Our vulnerable youngsters deserve the best the state can do and the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes case shows the tragic cost of failure
Perhaps the most important job that the state has is to protect children at risk of harm and abuse. Yet children’s social care is facing a mounting crisis that gets far less exposure than that confronting the NHS or even adult social care. Local councils, which are responsible for child protection, are having to provide for vulnerable youngsters against a backdrop of rising need, reduced funding from central government and a shortage of long-term foster and residential care places, many of which are overpriced by the private sector. All this affects the quality of support that is available for children who need it the most.
Children in need of help and protection from local councils because they are at risk – and the smaller group of children in care, for whom the council has parental responsibility – deserve the very best that the state has to offer. The awful fate of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes shows the tragic costs when the state fails. In England, more than six in 10 children are in care because they have experienced parental abuse or neglect. A further 14% are in care because parenting capacity in their family is chronically inadequate and 8% because of acute family stress, where a temporary crisis has diminished parenting capacity and their needs are not being met. While taking a child into care is never the preferred option if a child’s family can be successfully supported to provide a safe home, research shows a move into care can be associated with better outcomes for children at serious risk.
However, there are mounting pressures on the system as a result of growing numbers of children in care. The overall child population has grown over the past decade but, even allowing for this, there has been a 6% increase in the rate of children entering care in the past five years. This is partly due to an increase in the numbers of unaccompanied child refugees in recent years, some of whom are, disgracefully, housed in hotels with minimal adult supervision, but also by a sharp rise in the number of teenagers being taken into care, who often have more complex needs than younger children.
Despite this rising demand, local authorities have seen their central government funding drastically cut by almost 60% in the past decade. Councils have been expected to make up for this reduction by relying more heavily on receipts from council tax and business rates. This means councils in less affluent areas, with higher levels of need for children and adult social services and from people who are homeless have seen their overall budgets fall by more than wealthier areas. This has forced them to cut their spending on the early intervention services such as children’s centres, parenting support and domestic abuse services that, if run well, can help reduce pressure on the care system by preventing escalations to crisis point. At the same time, spending on acute services such as child protection and care placements has been forced up. Councils in England have increased budgeted spending on children’s social care by £1.1bn in the past two years yet last year eight in 10 ended up overspending their budgets by £800m collectively. The National Audit Office warned earlier this year that 25 councils are on the cusp of bankruptcy.
Three-quarters of children’s homes are now privately run, compared to 40% 20 years ago
What makes this situation even worse is that the costs of providing children’s social care have soared in recent years, driven by the privatisation of children’s care. Three- quarters of children’s homes are now privately run, compared to 40% 20 years ago and about a third of children are placed in foster care using private agencies. The Competition and Markets Authority published an interim report on the availability and price of children’s care a few weeks ago. It found that private care homes and foster agencies are making significant profit out of the system: for children’s homes, the average weekly price was £3,800, with an average profit margin of 23%; for fostering agencies, the average weekly price of a placement was about £820 a week, with an average operating profit margin of 19%. It is obscene that one pound in every five that English councils are spending on private care is banked as profit, particularly given the growing role of private equity in buying up children’s homes and foster care agencies.
These profits are partly driven by a shortage of appropriate places and the weak negotiating position of councils. And, as we report today, new research by the Fostering Network has highlighted that out of 99 fostering services that responded to its survey all but six reported having a shortage of foster carers. These shortages generate an unacceptable level of instability in the care system: the charity Become highlights that more than one in 10 children in care have experienced three or more placements in the past year. More than 12,000 children in care are split up from their siblings and too many children and young people have been put up in unregulated accommodation with minimal adult support, which remains legal for those aged 16 and 17 despite efforts by campaigners to get it banned for all children. One in six children in care lives more than 20 miles from home.
All this is compounded by the poor quality of children’s services. Half of council children’s services have been rated inadequate or require improvement by Ofsted; this is an improvement from a few years ago but it falls far short of the standards that vulnerable children deserve. This has consequences. Ofsted found significant problems with Solihull council’s child protection services just months before the death of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes last year.
It seems nothing short of wicked that some of the most vulnerable children in the country are being forced to bear the brunt of the past decade of spending cuts, while private companies pocket inflated profits from running children’s homes and foster agencies. Children’s services urgently need better resourcing, but the whole system needs a rethink.