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Family support rethink needed for children returning home from care

Source: Public Sector Executive Oct/Nov 2014

New research shows that the government is spending £300m on failed family reunifications every year. Lisa Holmes, director at Loughborough University’s Centre for Child and Family Research (CCFR), discusses the latest findings and the need to rethink the support provided to these families.

Every year more than 10,000 children return home from care, but it has been estimated that nearly half of these reunifications break down – costing the government approximately £300m per year.

New research by Loughborough University’s Centre for Child and Family Research (CCFR) suggests these costs are particularly significant when compared with the lower cost of improving support to meet the needs of children and families when children return home from care.

The annual cost of providing support and services to meet the needs of reunified families is estimated at £56m. Lisa Holmes, director of CCFR, told PSE: “There have been some questions about how useful it is to have a headline figure of £300m. But actually, for me, it is less about the headline figure and more about understanding how resources could potentially be used differently.

“This report was based on secondary analysis of existing costs, using assumptions from an existing research evidence base. So it is very much about instigating debate rather than being something conclusive.”


The study noted that while reunifications can, in some cases, be the best outcome, in many cases children are not provided with the support they need to remain safely at home.

CCFR added that existing research indicates a range of factors that explain the high rates of reunification breakdown. For instance, deficits in social care case management and a lack of support for children and families to address their issues have been highlighted as significant drivers.

Based on the messages from research about the need for proactive case management, the report assumes that all children and families returning home from care should receive some ongoing social care support.

Based on national figures, the current average annual cost for each child that returns back into care from home is £61,614, compared with an average annual cost of supporting a child to return home of just over £5,627.

Holmes highlighted that children’s service departments have to operate in some very harsh environments, and have to make difficult decisions about resources.

“Often cases are closed very quickly and, actually, if the £5,000 cost that we estimated per case was spent on support and services, then there is a potential to avoid higher costs in the future,” she said.

“But the research highlights what I think is commonly known – that if you’re supporting a family where the family is at home and there are no placement fees, then that [cost] is much lower than if you have children who’re returning back into the care system.

“We’ve tried, in the report, to separate ‘support’ and ‘services’. We know from the research evidence the importance of families being supported by a specific worker. If cases remain open it means families can receive ongoing support.”

Delivering change

She added that the report wasn’t about saying there are millions of pounds to be saved. Instead, it is about helping local authorities think differently about how they’re supporting families – so they can think about what potential there is to avoid costs in the future.

The NSPCC, which commissioned the report, has called for the government to provide an entitlement to support for children and their families, when they return home from care. Tom Rahilly, head of looked-after children at the NSPCC, said: “The Department for Education needs to strengthen the rules so that both children and families get the help they need.”

As part of ongoing work in the area, the NSPCC is piloting its ‘Taking Care’ service with nine councils. The service uses lessons from research to improve support for children and families.

Following the publication of this latest report, Holmes said that CCFR, along with the NSPCC, is looking to develop the model used for the national cost estimations so the framework can be used by local authorities – so they can customise it to their area. However, no timescale has been set for this yet.

“As a researcher it is my job to look at the data and analysis, but a local authority has a statutory obligation to run its services as efficiently as it can,” she said. “We’re trying to develop a framework that local authorities can customise with their own data, so they can use their own figures to look at the needs of their population and the needs of these families.”

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