Care review questions future of children’s residential care and backs government plans on unregulated accommodation

The children’s social care review has today (17 June) published its first report, ‘The Case for Change’ together with a summary for children and young people.

Indicating fundamental change to how children’s social care is organised, provided and regulated, the report urges far greater support for families (through what it calls Family Help), increased use of kinship care, fewer children in care and possibly long-term commitment to adults who were raised in the care system – while also backing government plans for unregulated accommodation for 16 and 17 year-olds, suggesting remanded children should no longer have care status and questioning whether there is a place for children’s residential care.

Article 39 had hoped the review would distance itself from government plans on unregulated accommodation for children in care, so it is deeply disappointing that it has not championed care for 16 and 17 year-olds in care. Echoing the position of government ministers, the report states it is a “national scandal” that children aged 13 and younger have been put into unregulated accommodation by local authorities. No such outrage is expressed for older children, despite other sections of the report explaining the serious harms faced by this group, enduring educational inequalities and the sometimes life-long struggles of those who have been in care.

The review supports the government’s plan to regulate semi-independent accommodation for 16 and 17 year-olds through a new set of national standards. It fails to make the case for these children receiving care and consistent adult supervision within their homes – even when they are still at school or college. Had government decided to make providers follow existing quality standards for children’s homes (perhaps with modifications when the setting is wholly or mainly for older children), then care would be a central requirement. Advocates for care for older children are not calling for high quality semi-independent accommodation to be banned; we want these settings to provide day-to-day care to children, which the government’s draft standards deliberately omit. The review seems not to understand this, or has avoided challenging the government.

Similarly, the report highlights the inequity of children in foster care being able to ‘stay put’ until the age of 21 but this legal entitlement not being available to children living in residential care. It fails to back such a right for these children, instead supporting a weaker ‘staying close’ arrangement and states children shouldn’t be pushed into semi-independent accommodation before the age of 18 “if this is not right for them”.

The review questions whether children’s residential care should exist in the longer-term. There is an emerging theme within the report (and government policy) of public care perhaps being radically and explicitly reshaped around the needs of only younger children and family-based care. At times, there is a remarkable lack of insight into what children who enter care as teenagers bring with them as past experiences (there is a suggestion that teenagers enter care because they “have argued with their family”) or why looked after status was granted to remanded children in 2012. The review’s support for closing down child prisons is welcome but teenagers in desperate need must be able to rely on our child welfare system. We are a very long way off from children having their needs and rights met in early childhood and, as the report itself shows, it is teenagers who make up the greatest increase in children entering care and who are the subject of child protection referrals.

Kinship care is strongly promoted, with ample evidence that this can offer children the love, security and affirmation they need and have the right to enjoy throughout their childhood. However, the review lacks bold suggestions about the financial and other sustained support which should be provided as of right to families looking after each other when they can. It highlights financial savings in placement costs which kinship care can bring, even with payment of special guardianship allowances, but it is questionable that this would attend to the financial pressures and lack of specialist services for children who have endured great trauma which the report refers to elsewhere.

Article 39 and other organisations had urged the review to adopt a children’s rights framework, using the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – which the UK ratified in 1991 – as the template for reviewing and reimagining children’s social care. There are a few references to children’s rights and the treaty’s Article 12 – which gives every child the right to be heard and to have their views given due weight – is highlighted (though the Convention is wrongly footnoted to Unicef, rather than the United Nations).

The review states it has “heard mixed things about the quality of advocacy, but it has been clear that children and care experienced adults think it is essential that someone consults them and ensures their views are heard”. There are several boxes throughout the report which summarise and speak to different constituencies of people the review has heard from – e.g. parents and families, foster carers and care experienced adults. None of these summarise what children have told the review (though its summary for children and young people does include direct quotes).

Possibly the strongest sections of the report relate to children’s feelings and experiences when separated from those they love (including their brothers and sisters) and the abandonment so many feel once they have been pushed out of care, together with a discussion of children’s social care taking on a more proactive role in fighting child welfare inequalities. However, no mention is made of the former ‘Every Child Matters’ national strategy or programme, or of how Scotland and Wales (and many other countries internationally) have put the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child at the heart of their policy-making and determination to transform children’s lives. While poverty and homelessness are discussed, the term ‘austerity’ never appears and there is no discussion of the punishing effects of policies such as the bedroom tax and the two-child social security cap. There is good discussion of the impact of ‘no recourse to public funds’, but this seems focused on the cost to local authorities rather than any explicit advocacy for social security to be provided equitably and without discrimination. Racial disparities across care, education and custody are examined.

The report critiques reliance on ‘rules’ and legislation – ‘top-down’ change – and states there is a limit to ‘bottom-up’ change like local initiatives funded by central government’s Innovation Programme. More radical change is required, it argues. It falls short of explicitly setting out its thinking in key areas – such as how to deal with what it calls “too many professional observers” (which may or may not include independent reviewing officers) and local authorities having to develop bespoke arrangements for children in care when their needs cannot be met in either children’s homes or health-based provision (bizarrely, an “absolutist approach to defending all legal protections” is suggested as being part of the problem here, rather than a failure to strategically plan and fund high-quality provision for children in desperate need). The content on social worker supervision, social workers leaving direct work with children and young people and new models of social work chimes with Frontline’s Blueprint published in 2019 (authored by the review’s Chair). Similarly, the narrative around funding for children’s social care – with the problem framed as essentially being about how funds are spent rather than central government investment in children and their families, within and beyond children’s social care – will cause little discomfort to government.

Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, said:

“It’s hard to be optimistic about this review because it has not yet shown itself able to stand up to government. The report displays real sensitivity and compassion for children and their families in many respects, but the review’s failure to challenge the government’s decision to only guarantee care to looked after children aged 15 and younger is hopelessly weak and contradictory. This is perhaps not surprising since the review is effectively part of the same government department which is creating a two-tier care system, and resisting our legal challenge.

Reading between the lines, it does seem that the review is following a number of well-trodden government paths but is stopping short, at this stage, of explicitly setting out its plans – such as support for deregulation, more children’s social care services moving out of local authorities and reducing protections for vulnerable teenagers. It’s going to take a lot of trust and goodwill in the coming months to engage with this process without feeling a lingering sense of political manipulation, whether that is intended or not.”

While the Experts by Experience Board and the Design and Evidence Groups which have been set up to assist the review are mentioned in the report, no names of individuals are given apart from the Chair’s, Josh MacAlister.

The Case for Change can be found on the review’s website here.
The children and young people’s summary can be found here.
Members of the Expert by Experience Board can be found on the review’s website here (and other pages give the names of those on the Design and Evidence Groups).

Find out more about our legal challenge to secure care for 16 and 17 year-olds in care here.