Britain’s care homes crisis: children sent to live hundreds of miles away

Posted: 5th April 2023

Source: The Guardian

Observer investigation uncovers the scale of the crisis in a system where the most vulnerable ‘will continue to be put at risk’

Some of Britain’s most vulnerable children are being moved to care homes more than 300 miles away from the neighbourhoods they grew up in, according to an Observer investigation revealing a “national scandal”.

The shocking figures make clear for the first time the scale of the crisis that has long worried child welfare experts. They show dozens of children from London alone are in foster or care homes more than 250 miles from the city, as councils battle a significant shortfall in provision. Children from the capital have been placed in homes near Perth, Glasgow, Knowsley, Leeds and Carlisle.

Care experts said that the pattern is being repeated across the country, removing children from critical support networks and familiar surroundings.

About 600 children from London are in foster or residential care more than 50 miles from their home neighbourhoods. Councils have warned they often have to compete for limited places, and face “rising costs and profiteering on the backs of vulnerable children”.

Some children need to be placed in certain locations for their own safety. However, there is widespread acceptance that the care system is failing to provide enough appropriate places in the right areas. Experts warn that relocating children removed them from schools, friends and extended family, as well as clubs and activities that were often key to their wellbeing. They warned it also put some at greater risk of exploitation.

According to the Observer’s findings, uncovered using the Freedom of Information Act, at least 37 children from the capital are placed more than 250 miles away. The figure is likely to be far higher, as some councils did not reveal precise numbers. At least 600 are more than 50 miles away.

John Pearce, from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said the investigation highlighted “a pressing and longstanding national issue that we continue to raise with the government – a lack of local placements for the children in our care”.

“Local authorities are working hard to overcome the sufficiency challenges they face,” he said. “But we need the support of the government to address the significant challenges we all face as well as rising costs and profiteering on the backs of vulnerable children.”

Clare Bracey, director of policy and campaigns at Become, a charity for care leavers and those still in care, said being moved far from home left children lonely and isolated.

“This is a national scandal and is getting worse,” she said. “There are sometimes reasons why these moves are necessary for the child, but the reality is that for many children these moves are happening because there just are not enough suitable places for them to stay close to home. They are being let down.”

Chris Wild, a care leaver who campaigns for more legal protections for care leavers, said he knew of cases of children being moved several times a year. “I was in the care system 30 years ago, but from everything I’m seeing, nothing has changed,” he said. “There’s evidence these moves put them at greater risk of going missing, ending up homeless or developing severe mental health issues.”

An independent review of children’s social care last year revealed a system spiralling out of control, recommending a five-year, £2.6bn plan to improve it. However, ministers initially pledged just £200m over two years. The government has since said it has added £259m to fund homes.

Anne Longfield, the former children’s commissioner for England, said the large distances involved were a symptom of a broken system. “I have heard so many horrific stories of teenagers who are moved far from home to places where they know nobody,” she said. “They then become easy pickings for those who want to exploit and abuse children.

“The independent review of children’s social care published a year ago provided a roadmap to fixing this crisis. However, the government’s half-hearted response and its failure to provide the levels of investment required means hundreds of vulnerable children will continue to be put at risk in places they can’t even place on a map.”

Rachel de Souza, England’s current children’s commissioner, said she wanted to see particular attention paid to sibling groups, those with mental health needs or disabilities, or who live in custody “for whom being placed large distances from their families and support networks can leave them without any of the positive relationships in their lives that other children take for granted”.

All the London councils who spoke to the Observer said the needs of the children were always their first priority and that cost was not the driver of any placements, with some of the young people needing to be moved for their own safety. They said keeping all children within their neighbourhoods was always the aim and that the vast majority of children were placed within their boroughs. There are also several studies and plans under way to create more secure child care home places.

However, many acknowledged the serious shortcomings hampering the system.

“There is a crisis in the residential care home sector, where a scarcity of places means that it can be extremely hard to find a suitable home for children – especially if they have complex or specific needs,” said Anntoinette Bramble, deputy mayor of Hackney. A Greenwich borough council spokesperson said that a “lack of sufficient placement options is a national issue for children in care”.

Marian James, from Sutton council, said: “The [independent review of children’s care] recommended more funding for children’s social care, which we wholeheartedly agree with, along with reform of the children’s care system, but we need to receive adequate funding to enable the whole of the review recommendations to be fully realised.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Local authorities are responsible for placing looked after children and must look to make placements in the child’s best interests, which in most cases means a child is placed within 20 miles of their home.

“In addition to the £200m announced in March, we are investing £259m to create more placements for children in high-quality and safe homes.

“We are also investing over £27m to recruit and retain more foster carers and are working to develop a new regional model of delivering care placements, helping more children stay closer to their home networks.”

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