The Observer’s View on the State of Child Welfare | Observer editorial
Perhaps the most important task of the state is to protect children at risk. However, child welfare is facing a growing crisis that is far less exposed than that of the NHS or even adult welfare. Local councils in charge of child protection have to care for vulnerable youth against a backdrop of rising needs, lower central government funding, and a lack of long-term care places and homes, many of which are overpriced by the private sector. All of these affect the quality of support available to the children who need them most.
Vulnerable children who need help and protection from community councils – and the smaller group of cared children for whom the community council has parental responsibility – deserve the best the state has to offer. The dire fate of six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes shows the tragic cost of a state failure. In England, more than six in ten children are cared for because of experience parental abuse or neglect. Another 14% are in care because the parental capacity in their family is chronically inadequate, and 8% because of acute family pressures where a temporary crisis has reduced parental capacity and their needs are not met. While caring for a child is never the preferred option when a child’s family can be successfully supported to provide a safe home, research shows that moving to a care center may be related better results for children at high risk.
However, the growing number of children being looked after increases the pressure on the system. The total number of children has grown over the past decade, but even taking this into account, the number of children being cared for has increased by 6% over the past five years. This is partly due to the increase in the number of unaccompanied refugee minors in recent years, some of whom are accommodated in hotels with minimal adult supervision, but also to a sharp increase in the number of refugees teenager are cared for, who often have more complex needs than younger children.
Despite this increasing demand, local authorities have seen their central government Financing cut drastically by almost 60% over the past decade. The councils were expected to offset this reduction by relying more on revenue from the council tax and business tax rates. This means that the overall budgets of communities in less affluent areas with higher child and adult welfare needs and the homeless have declined more than in more affluent areas. This has forced them to cut their spending on early intervention services such as children’s centers, parental support and domestic violence services, which, if well managed, can help ease pressure on the care system by preventing it from escalating to the point of crisis. At the same time, spending on acute services such as child protection and childcare places was increased. Councils in England increased budgeted spending on social care for children over the past two years by Â£ 1.1 billion last year eight in 10 ended up overruning their budgets by a total of Â£ 800 million. The National Audit Office warned earlier this year that 25 councils were on the verge of bankruptcy.
To make matters worse, the cost of social care for children has skyrocketed in recent years, driven by the privatization of childcare. Three quarters of the children’s homes are now privately run, compared to 40% 20 years ago, and around a third of the children are placed in foster families by private providers. The competition and market supervisory authority published an interim report on the offer and price of childcare a few weeks ago. It found that private nursing homes and foster homes are making significant profits from the system: for children’s homes, the average weekly rate was Â£ 3,800 with an average profit margin of 23%; For funding agencies, the average weekly placement rate was around Â£ 820 per week with an average operating profit margin of 19%. It is obscene that every fifth pound English councils spend on private grooming invested as a profit, especially given the growing role of private equity in buying up children’s homes and care facilities.
These gains are being driven in part by the lack of suitable seats and the councils’ weak bargaining power. And, as we report today, new research by the Fostering Network has shown that of 99 care facilities that responded to their survey, all but six have foster shortages. This deficiency leads to an unacceptable instability in the care system: the charity Will Emphasizes that more than one in ten children in care had three or more placements in the past year. More than 12,000 children are looked after separated from their siblings and too many children and adolescents have been placed in unregulated shelters with minimal adult support, which are still legal for 16 and 17 year olds despite efforts by activists to forbid it for all children. Every sixth child cared for is alive more than 20 miles from home.
All of this is made worse by the poor quality of services for children. Ofsted identified half of community children’s services as inadequate or in need of improvement; This is an improvement on a few years ago, but it falls far short of the standards vulnerable children deserve. This has consequences. Ofsted found significant problems with Solihull CouncilChild Protection Services just months before Arthur Labinjo-Hughes’ death last year.
It seems downright vicious that some of the country’s most vulnerable children have to shoulder the brunt of spending cuts over the past decade, while private corporations are reaping excessive profits from running children’s homes and care facilities. Children’s services desperately need better resources, but the whole system needs to be rethought.