An optimised model for supporting children in care and on the edges of care: national enablers, local delivery
This report sets out not only an ambitious vision for the future but also what one ‘optimised local delivery model’ for achieving it could look like. The vision and model are built on improving the outcomes and experience for children and families, and by improving the effectiveness of services, designed to address the unsustainable trajectory of spend on children’s services.
In setting out an ambitious vision and a model for the future of children’s social care, it is clear that significant change is required locally and nationally. The following recommendations and enablers (both local and national) are therefore put forward as the basis upon which an overarching reform of the children’s social care system could be built.
The recommendations and enablers are:
Local government has the intrinsic, democratically accountable understanding of people and ‘place’ needed to adapt to the local needs of children and families, and to coordinate effectively with partner organisations. There are existing, strong examples of authorities delivering both the ‘support’ and ‘protection’ elements of work with children and families which are required to provide the best outcomes. Local authorities’ expertise in the delivery of adult social care services enables them to work effectively with the whole family in order to keep children safe, happy, and well; working to resolve issues including domestic abuse, substance misuse, mental wellbeing, and financial management.
There are children at risk of coming into care who would benefit from receiving support within their family environment and community, and children in care who could be supported to leave care to live safely with family or community. Local authorities need to implement a consistently high standard of evidence-backed, relationship-based support for children and families, linked closely with protective safeguarding duties. There are already highly effective support services operating, including Essex’s ‘Divisional Based Intervention Team’ (DBIT) and Hertfordshire’s ‘Family Safeguarding Model’.
While there are many positive local examples of partnership working, children and families often say they face cliff-edges in support between services and organisations. Addressing this requires an aligned, national strategy, consistent with the vision, pillars, and principles outlined in this report. This strategy needs to cover all public bodies working with vulnerable children and families, but especially health (physical and mental), education, judiciary, and police. This would likely lead to legislative changes and a reframing of ‘Working Together’, underlining the importance of local coordination, and tailored for the needs of local populations.
Central government needs to intervene in the market supplying residential and fostering homes for children to ensure both sufficiency and stability of provision. For residential care, this should focus on addressing the risk of disorderly exit where providers are carrying too much debt. For fostering, a national programme should be launched, delivering the enablers needed to attract and retain sufficient foster carers to meet demand.
Local government has a role in both managing demand for homes through: effective decision-making; targeted interventions to reduce levels of need; and maximising local market leverage through strong strategic and operational commissioning. These commissioning efforts would be significantly enhanced by a commitment from the Department for Education to fund sector-led collaborations between those authorities who at present lack the required economies of scale to manage the market effectively.
Evidence from this project shows an opportunity for frontline social workers to spend 150,000 hours more per week working directly with children and families (equivalent to more than an hour per week for every child in care and on a child protection plan in England) through fundamental changes to ways of working and factors that influence them. This requires local investment and changes to working cultures including: digital systems that support efficient case recording; challenging the number of internal meetings attended; and building on the use of remote meetings with other professionals developed through the pandemic. At a national level, the extent to which practitioner behaviour is influenced by the regime of inspections, and focus on casework recording, needs to be recognised and addressed. Furthermore, disparities between what children and young people tell us is important to them and what is statutorily recorded should change, allowing for a more meaningful, child-focussed approach to measuring the impact of interventions.
In inspections this requires equal weighting to be placed on children being supported to leave care, where appropriate and safe, as is placed on children entering the care system. It also requires a new approach to risk when making inspection judgements; one that balances both the short-term risks a child or young person faces with the long-term consequences of being separated from their family and community. There is also a requirement for regulatory and inspection changes to support more flexible, innovative responses in two key areas:
A crucial enabler of local, systemic change is a commitment from Government to a fair and long-term funding settlement for local authority children’s services and relevant partner services. Many authorities involved in this project cited the beneficial impact that having a longer-term funding plan to work to would provide; enabling them to invest with greater confidence in initiatives with longer payback periods. The model outlined here requires both investment in the significant transformation work needed to deliver the approach, as well as initial investment to support families at both ‘edges of care’. Some authorities may be able to fund these themselves; others may not be. The scope of this work has not included a detailed analysis of local authority finances and reserves and therefore any funding settlement would need to factor this in. However, it is clear that the investment would not only achieve better outcomes for thousands of children across the country, but also mitigate £1.4bn to £2.0bn of the forecast £2.1bn growth in spend on children in care expected by 2025.