Councils ‘capping’ care places for vunerable children

Vulnerable children could be missing out on care home placements because local authorities are capping places, a leading residential care expert has claimed.

Speaking at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Looked-After Children and Care Leavers, Jonathan Stanley, manager of the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Childcare, voiced concerns at figures showing the number of children placed in residential childcare each year.

The figures, released in the House of Commons Library, show 16 councils had little or no change in the number of children placed in residential care for at least three years.

Stanley said: “The statistics show some authorities have variations from year to year, which is what you would expect if they are being led by the needs of children. But some flatline at the same figure every year, which is not possible unless there is some kind of an artificial cap being introduced by the authority.”

But Worcestershire County Council, which has had 60 children in residential care every year from 2004 to 2008, claimed it does not operate a cap. A spokeswoman said: “Children are individually assessed and placed in care depending on their needs.”

Jim Murdoch, head of business unit (young people) at Hartlepool Council, denied that his authority placed a cap on places. He said the fact the figures were rounded to the nearest five hid yearly fluctuations in the council’s small care population. But Stanley said the trend was strong enough to merit further interrogation to ensure children’s needs are being put first.

The figures also reveal that two London councils have seen a significant drop in the number of children placed in residential care between 2007 and 2008, with Islington falling from 75 to 30 and Lambeth from 120 to 75.

According to official statistics, the average cost of a children’s home place was £2,428 per week in 2007/08, while the average cost of foster care was £489 per week. This could mean savings of nearly £4.5m a year for both boroughs.

An Islington spokeswoman attributed the drop to a 2005 review, which found a number of children’s needs could be better met in foster care.