The Children’s Commissioner for England has published a report - Children’s Social Care – putting children’s voices at the heart of reform - detailing the responses from over 13,000 children in need to her ‘Big Ask’ survey conducted last year. 

It found that the overarching challenge facing social care is to ensure every family and child get the same quality of care and support that some children currently experience.

The report also added that social workers should no longer measure the success of Child in Need plans by whether they close within six months, but whether a family is better off in 12-months.

It found that families of children who have a Child in Need Plan need to feel ownership of the plan and share its objectives. This requires families to have real agency at the onset of the process, so that they are not overwhelmed or feel coerced.

Recommendations included consistency of professional support, delivered by a single person, ideally on a consensual basis. Families should also experience a continuum of support without big thresholds. 

What is a Child in Need?

Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 defines a Child In Need as a child:

  • Who is unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision for him of services
  • Or a child whose health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of services
  • A child who is disabled.

If a social work assessment has recommended a Child In Need plan then support from Children’s Social Care will be offered to families with the help of other agencies.

Are we failing our children?

In her foreword to the report, Dame Rachel de Souza said we have a unique opportunity now to change and reform the lives of children in care.

She added: "With the Review of Children’s Social Care, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Green Paper, the Schools’ White Paper, and reforms to Integrated Care Services all taking place at the moment. This provides a unique opportunity to address these important issues ambitiously, cohesively and in a child-centred way.

"The case for change couldn’t be stronger - we are failing to give children loving, caring and stable homes; we are failing to get children into good schools which can support them, and we are failing to get children vital mental health care to help them recover from trauma. In some cases, as we have been reminded so tragically recently, we are failing to make the interventions that could save a child from trauma, serious harm and even death."

What needs to happen for children with autism and/or a learning disability?

The report highlighted two cases studies of children in need. The first was Rory, an 11-year-old boy with autism who is growing up in care. Last year he was living in a children’s home when the home evicted him at short notice.

Rory’s local authority had nowhere for him to live locally, so he was placed in another children’s home as an ‘emergency measure’. Five months later Rory was still in this ‘emergency placement’ away from home because he needed a special school placement.

The report stated that children like Rory should be looked after locally. The local authority should ensure that have sufficient number of homes that can care for children like Rory. Homes should be adapting to the needs of the child, so that children stay put when their needs change, not vice versa.

When children do have to move, this should be properly planned and done slowly, with significant penalties for a local authority or children’s home which evicts a child at short notice. Rory should know that his next home will be a long-term placement, without him being left in limbo not knowing where he will go next or when. 

Another case highlighted was Jereome, a 16-year-old looked after child with complex learning disabilities, behavioural issues and autistic traits. He has an assessed learning age of seven. After multiple failed placements, he had made great improvements in a children’s home with a specialism in Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties, which was out of his local authority’s area.

He had been there for two years and had developed good relationships with the staff, including the teachers in his specialist educational provision nearby. The local authority decided to move him back into his home area to unregulated accommodation providing semi-independent living, with two adults supporting Jerome.

Jerome was highly distressed in the days before the move, which led to him running away and being handcuffed by police on the day he moved. As feared, Jerome was not able to manage in his semi-independent accommodation. There were several safeguarding incidents, both inside and outside the property, and the staff were not sufficiently trained to support him.

Ultimately, the local authority accepted that the new accommodation was not working for Jerome and moved him to a children’s home within his local area, after more than 10 months of disruption. The report said that in this case, the local authority were right to want Jerome to live locally but once Jerome was settled out of area, it was not in his best interests to be moved, and have all his relationships turned upside down.

Many local authorities look to move children to unregulated accommodation once they reach 16, often for financial reasons but also to help in their transition to independence. 

The report recommended that all homes in which children live, unless foster or kinship care, should be regulated and inspected. In the short-term, the commissioner would like a ban on unregulated accommodation for under-16s to extend to children who have special needs or other vulnerabilities. 

The future of children's social care

On 15th January 2021, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care was announced and Josh MacAlister was appointed as chair. 

It is described as "a once in a generation opportunity to transform the children’s social care system and provide children with loving, safe and stable families". Dame Rachel de Souza in her report said that to achieve this we need to focus on the experience we want for every child and commit to building a system that can deliver it.

She added: "We need to acknowledge that the system must do better and then commit to working together to get it to where we want to be. We must celebrate the good the great social care is doing across the country and use this as a foundation from which to build.

"The Social Care Review can be the catalyst to bring about the bold and radical changes children want to see, but it will take all of us to make it a reality for all children within five years."