Outsourcing child care placements to private providers ‘sees worse outcomes’, study suggests

Outsourcing children’s care placements to private providers is associated with worse outcomes for young people, a study has suggested.

Local authorities that rely most on outsourcing to for-profit providers for this purpose have the highest rates of short-term placements and placement changes, as well as looked-after children being moved out of their local area, the research by Oxford University claimed.

The study estimated that an additional 17,000 out-of-area placements from 2011 to 2022 could be attributed to increases in for-profit provision.

The researchers defined for-profit providers as private providers, not including private voluntary provision such as charities.

Report authors Dr Anders Bach-Mortensen and Benjamin Goodair, from the university’s department of social policy and intervention, said that by 2022 more than a third (38%) of all children in care were placed with for-profit providers, which is up 9% since 2011.

They said their modelling had demonstrated “for-profit outsourcing is consistently associated with more children being placed outside their home local authority, and greater placement instability”.

They added: “Our analyses show that placement stability and distance have deteriorated or stagnated over the last decade, and that the local authorities that rely most on outsourcing have the highest rates of placement disruptions and out of area placements.”

They said that despite numerous independent reviews and investigations in recent years “a significant proportion of children are still being placed in unstable or out-of-area care, exposing already vulnerable children to additional risks”.

They added: “Outsourcing and private sector involvement continue to be highlighted as promising avenues for local authorities to achieve better outcomes for children.

“Our analysis shows for-profit outsourcing is consistently associated with worse placement outcomes among local authorities.

“This suggests that increasing the already significant proportion of for-profit children’s social placements may not be the most effective strategy to improve outcomes in the children’s social care sector.”

The authors acknowledged that placement stability and distance “may not always represent the best outcomes for children in care” as they said there can be and are situations where a short-term stay or placement change might be the most appropriate option.

They added that, for children with very complex needs, the most appropriate placement might be out of the local area.

But they said the prevalence of these outcomes is “currently too excessive to be solely driven by the ‘child’s best interests’, especially when considering the sufficiency challenges experienced by most local authorities”.

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