Ombudsman urges councils to scrutinise services for children in care

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is highlighting the experiences of children in the care system – and the difficulties they face when councils get things wrong.

In a new report published today, the Ombudsman is sharing the cases of children who have been let down by the very authorities who should be looking after their interests.

Children who cannot be cared for by their parents and become the responsibility of their local authority are some of the most vulnerable in society. The official term is ‘looked after children’ and they may live with foster parents, in group homes or with friends and family foster carers.

The statistics around children in care are startling: they’re more likely to have a special educational need or mental health difficulty than their friends who live with parents. And their outcomes are just as concerning: formerly looked after children are more than three times as likely to be out of education, training or employment once they leave care.

This is all set against a backdrop of increasing numbers of children being brought into the system; 28% more children were in care in 2019 than 2009.

Cases shared in the report include a young man left never knowing if he was deprived of the chance to say goodbye to his dying mother when he was younger, a teenager returning to her foster home to find her bags packed as she’d turned 18, or the siblings removed without warning from the foster parents who wanted to adopt them.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, 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?'”

The report shares case studies, learning and best practice guidance for local authorities at every stage of a child’s journey through the system.

It also suggests a range of questions council scrutiny committees can ask to ensure their authorities are providing the best services they can to the children in their care.

Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group stated

“The themes in this report reflect poor practice that is commonly reported by families to our advice service. 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.”

Article date: 10 December 2020

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