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Paper

Changes in the nature and sequence of placements experienced by children in care in England and Wales 1980-2010

abstract

Aim. The contribution compares the nature and sequence of placements experienced by children entering care in England (and in one case Wales) in 1980 and in 2010 to see what changes have occurred and what implications these have for policy and practice with regard to the care of separated children. As there are few empirical studies of all children entering care available, most discussions have focussed on trends and policy developments, such as Parker (2010), rather than on details of children's experiences.

Method. Two samples of children will be compared. Both comprise sequential admissions from a selected date. The first charts the experiences of 450 children admitted to care in 1980 and reported in the publication Lost in Care (Millham et al. 1986), the second comprises 430 children entering care in 2010 scrutinised as part of an ongoing study by the Social Research Unit at Dartington.

Analysis. In both cases, results are presented for two groups: those who left care early (within six months) and those who were still there twelve months after entry. The sample sizes are 228 and 131 for the early leavers, and 195 and 163 for those still in care after one year.

Findings. It was found that residential care was widely used in 1980 both as an initial placement (46% of entrants) but by 2010, its use for admissions had virtually disappeared with only 2% of entrants to care being placed residentially. Similarly, for those staying in care for a year, in 1980 75% of placements were in residential settings compared with 2% thirty years later. Especially significant was the demise of residential observation and assessment centres which in 1980 accounted for 21% of all first placement and which no longer exist not only as establishments but also as a category in official Government statistics. For older teenagers, aged 16-18, residential hostels have been replaced by supported lodgings and other community arrangements.

The results for the amount of children's movement between placements while in care varied, showing a slight increase for the short-stay group between 1980 and 2010, from 1.22 to 1.37 placements per child, and only a modest reduction from 1.39 to 1.29 for those who stayed longer, although the size of this reduction is influenced by the tendency for older adolescents to move around between lodgings and independent accommodation.

Implications for policy and practice. The demise of residential care as a reception, long-term care setting and emergency placement means that fostering is now used much more widely used to fulfil these functions and that older teenagers are likely to live in independent accommodation backed up by professional support. This change has important implications. The task of foster carers has extended beyond that of providing substitute care to include managing children's contacts with birth relatives, their education, health, involvement with special needs services and leaving care.

It is also significant that adoption is not a major issue when selecting the children's placements in the first year of being in care. During this period, questions of permanence and the possibility of adoption are less prominent than giving support to parents and exploring the possibilities of kinship care. Much social work in the first months involves securing foster placements, sometimes with an element of twin tracking in which options for the future are kept open. UK practice guidance indicates that early on attention should be paid to assessing the comparative parenting capacities of family members and long-term foster carers but in the first year, effort appears to be devoted to returning the child home or to relatives at the expense of developing other possibilities. Thus, activity tends to focus on contact with birth relatives, making sure that people turn up and monitoring the quality of the interaction. Moreover, few evidence-based programmes (such as Incredible Years or Nurse Family Partnership) appear to be offered to families.

Social work is often castigated in the media for poor and unimaginative practice but the changes charted in this study represent a major shift in policy and practice and challenge the accusation of a child rescue obsessions. Obviously, a descriptive study such as this cannot determine whether the changes found are good for children's well-being and as with other radical reforms of social issues, people are left wondering what the changes herald; but whatever the gains and losses, it cannot be said that social work with children in care has stood still or that the criticisms of the anti-institution reformers have gone unheeded.

Key references

Bullock, R. and Blower, S. (2013). Changes in the nature and sequence of placements experienced by children in care in England 1980-2012. Adoption and Fostering, 36.

Millham, S., Bullock, R., Hosie, K. and Haak, M. (1986.) Lost in Care: The problems of maintaining links between children in care and their families. Aldershot: Gower.

Parker, R. (2010). Change and continuity: 1980-2010. Adoption and Fostering, 34, 4-12.

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