How to safely reduce the need for children to enter care
Over the last 20 years the number of children in the care system has increased by almost 50% – there are currently 72,670 children in care in England compared to 50,900 in 1997.
Care is the right choice for some children. Yet there are good reasons for ensuring it is only used when appropriate. Care is a very expensive option, and spending a large proportion of the Children’s Social Care (CSC) budget on care is unlikely to represent value for money. The human cost for parents of removal is enormous. Finally, for this reason there is a strong ethical argument. Removal of a child through the courts is one of the strongest interventions that the state can make. We therefore need to be confident that parents have been offered the best possible opportunity to keep children safely at home.
In recent years there has been a proliferation of models or services aimed at reducing the need for children to enter care. Many of these claim to be “evidence based”, yet the nature and quality of that evidence is very variable.
As a result those leading, commissioning or inspecting services have a remarkably sparse evidence base to draw upon, and the evidence that does exist is often not freely available to those making crucial decisions about which services to develop or use. To a large extent the leaders of Children’s Services are therefore flying blind. This is economically and ethically unacceptable. We can have no confidence that families across England are consistently being offered effective services to help them care for their children at home.
Addressing this problem is one of the big challenges for the What Works Centre. It will require a programme of work extending beyond 2020.
Proposed Programme of Work: Reducing Need for Care
Stage 1 2018-2019: Establishing the baseline
Three projects will identify existing evidence, describe elements of in-house Local Authority practice that may reduce the need for care entry and discover what specialist services are being delivered to achieve this aim.
Review 1: What is the evidence?
A Scoping Review will provide an overview of the literature about why children enter care and the types of studies that have explored what works to reduce the need for care.
It will be accompanied by Systematic Reviews to identify and explore effective interventions . These will provide an authoritative account of the evidence behind interventions or ways of working.
Taken together this will provide a robust and wide-ranging account of the existing evidence about what works in reducing numbers in care, as well as clear gaps requiring further research and promising interventions that require further evaluation or evaluation in a UK context.
Project 1: What do successful LAs do?
We will identify LAs that have “bucked the trend” of increasing care numbers over the last 5 years and carry out in-depth quantitative and qualitative comparative analysis of these LAs with others to develop a framework to understand elements of the in-house system that might be influential.
This might include, specific structures (such as senior management resource panels), values (such as commitment to working with families) or practices (such as approaches to risk assessment). The findings will be of immediate significance for the Sector, and will form the basis for further studies in Stage 2 as we evaluate rolling them out to new locations.
Project 2: What current services do LAs think are reducing the need for children to enter care?
A national survey with follow-up interviews will identify which services LAs currently use with the aim of preventing the need for children to enter care. The quality of evidence that they currently gather will be evaluated. This will provide both a picture of current provision and a baseline for identifying services worth more robust evaluation.
Stage 2: 2018-onwards Exploratory studies
Stage 2 will explore the implementation of the approaches identified as promising in Stage 1 – for instance applying interventions that have worked in other countries or implementing a promising approach in a different local authority.
Stage 3: 2020-2025 Establishing effectiveness
We envisage a programme of high quality trials of the most promising approaches.
The findings would provide a strong evidence base around what works in reducing the need for care in the UK. Such an evidence base has the potential to create significant cost savings both by identifying what should be invested in, as well as identifying approaches that are being used that are ineffective and/or not cost effective.
As such we hope that it would contribute to a substantial improvement in the effectiveness of services aimed at reducing the need for children to enter care in England and beyond.