Leading article: The care system needs a drastic overhaul

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Social workers have been taking fewer chances since Peter Connelly, the child known as Baby P, was killed under their noses in Haringey in 2008. In the intervening two years they have taken many more children into the care of local authorities. Before this case, one in 200 children were in care: now the figure is one in 150. Contrary to popular opinion, most of these 70,000 children are not in children's homes. Some 71 per cent of them live with foster parents, which is a dramatic turn-around since the 1980s when most children in care were in residential homes. Now "the Baby P effect" is stretching the world of foster care to breaking point.

There was already a big shortage of foster carers. Some 10,000 were already needed to supplement an ageing foster-care workforce, some two-thirds of whom are expected to retire within 10 years. This growing shortfall, together with the rapidly rising numbers requiring foster parents, is creating a host of new pressures.

Children are being sent further away from their schools and friends. Difficult or disabled children are increasingly hard to place. Carers are being asked to look after children for whom they do not have the necessary experience. Foster parents are feeling increased stress. Relationships between carers and children are more likely to break down.

Some will say the answer is to take fewer children into care. Everyone knows, they will say, that children in care have worse prospects than those brought up in families. Fewer than 10 per cent go on to higher education, compared with 40 per cent of the general population. Two years after leaving care, 80 per cent of them are unemployed and many are also homeless. A far higher proportion suffer from poor physical and mental health. They have a higher incidence of alcohol and drug misuse. Those who have been in care make up less than 1 per cent of the population, yet they constitute half the inmates in young offenders' institutions and a quarter of adult prisoners.

But there is a big assumption in this received wisdom. Just because care is worse than being brought up in a normal family does not necessarily mean it is worse than being brought up in a profoundly dysfunctional one. The experience of Martin Narey is instructive here. When he was head of the nation's prisons he assumed that care was a gateway to crime and believed that children's exposure to public care should be minimised. But since he took over as head of the children's charity Barnado's he has been forced to the conclusion that our social services place too high a premium on keeping the birth family together; we can, and should, try to fix families with problems, but we should not persist in cases where it becomes clear that the prospects of success are bleak.

Disadvantaged children, whatever the particular nature of their difficulty, may be better off in stable local authority units than ricocheting round the foster-care system in which the most difficult children can find themselves moved to dozens of different parents. Evidence from Germany, Denmark and France – where around twice as many children are taken into care – suggests that, given high-quality residential care, such children can perform as well, or even better, academically than the rest of the population.

The evidence is not clear-cut either way on this. More research and less conventional wisdom is needed. But what is beyond dispute is that – whether more foster care or more residential homes are required, and the answer may well be both – the situation is only likely to get worse. The combination of the very necessary upsurge in referrals and the severe budget cuts now being faced throughout the public sector means that the system is bound to be under immense pressure in the years to come.