More support needed to reunite children in care with families, councils say

Councils need more support to help children in care reunite with their families, new research has warned, after it found funding constraints and struggles with recruitment and retention of staff were key issues hampering efforts to do so.

The majority of a sample of local authorities surveyed said they wanted to give more support to families to help them reunite.

The NSPCC, which undertook the research alongside Action for Children, said the findings were “disheartening” and called for “an effective, joined-up system” to assess a family’s needs and to prioritise what will work in the best interest of a child.

A survey of 75 out of the more than 300 local authorities across England found 78% wanted to provide more support to families for reunification.

Funding constraints were cited as a barrier to this, while having and keeping enough staff was also said to be a problem preventing councils from providing more support.

The charities said huge amounts of money were being spent on placements, and called for a greater focus on investment in efforts to reunite families.

One local authority quoted in the research described “just bouncing them (children in care) into more and more high-cost placements” at a cost of almost £4 million in relation to 11 children, while another branded placements “ridiculously expensive”.

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

“So, it doesn’t take much to make it stack up financially… it’s one of those win-win things, you get better outcomes, it’s better for the children and it saves the local authority money”.

The charities said councils suggested that more help to work with a larger number of families, or more work with families at an earlier stage over a longer period, could improve efforts to reunite families, adding that without the right support at the right time reunification can fail and children end up being returned to care.

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 in turn 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.”

The independent review of children’s social care, published in May 2022, warned that without a “dramatic whole system reset, outcomes for children and families will remain stubbornly poor”, and within a decades there could be around 100,000 children in care – up from 80,000 – with the “flawed system” costing more than £15 billion per year, up from £10 billion.

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 £200 million 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.

“Where reunification takes place, we expect local authorities to set out what support and services will be provided and make sure that the child and parents understand who to contact for support.”

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