by Claudia Wood
Essex County Council has announced that, as part of its cost cutting measures, it is closing seven of its children’s homes. It said it would be looking to place children in more family settings instead. Other local authorities are following a similar route – reducing referrals to care homes and placing more children with foster families.
On paper, this seems a win-win situation – placing children in foster families is far cheaper than placing them in care homes (which can run to thousands of pounds per week), and children in foster families have much better outcomes (educational, mental health, behavioural and so on). Better outcomes for less money? Why haven’t local authorities closed their care homes before? Well they have – the latest wave of closures is just the tail end of a 20 year period of local authorities progressively shutting down their care homes in favour of foster placements. Only 13 per cent of children are now in residential care homes and, as local authorities seek to shut more of them to save resources, this number is likely to dwindle rapidly.
But there is a flaw in this “care home bad, foster family good” logic. In our flagship report on the care system, In Loco Parentis, we presented evidence which showed that people are confusing cause and effect when it comes to residential care. They look at the poor outcomes of the residential population – low educational attainment, poor mental health, increased likelihood of criminality – and assume that care homes cause these problems.
In fact, because care homes are seen as such a poor option, they are only used as a last resort – used for children who have been placed with several families and, through behavioural problems or other reasons, these placements have broken down. Evidence shows that with each failed placement, a child’s emotional wellbeing deteriorates until, when they are no longer “placeable”, they are sent to a residential home. This can mean that the poor outcomes associated with residential care become a self-fulfilling prophecy as only most troubled children are ultimately placed there.
Of course, being placed in a stable, family home setting is going to be better for the majority of children who have been taken into care. However, we can’t guarantee this is the case for all children – some, who need more specialist support, or who come into care in their teens and who do not want a “new” family but rather a peer supported community, actually suit residential care. Assuming care homes will inevitably lead to poorer outcomes than foster placements means placements are not decided according to the child’s needs and preferences but rather pre-set beliefs about what works.
There is, however, a real lack of evidence on this issue. Whilst we know residential care does not “cause” the problems in the care population, we do not know which children do better in residential settings, or what good quality residential care actually looks like. As a result, residential care is used as an “end of the line” service, or indeed not used at all, based on a prejudice that family settings are always preferable. It is hardly surprising that the population of children in care in residential homes varies between 4 per cent in some local authorities and 28 per cent in others, based on the ideology or preference of the local authority in question.
With such a lack of evidence guiding these decisions, it is understandable that authorities are closing residential homes as a cost cutting measure – without interrogating whether this is the right thing for all children. The fact is, we don’t know whether 4 per cent, 28 per cent or some other proportion of children in care should be in residential settings because they do better there than in foster families. But deciding this on the amount of cash available is certainly not going to lead to improved outcomes.