in order to improve scrutiny, including the membership, minutes of meetings and how well it’s performing.

3. The current placements system is poor value for money

In 2016-17, £259million was spent by local authorities on foster placements, residential care and post-care support services – an increase of 19.1% compared to 2011-12. Local authority placements were almost half the annual cost (£23,327) of an agency placement (£43,378). Around two-thirds of placements were said to be local authority ones.

“I do feel that sometimes we’re not told things because it saves them money for other stuff. When I was in school, my social worker said she would sort out a maths tutor for me to help me get my maths. She said this at the start of the year.

 

“As soon as we found out my exam dates, we told her. Then, I did my exam, still no tutor. She then phoned me after the exam and said, ‘We’ve sorted a maths tutor out for you.’ And it’s like, ‘Well, it’s a bit late now. You’ve had the whole school year to do it, and now you’ve done it after the exam, which is now saving you money because I no longer need that maths tutor.’
– Anonymous, former looked-after child

The Committee didn’t accept that the money was being used in a way that delivered the best interests of the child. However, they later accepted that in cases where children have complicated needs, councils were often “in competition” with each other to snap up the few available places due to a placement shortage – many of which were located out of Wales and can sometimes cost in the most extreme cases as much as £16,500 a week.

Putting looked after children into multiple placements not only had a detrimental impact of the child but according to the Children’s Commissioner also cost councils up to 12% more over a long-term (14-year) placement.

4. More needs to be done to prevent children from being placed into care in the first place

Most of this was discussed in the Senedd last week: Progress made, but more to do to prevent children being placed into care.

“When you get taken off your parents, they should try and help them as well, like, get better, or come off drugs, or whatever the situation is. There should be support there for them as well to try and get us home, but there’s not, there’s nothing.”
– Anonymous, former looked-after child

Children in Wales (95-per-10,000 people) are more likely to be taken into care than children in England (62-per-10,000 people) and even when things like relative poverty are taken into consideration it’s still 20-25% higher.

There’s a particular problem with mothers being involved in recurrent care proceedings, with 1-in-4 women involved in a care proceeding at risk of re-appearing within seven years. The Reflect Project is focused on preventing repeat pregnancies in mothers who’ve already had a child taken into care and is going to be rolled out across Wales after success in Newport.

The Committee agreed with the preventative measures and called for ring-fenced funding for so-called “edge-of-care” services.

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