The blunders forcing children at risk to compete for care

Talk is cheap – or, rather, recommendations are. Lord Laming has just issued 58 to transform the “Cinderella” social services that allowed Baby P to die so horrifically. The problem is that not one of these recommendations translates into extra funding. Ed Balls, the children’s secretary, has, according to Solace, the body that represents local authority chief executives, promised to pay for improvements in safeguarding children. “We will hold him to that promise,” said Solace grimly.

It knows that children’s services come at a high cost – a cost that government prefers local authorities to bear. A recent survey of the 150 directors of social services in England, for example, noted that, “overspending” was “almost entirely attributable to children’s services”; 74% of authorities “reported overspending on these services”. The government is not matching new demands with funding. In 2004 the gap between what councils spent and what they received from central government increased to £708m. As one social services manager put it: “We are expected to achieve more and more on less and less.”

A main reason abused children are not protected is the lack of social workers to spot the problem and a lack of foster carers with whom to place them. The British Association for Adoption & Fostering estimates there is a shortage of 10,000 foster carers. Scarcity – not need – dictates whether a child is taken into care.

The response of councils to rising costs is, according to a report from the Local Government Association, “to tighten eligibility further” so “only the most needy and vulnerable children can be helped”. The report goes on: “With budgets tight, the focus on fewer, most needy children has limited, and will continue to limit, the ability to fund preventive work.” What good can a recommendation do in this situation? Or, for that matter, 58 of them?

One social-services manager describes what this means in practice. He explained: “In the past we used to get heavily involved earlier with a family in difficulties – if there were obvious signs of debt, for example.” Preventive work no longer happens. The family situation has to be far worse before he will intervene. Now his concerns are more fundamental. The 12-year-old girl running wild and taking drugs: “Is she going to be found dead and will we be criticised?”

Of course there is not unlimited funding and especially not in a recession. But that is all the more reason government money should be targeted and used intelligently. That this is not happening is clear from government policy towards unaccompanied asylum-seeking children (UASCs). These become the responsibility of local authorities and are taken into care. Here again, councils are expected to do more on less as they find themselves the victim of government inconsistency and poor planning.

UASCs have fled their country because of war or persecution. The ones that reach the UK are fortunate enough to have friends or family able to pay a people trafficker. The investment in these young people means the majority are male and are, as the heads of various social services confirmed, “very motivated” and “see it as an opportunity and do very well”. One councillor explained: “They are largely middle class and expect to go to university.” This admirable ambition unfortunately plays havoc with budgets. Numbers of unaccompanied asylum seekers are now falling. But four years ago they rose drastically. Many have now graduated onto the “leaving care teams”, where they can stay until the age of 23. This is where the problem lies.

The London borough of Hillingdon has the largest number in the country – 120 of 300 children in care are unaccompanied asylum seekers. It is “a daily struggle”, says the deputy director of children’s services, to find foster placements, “and getting social workers in London is a bit of a challenge, to put it mildly”. But where the real financial pressure comes is later. Hillingdon is looking after 600 of these young people between the ages of 18 and 23. Caught between the Department for Children, Schools and Families demanding better aftercare services and the Home Office, “who tell us we are spending too much”, are the young people themselves and the council’s taxpayers.

This crisis is not unique to Hillingdon and was easily foreseeable. In 2004, for example, the government might have noticed that 25% of looked-after children in Brent and Fulham were UASCs. In Croydon it was almost half – 330 out of 680; and it was 231 out of 675 in Newham. This placed such a burden on services that in November 2004 Newham declared a moratorium because of “insufficient financial resources in place to support the large number of UASCs”. Then there was anecdotal evidence. When I attended a meeting of 10 foster parents, all but one were looking after UASCs.

The government now provides councils with adequate funding for UASCs up until the age of 18 – just as those numbers have fallen markedly. The shortfall is in the leaving care teams – just as those numbers have expanded. As the deputy director of Hillingdon said: “If anyone can tell me how we can deliver a proper service for our care leavers for £100 a week, I will be pleased to hear from them.”

The head of one social services explained that the high proportion of UASCs means “we have moved away” from providing a service to young people in care: “Instead we are dealing with problems particular to UASCs – their legal status, visits to the Home Office and so on.” Another social-services manager pointed out: “This at the expense of our own care leavers, who need a lot of support and are not getting it.”

Young people who are taken into care in this country because of abuse and neglect are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Unlike unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, of the approximately 6,000 who leave care this year, 4,500 will leave with no educational qualifications. Within two years, half will be unemployed and 1,200 will be homeless. Laming’s report quite rightly castigates social services for their many failings. However, it is the government’s lack of foresight and funding that has left two of the most vulnerable groups of young people in competition with each other for ever scarcer resources. In that situation, what price a recommendation?

Handle with Care: An Investigation into the Care System, by Harriet Sergeant, is published by the Centre for Policy Studies.

Sunday Times
Published 15 March 2009

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