Councils beg for more help to allow kids in care to reunite with families, as data shows a third are sent back

One council worker said they had to ‘beg, borrow and steal’ to get the right support

Holly Bancroft
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 17 January 2024 00:01 GMT
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Councils need more support to help children in care to reunite with their families, new research has warned, after data showed a third of children who go home are returned to care within six years.

Local authority workers said dwindling funding and a lack of expert staff were contributing to the breakdown of family reunifications.

A survey of 75 councils across England by children’s charities Action for Children and the NSPCC found 78 per cent wanted to provide more support to help families reunite but over two-thirds of those councils could not afford to do so.

Councils are spending eye-watering amounts of money on children’s care placements. Since 2010-11 real-term expenditure on the care system has increased by more than £2bn, a rise of 61 per cent, according to recent research from children’s charities.

This is partially explained by the 25 per cent increase in the number of children in care in the last 12 years, but the government has also blamed “profiteering in children’s homes” for the soaring costs.

With children’s care spending taking up so much of councils’ budgets, care workers said they were keen to help children reunite with their families.

One local authority worker told researchers that “if there is an option that we can channel support into families, my position is that that would be the preferred option”.

They added: “Why wouldn’t we invest in families if we can? Why am I spending £7,000 a week on a rubbish placement?”

A survey of 75 councils across England found that 78 per cent wanted to provide more support to help families reunite
A survey of 75 councils across England found that 78 per cent wanted to provide more support to help families reunite (PA)

Another said: “We were just bouncing them into more and more high-cost placements and were spending close to about £4m on these 11 children... even if five of the 11 ended up back home, we’d more than cover the cost of what we needed to do.”

They added: “You only need to have one or two of these children (in placements) go home and you pay for a service that can support 10, 15, or 20 children to reunify.”

Despite this, the majority of councils surveyed, 65 per cent, said that struggles with retention and recruitment of staff were preventing them from providing more support to reunifying families.

Some 12 per cent of children go back into care after a family reunification after three months, 20 per cent after one year, and 35 per cent after six years.

Council workers said they struggle to support the families properly, especially when they have complex problems.

One support worker said: “Our social workers become four or five practitioners rolled into one... whereas in the past you might have access to a domestic abuse worker, a drug misuse worker, and they would see the family weekly, you might have our social workers deliver similar sessions one day and something else on another day, something else on another day.”

Another local authority worker said they had to “beg, borrow and steal” to get the right support for families. And 79 per cent of councils said lack of funding was limiting their ability to keep families together.

Abigail Gill, associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “We urgently need to invest in an effective, joined-up system which has the tools to accurately assess what a family needs and the capacity to prioritise solutions that work in the best interest of the child.”

Joe Lane, head of policy and research at Action for Children, said: “Going home is the most common way for children to leave care but too many reunified children end up back in care. More children could return to their families and fewer of them would come back into our over-stretched care system if local authorities had the means to make family reunification work better.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are committed to reforming the whole children’s social care system to better support families - with more early support, reducing the need for crisis response at a later stage, and plans backed by £200million to test and refine our approach.

“Local authorities are required to have a plan for every looked after child’s development, which for some children, will include family reunification where that is most appropriate for them.”

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