More children in care could return to their families with better support, survey shows

A survey of local authorities in England has found that 78% of respondents would like to provide more support than is currently offered to families to help them reunite.

Research by charities Action for Children and the NSPCC found that local authority funding constraints and a lack of recruitment and retention of social care staff is preventing children from getting the support they need to return home from care, also known as reunification.

yellow family sign

The charities are calling on the government to develop national guidance and invest in support services for returning children to their families.

In the survey of 75 local authorities across England:

  • 78% said they would like to provide more support than is currently offered to families to help them reunite
  • Of those, 69% said funding constraints were a barrier to increasing the support that children need to reunite with their families
  • 65% said struggles with recruitment and retention of staff were preventing them providing more support to reunifying families

Children returning to their families is the leading exit route from care, but family reunification often fails, resulting in children returning to the care system.

Existing data shows that 35% of children who are reunited with their families return to care within six years.

The survey asked local authorities about post-reunification support:

  • 63% of respondents said they’d like to offer more post-reunification support
  • Of those, 79% identified funding constraints as a barrier to increasing post-reunification support

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, commissioned by the government, warned previously that without urgent action the number of children in care in England will rise from 80,000 to 100,000 in a decade, with the costs rising from £10bn a year to £15bn.

The high cost of placements in children’s homes were mentioned by many respondents. Many said that greater focus on, and investment in, reunification support could help local authorities reduce spending on placements.

Abigail Gill, associate head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: ‘It is disheartening to see councils struggling to offer the level of support that is needed to help families who are ready to reunite come back together safely.

‘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.

‘This would encourage earlier family-based support that would help remove the pressure and costs local authorities tell us they are feeling. More importantly, it would mean that more families are able to be reunited and fewer children will remain in the care system.’

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.

‘In this election year, all political parties must commit to greater prioritisation of reunification. If we’re serious about reducing the number of children in care across the country, we need to give local authorities the help they need to improve support for reunifying families. It’s the right thing to do for children, and it’s the right thing to do for cash-strapped councils, struggling with the high costs of homing children in care.

‘As a nation, we should give as many children in care as possible the chance to thrive at home with their families, in a well-supported and sustainable way.’

Image: Sandy Millar

More on this topic:

Children in care costs nine times higher than government funding – report

A third of children in care face school exclusion, new research shows


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