More children should be taken into care but are being left with inadequate parents, says chief executive of children's charity
• The Guardian, Monday 28 June 2010
Martin Narey, chief executive of children's charity Barnardo's, says there needs to be more fostering and residential care. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian
Children who should be taken into care in greater numbers and at an earlier age are being left with inadequate or neglectful parents, only for the state to have to intervene later, the chief executive of the children's charity Barnardo's said.
Martin Narey, who formerly worked as director general of the Prison Service, said there are currently 62,000 "looked-after" children in Britain. "Twenty-five years ago this was nearer 90,000. We were determined to reduce this because we thought care damages children. We do not need to return to a care population of 90,000, but it [the number of children in care] does need to rise."
Narey said the conventional wisdom of social services was outdated and placed "too much premium on keeping the birth family together". The extra cost of failing to act early places a burden on children's services of up to an extra £33,000 per child each year, said Narey. He said that once the decision had been made to take a child away from their family, there should be greater use of residential care, as an alternative to placing challenging children with a succession of foster families. "I recently met a girl of 15 in Belfast who was on her 42nd foster placement. This ricocheting around the system has to stop. Changing carer means changing home, area and schoolfriends," he said. "It's very destabilising".
Almost three-quarters of looked-after children are in foster care, compared to 13% in residential settings. This is in stark contrast to the recent past, where even in the 1980s the majority of looked-after children would have been in a residential placement.
Narey acknowledges that there will be resistance from both "left and right", but believes there is an urgent need to "destigmatise care". He points out that in Germany, children leaving care homes performed better academically than those in untroubled families.
Fifty-five children in England, per every 10,000 are looked after by authorities, meaning the country's rate of care is lower than most European countries – and approximately half that of Denmark and France. "When I used to run prisons I was guilty of thinking that care was a gateway to crime, because so many young people in prisons spent time in care. But what kids wanted was stability. I now accept that is the problem rather than care itself. In the long term we have to think about ways of stopping them bouncing around the system. That means more fostering and residential care."
A report commissioned for Barnardo's by the thinktank Demos is published today backing Narey's call for greater early intervention, fewer family placements and longer stays in care. Demos reports that "delays in removing the most vulnerable children from birth families at an earlier stage show an association with poor mental health and behaviour".
The thinktank also said the age of leaving care should be raised to 18 from 16. Nearly four-fifths of young people leave care before their 18th birthday. Demos says the state needs to offer a "right to return" to care up to the age of 24 – the average age of young people leaving home in the general population.
It also warns that care services face budget cuts at a time when referrals have surged due to headline cases such as Baby Peter. "The temptation to intervene later and cut frontline spending for vulnerable children would be a counter-productive cost-cutting exercise," said Demos.
The report says the long-term bill for poor care to the taxpayer is considerable. Demos calculated the costs of a child who enters the care system early, has one long-term foster family and leaves care fully qualified at 18, which represents the top 5% of the current system. This was contrasted with the costs of those at the bottom of the system, who have three placements in care, 10 foster families and a number of failed family reunions. They are also likely to leave care at 16 with no home to go to, "no qualifications and poor mental health".
The best care journey would last 15 years, but Demos calculates the cost to be £23,000 a year. However, the worst journey would last seven years and cost £56,000. "As these figures demonstrate, higher expenditure alone does not necessarily generate a better care experience," says the report.
• This article was amended on 28 June 2010. In the original, part of a quote from
Martin Narey was missing, so that he seemed to be saying: "We need to return to a care population of 90,000" - meaning that one in three children who should be taken into care are being left with inadequate or neglectful parents. The quotation has been corrected and the one-in-three reference deleted