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Children: Local Authority Care

Volume 776: debated on Monday 7 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that children in local authority care are placed in a location close to their extended family and current school.

My Lords, the Children Act 1989 requires local authorities to take account of wider family and school networks when placing children. At 31 March 2015, 77% of placements were within 20 miles of the child’s home. However, all decisions are subject to the placement being the most appropriate way to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. Ofsted inspects how well local authorities perform in this area, and where there are inadequacies, we will intervene.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. He and indeed the whole House will understand that when the services of the state remove a child from its immediate family, that can be extremely distressing. It can be made worse if the child loses contact with its extended family, school, friends and familiar places. It can be made even worse when the local authority that places the child at a distance does not want its social workers to traipse up and down the country, and therefore contact is lost, and the local authority in whose area the child is placed will not know of its existence. This is an illustration of the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind”. Will the Minister remind local authorities that being a good parent to these vulnerable children is about more than just putting a roof over their head?

The noble Lord raises an extremely good point; I know he is very experienced in this area. Local authorities must notify each other when placing children out of area, and a placing local authority has a duty to visit looked-after children to supervise arrangements and to promote their welfare. Every child should be visited within the first week, and thereafter children must be visited at intervals of no more than six weeks for the first year, and in subsequent years visits must also take place at intervals of not more than six weeks unless it is a permanent placement, in which case it is every three months. The IRO must monitor the performance of the local authority, as does Ofsted. However, I will take back his concerns to make sure that local authorities are completely aware of their duties in this regard.

My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that, for every child who goes into care, their trauma is added to because they want to know and understand what has gone wrong, and they want help to find the way forward? The more work is done with the family they have come from, the better the outcome will be. Some of the best outcomes come when children are placed in kinship care. Will the Government work hard to open up opportunities for social workers to learn more about who might be considered a kinship carer and make sure that that is the first option for children who come within the local authority sphere?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. It is of course appropriate that children are placed with families and friends where possible. We have done a great deal of work in this area: the adoption support fund can help in this area and help the special guardians. The Family Rights Group and Grandparents Plus have also been funded in this area and we will continue to push in this regard.

My Lords, while I recognise the important steps that the Government have taken to improve the welfare of young people in care, will the Minister look at whether more could be done to stop children coming into care, as they increasingly do year on year? This makes it so hard to place them locally. For instance, will he look at the lowering today of the caps on benefits to families to see whether that has any impact on the numbers of children coming into care? To look globally, how do we help local authorities by strengthening families so that children do not come into care?

The noble Earl makes a very good point. I will certainly look at this and I am very happy to discuss it with him further.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Laming, highlighted the potential implications of out-of-area care placements on young people’s sense of stability and belonging. Can my noble friend explain to the House how decisions about out-of-area placements are made and how rigorous the sign-off process is?

Yes, there is a very clear process for out-of-area placements. They have to be approved by a nominated officer and if the placement is a distant one, which means not in its local authority or a local authority adjoining, it has to be approved by the director of children’s services. Local authorities must consult with the authority in which children are placed and the independent reviewing officer—IRO—has a role as well. Ofsted will inspect local authorities for how well they are performing in this regard.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that children who are placed a longish way from home are more likely to run away to get home, and in the process they may be subjected to further abuse given their vulnerability on their travels home?

I am not sure whether we have evidence of that, but I certainly agree that, intuitively, it seems likely that that is the case. We are using the innovation fund to see whether we can encourage local authorities to have a more strategic view of where they place children, to be more aware of their particular needs and to try to ensure that they have a more joined-up approach to sourcing suitable placements for them.

My Lords, what are the Government doing about young people and children who are often difficult to place and end up in more than one kind of care? They very often end up in different schools and are not really being monitored throughout the system. Can he say what the Government are doing about monitoring these young people? Can he also say what opportunities for different kinds of care are being offered to many of these troubled young people?

The noble Baroness makes a very good point. It is well known that children in care quite often have a depressing number of placements. We are very well aware of this: in schools, we now have the concept of a virtual school head to take responsibility and a designated teacher in each school. There are often mental health issues as well concerning these kind of pupils. Where the child requires specialist services such as CAMHS, the local clinical commissioning group has a clear role. The noble Baroness will be aware of our strategy Future in Mind, which focuses on that area as well.

My Lords, the Education Select Committee’s report on the mental health of looked-after children, published in April this year, echoed the view of NICE that:

“Children and young people placed out of the local authority area are less likely to receive services from CAMHS in their new location”.

Matching children and young people to suitable fostering and residential settings, including the kinship settings that my noble friend Lady Armstrong mentioned, is crucial to providing stability and longevity in a placement and happiness for the child. Will the Government revisit the advice that they give to local authorities to ensure that the mental health needs of a child or young person are properly considered when deciding where they are placed?

We are looking at this. We have an expert working group co-chaired by Peter Fonagy and Alison O’Sullivan, which is looking at the current arrangements. Sir Martin Narey has also reported so, yes, we will certainly look at this.

Does the Minister agree that children’s social workers do a fantastically good job, but one of the difficulties they face is their sheer workload, which means that their monitoring of children in care is not as adequate as it is should be?

I entirely agree that social workers have this challenge. It is one of the reasons why we are looking at bringing in the ability to innovate to have more flexible arrangements. We are doing a great deal of work with the chief social worker to improve the arrangements for social workers and their training.