Residential Child Care: Think Local

Let’s start with some numbers: Scotland spends £250 million a year on providing residential care to Looked After children – a rise of 68% in a seven year period. These are children who have been placed in the care of the Local Authority through voluntary arrangements with parents, or have been placed in compulsory care through children’s hearings, a sheriff’s order, or a court ruling. The reasons for placement include care orders, child protection, and offending behaviour.

Around 1600 children and young people are placed in residential care each year. This figure has remained stable over the last seven years, despite the number of children being identified as Looked After increasing from 9 in every 1000 in 1998 rising to 14 in every 1000 in 2009.

Of £250 million total expenditure, which accounts for 30% of  Councils’ Children service budgets, £135 million is spent on providing residential education and secure accommodation, almost all of which is provided by the independent sector, with average weekly costs varying from £800 – £5000 per child, (£41,000- £260,000 a year).

Yet despite this investment we know that the outcomes for children and young people placed in care are incredibly poor, with 1 in 10 experiencing homelessness within two years of leaving care; 25% of our prison population having been in care; 45% of looked after and accommodated children having mental health problems; and half of all such young people failing to achieve a foundation award at either Maths of English.

The challenges facing Local Authorities are twofold: ensuring that they fulfil their statutory corporate parenting responsibilities for Looked After Children, whilst ensuring that they maintain an appropriate balance between quality and cost.

As a Director of Education and Children’s Services I share the corporate parenting responsibilities with elected members and other senior officers.  I would actually extend that responsibility to every employee of the council; and perhaps go even further by extending that to every member of our communities in East Lothian

Nevertheless, from a statutory perspective I have a range of responsibilities for this group of children and young people, namely, to safeguard and promote their welfare; make use of services that would be available to children were they cared for by their parents; promote regular and direct contact between a child and person with parental responsibilities; find out and have regard for the views of the child, his/her parents and any other relevant person when making decisions which might affect them; and finally, take account of a child’s background.

Yet there is one additional responsibility set out in the  Looked After Children (Scotland) Act  2009 – with particular regard to education which is, perhaps, the most difficult to fulfil, it reads: “They should also receive additional help, encouragement and support to address special educational needs or compensate for previous disadvantage and gaps in educational provision.”

 This last line presents both a challenge and a dilemma for someone in my position. Firstly, why haven’t we tackled a person’s disadvantage earlier to ensure that they have had the same opportunities as all other children? And, secondly, why do they have gaps in their educational provision?

 These are not rhetorical questions. These are uncomfortable truths. For the reality is that we have not addressed these questions in anything like a rigorous enough manner.  For we know that inadequate parenting in the first few months of a child’s life has a devastating impact upon their future. We know that that subsequent gaps in children’s development emerge before they commence school. We know that these gaps extend and accelerate once they get into school. We know that Looked After Children are more likely to be excluded. We know that such children will occupy the bottom sets in subjects such as Maths and English. We know that they are more likely to be known to the local police and to be causing problems in their community.

 Yet when the system- not the child – has really failed we send them off to secure accommodation at a cost of a £260,000 a year – the equivalent to employing six teachers for a year.

 I wonder how a group of headteachers might respond to the offer of having an additional quarter of million pounds a year on condition that no child or young person would be sent to secure accommodation from their community? Of course such a scenario would be difficult to manage given that some secure orders can be made by a Children’s Hearing or Court, depending upon the offence or circumstances – but it does provide food for thought.

 The reality is that residential care is a legitimate part of the care continuum we provide to children. However, if we are to fully address our obligation as corporate parents it is not enough to accept that some of these children will inevitably end up in a residential school or secure accommodation.  I wouldn’t accept that for my own children and I don’t think we should accept for those who are placed in our care.

 Children and young people belong to their local communities. They belong to their schools.  We should be doing everything in our power to ensure that Looked After Children stay in their schools and in their communities – and experience a childhood which mirrors the opportunities, love and support which we would expect for our own children. Now no-one said this was going to be easy?

One thought on “Residential Child Care: Think Local

  1. So many complex issues at play here, Don.

    1. The multiple placements children face once accommodated being a key obstacle in any child’s development -emotionally, educationally, socially. When faced with 3 or more placement changes, often quite quickly (and I know East Lothian are better at avoiding this than many authorities) scupper anyone’s ability to trust, feel safe and ready to learn. I think of a P2 child I know, who was accommodated very suddenly, split from his 3 siblings, and moved into foster care. The school supported him through by ensuring his school placement was consisten and by visiting him in his new foster home. However the anguish that child experienced at being wrenched (rightly) from his parents and siblings stopped his already poor learning progress. After 2 weeks, a crisis in the lives of the foster parent meant he was moved again suddenly to a different foster parent who could only have him for 2 weeks as he was going on holiday. Then what? Age 7 … no foster placements…. placed in a care unit for adolescents….. where he was very frightened. Learning was no longer a possiblity for that wee lad. Survival and keeping himself safe took its place.
    How hopeless this situation seemed, yet a committed member of staff stuck by that child, became his carer until a good placement could be found, which took 5 months. That placement has lasted 7 years and that lad is achieving his potential, has a rich family life in his new family and a future ahead of him. That he has a future is a miracle, given the damaging early experiences in care.

    One of the hardest things for accommodated children is the huge number of disrupted relationships in their lives and what that teaches them about trust and forming relationships. That’s what makes it so crucial in education that the child stays in their own school community and that their school staff make that commitment to be as a parent for them.

    And a final thought, from my days of fostering teenagers, after that secure accommodation, when children leave at 16, where do they go as soon as they can…. ‘home’ to that birth family they have fantasised about for years, where they try to make a place for themselves….. so what was the point of that £260K secure placement anyway?

    No easy answers…. but ‘we can and must do better’….

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