For those children who come into care, it will always be a distant second best to growing up happily and safely in their own family. Time in care is generally seen by professionals and the wider public as something to be avoided at all costs. Despite the dedication and perseverance of social workers and carers, the outcomes and experiences of young people who have been 'looked after' remain poor. Far from compensating for their often extremely difficult pre-care experiences, certain features of the care system itself in fact make it harder for young people to succeed: they are moved frequently and often suddenly, miss too much schooling, and are left to fend for themselves at too early an age.
The Government has acknowledged many of these problems and has sought to be comprehensive in its response. The Care Matters White Paper and the legislation that followed it (the Children and Young Persons Act 2008) have on the whole received a positive reception from children's services authorities, voluntary sector organisations and children themselves. We welcome the priority the Government has put on improving outcomes for looked-after children, and we do not doubt its commitment to achieving this. However, success will not flow automatically from new legislation or guidance. Previous programmes of substantial reform and investment have left outcomes for looked-after children still lagging unacceptably far behind those for other children. Inconsistency in practice and underperformance against current standards show that there are significant underlying challenges to implementation of the new raft of measures, challenges which we fear the Government has not done enough to address. We also believe that Care Matters represents a missed opportunity for certain sections of the care population. It is not clear that unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and looked-after children who enter custody, will benefit equally from the new initiatives and the principles informing them.
Stable, reliable bonds with key individuals are fundamental to children's security and development. In all circumstances, the care system should be supportive of rather than obstructive of good relationships. Children too rarely have the sort of relationship with their social worker that they want. High staff turnover, heavy workloads and an administrative burden all militate against relationships flourishing. Vacancy rates remain high and new recruits lack support. Social workers feel disempowered and when more experienced may seek moves away from frontline work. The same factors impinge on social workers' capacity to forge constructive relationships with families before problems escalate to the point where a care order might be sought.
Continuity in relationships with foster carers depends on preventing placement breakdowns and building long-term placements into care plans; the prospect of a placement breakdown should be treated with as much concern as the prospect of a child being removed from their birth family in the first place. The quality of support foster carers receive in terms of planned respite, input from other agencies, and access to advice at times of crisis is crucial to this. We believe that there is no justification for the vast inequities of payment and conditions in the foster care sector at present. Carersincluding kinship carersmust be able to have a fair and transparent expectation of the support they will receive, wherever in the country and for whomever they foster. Stronger leadership at national government level, and a greater willingness to specify the support that carers and their families should be entitled to, would strengthen the efforts of local agencies to recruit foster carers.
These recruitment efforts are vital to increasing the supply of placements, which affects children's prospects for choice, individualisation and stability. Placements are already in short supply, their quality is not consistent, and parts of the Care Matters reform programme, such as post-18 fostering, will put even greater pressure on their availability. The Government has placed a new duty on local authorities to ensure a sufficient supply of placements locally, but has not paid enough attention to strengthening local authorities' hands in achieving it.
There should be no "cheap options" in the care system. From time to time in the evidence we took there surfaced a suspicion that decisions taken by local authorities are motivated in some circumstances by costs, and that children do not get all they are entitled to because of pressure on councils' resources. We do not share this suspicion of local authorities' motives, but we are concerned that it can exist. Any option for highly vulnerable children with complex needswhether family support, long term foster care, kinship care, or supported independencewill only be successful with intensive support and substantial resourcing.
The performance framework
Improvement in the care system must be underpinned by a performance framework that emphasises the most important things: quality of decision-making, of relationships, and of children's experiences of care. We believe that quality assessment and children's satisfaction are undervalued by the current performance regime. Processes and outcomes are both important, but if what we are primarily concerned about is how happy children are in care, then the Government must be prepared to be innovative in finding new ways to assess quality of care. Pilots of new initiatives such as social pedagogy or independent social work practices promise innovative ways of tackling some of the deficiencies in the care system, but it will ultimately be much more important to ensure that the basics of the system are implemented consistently and enforced rigorously. We seek reassurance that the inspection regime will be a sufficient and effective tool to achieve this. It is not clear what sanctions are available against authorities which fail in their duty as parents, nor what incentives are in place to encourage them to fulfil this duty.
Three themes run through our conclusions. The first is the importance of the workforce; implementation of well-intentioned initiatives and guidance depends ultimately on the skills and capacity of staff and carers who deal with children day to day. An effective care system can only be achieved by recruiting enough of the right people, giving them access to the right training, paying them enough, backing them up with practical support, and placing them in structures that allow them to build relationships with children and influence things on the child's behalf. While the Government is seeking to address aspects of this through, for example, the Social Work Taskforce and Social Work Practices pilots, other aspects, such as delegation to foster carers, have been relatively neglected. Residential care in particular requires much greater focus on the level and type of staff qualifications so that the full potential of that type of care might be realised.
The second theme is how local authorities can come to approximate more closely the care of birth parents. Many of the things we wish would happen in the care system would follow naturally if the system and those who work within it were minded, and enabled, to act more like parents. Bureaucracy, misdirected aversion to risk, lack of autonomy and restricted resources limit the capacity of corporate parents to normalise children's experience of growing up in care. The Government's willingness to act as a "pushy parent" in ensuring that looked-after children have priority access to schools is welcome, but should not be restricted to the sphere of education; health services and housing are just as important, as are adult services when the young person is moving towards independence. A local authority that was truly acting like a parent would not contemplate allowing a vulnerable young person to strike out unsupported on their own even at age 18, much less if they were going to live, as many do, in substandard accommodation. Where the corporate parent bears some responsibility for things going wrongsuch as when children in care become involved in criminal activityit must be held to account and involved in putting things right every bit as much as the state expects of other parents. Good parenting entails making decisions that are based on the particular needs of each child, and so performance frameworks should be adjusted to focus on the quality and promptness of decision-making about individual children: making the right decision at the right time.
The voice of the child
Thirdly, there is the importance of the voice of the child. Only by setting more store by children's satisfaction with their care will we get closer to finding out how "cared about" they really feel, how stable and secure their lives seem, and whether they have both opportunities and the support and encouragement needed to take them. Initiatives that seek to give childrencollectively and individuallymore say about their care must be specific, robust and enforceable. The variation currently apparent in services leads us to believe that more independent support is needed for children to express their views and have them listened to.
The purpose of the care system
Large variations in care populations around the country seem to indicate that there is no consensus about the role of care in services for vulnerable children. We are convinced that in some respects the potential of the care system to make a positive difference to children's lives is dismissed too readily, but we are also concerned by how widely the quality of children's experiences in care varies, and how uneven are the experiences families have of support services prior to care. Children's services must have the tools to spot trouble in families at an early stage, and must be able to have confidence that the interventions at their disposal are of a high quality and will make a positive difference to families. We would like to envisage a care system that is seen not as a sanction against failing parents, nor as a catastrophe for children's future prospects, but as a way of supporting families that are under stress and not functioning well.
This shift in perception is only desirable if care is an integral part of a continuum of effective family support services, not an alternative to it. It is only justifiable if we are able to reassure parents that their child, when in care, will have stability and personalised attention rather than a life ruled by uncertainty and bureaucracy, will have access to all the health and therapeutic care that they need to enjoy life and develop into independent adults, will be protected from rather than exposed to risk of offending, and will not feel abandoned by children's services when they reach 16, or 18, or if they go into custody. There are some children in care who have all of this, and many more who have some of it, thanks to dedicated, compassionate carers and diligent local authorities. The question the Government must do more to answer is, how can we make sure that all looked-after children get all that they are entitled to expect from their time in care?