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Ombudsman report urges councils to scrutinise services for children in care

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has called on council scrutiny committees to be more proactive following research that found vulnerable children being looked after by councils are far more disadvantaged than those looked after by parents.

The report, Careless: Helping to improve council services to children in care, found that more than half of children under the care of local authorities have a special educational need or a mental health difficulty (56%) and those leaving care are more than three times as likely to be out of education, training or employment.

The findings come at a time when demand for childcare services is rising. According to the Ombudsman, the latest figures show a 28% increase in the number of children in care in the last decade (up from 60,900 in 2009 to 78,150 in 2019).

In the wake of the research, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King has encouraged councils to exercise greater scrutiny of its childcare services offering a range of questions council scrutiny committees can ask to ensure their authorities are providing an adequate service.

Mr King said: "Each case highlighted in this report is a case too many, and reflects the real life experiences of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

"While these cases reflect a time before the Covid-19 pandemic, we know the system is under even more pressure today. Although the councils' actions in these cases were disappointing, we want to drive home the importance of learning from mistakes. In doing so this can help avoid repetitions and improve the lives and opportunities for all children in care.

"I am issuing this report so councils providing children's services can use the learning and reflect on their procedures and processes. At every turn, I invite them to ask themselves, 'would this be good enough for my child?'"

Responding to the report, Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said looking after children was a priority for councils - but in light of growing demand and financial pressures, it had been difficult for councils to rise to the challenge.

Cllr Blake said: "Looking after vulnerable children is a top priority for councils, which work extremely hard to ensure that all children in care get the love and support that they need to flourish. This report provides useful guidance to help councils continuously improve to achieve this goal.

"Unfortunately, many councils are being pushed to the brink by unprecedented demand and increasing financial pressures, with an average of 87 children now taken into care every single day."

She added: "There has been a 28% increase in the number of children in care over the last decade, during which time councils lost £15bn in core government funding. While councils have increased children's social care budgets at the expense of other services, this has not been able to keep pace with demand.

"While the additional investment announced in the Spending Review was helpful, what is urgently needed is a long-term sustainable funding solution that enables councils to protect children at immediate risk of harm while also supporting early intervention to prevent problems escalating in the first place."

Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group, said the stories found in the report echoed the "poor practice" that was often reported by families to her organisation's advice service.

Ashley added: "Whilst some local authorities are striving to get it right for every child and are keen to learn and improve, there is huge variation in practice across the country. This can too often result in children and families not getting key advice or support to prevent problems escalating into a crisis. At times authorities are failing to comply with the law or their own internal procedures, including refusing some young people the help to which they are entitled.

"This report highlights how poor decisions can be so damaging at a critical moment in the lives of children in care or at risk of care. It is particularly concerning given that more children are now in the care system than at any times since 1985, and the pandemic is increasing the pressure and strains on families and on children's services.

"Putting the voices and experiences of children and families at the centre is key to getting this right. We particularly welcome the Ombudsman's checklist for local authorities which is designed to help each authority give every child the best life chances."

The full report can be read here.

Adam Carey

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