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Tue, 09 Jul 24 10:00

Broken resolutions

I hope you’ve all had a decent Christmas and New Year break. If you are an avid reader of these blogs (and who isn’t?) you’ll have read about Matt Dunkley’s version of a Christmas Carol, Rachel Dickinson’s Christmas wish list and Stuart Gallimore’s reflections on the gifts of Christmas. So, I suppose it should fall to me to talk about new year’s resolutions.

I’m afraid Veganuary doesn’t really appeal to me (too fond of the dairy products in cakes and pastries, as anyone that knows me will attest), and similarly dry January doesn’t really cut it (too fond of… no, never mind). So, turning to my professional life, what I’d really like to resolve to do is never to use another unregistered or unregulated placement for a child in care. But like most of our new year’s resolutions, I am worried that this one is not going to be sustainable.

We’ve heard a lot recently about such placements, the risks, the costs, the lack of regulatory oversight. Until very recently we hadn’t heard an awful lot from outside of the directors of children’s services (DCS) community about what we could do about it and who might help. Framing the issue, as I have heard, as being about ‘poor local authority commissioning’ or heartless children’s services sending children away from their areas to quickly solve a problem doesn’t bear any resemblance to the reality that DCSs have to deal with on a daily basis. In Hampshire we have a placement commissioning team who work tirelessly to find placements for children with complex and challenging needs. Like most DCSs, I dread that Friday feeling when our placements manager approaches me with the news that we have tried 150 placements, our own foster care service and residential homes are full and none of the placements in the independent sector are willing to take our young person precisely because of their complex and challenging needs.

The government, in its manifesto, has promised a review of the care system and through the ADCS Standards, Performance and Inspection (SPI) Policy Committee we have been thinking about this for some time. The factors leading to the growth in unregistered and unregulated placements have been evident for a long while and are in some respects uncomfortable for policy makers. For example, 10 years ago on any given day there were up to 3,000 children in youth custody but now, due to positive changes in policy and practice in youth justice, there are around 800. But those other 2,200 children, many with challenging behaviour and complex needs, haven’t gone away. Similarly, health colleagues are doing their best to minimise the use of tier 4 health accommodation, leading to more and more children with ‘borderline’ serious mental health issues in our care. Further, we are (rightly) accommodating several thousand unaccompanied minors who are seeking refuge. The consequence of all of this is to create further pressures on that part of the sector that is dealing with the troubled and troublesome adolescent cohort at a time when we have the least financial resource to address the issues locally.

So, what to do? Well certainly, any solution is going to need to look at how the care of these children is regulated and inspected. We are beginning to see some innovative ideas being put forward by some local authorities around using their own accommodation differently. For my own part I think that we might need to move away from a regulatory regime that focuses on bricks and mortar (children’s homes) towards a system that regulates organisations and providers, enabling them to provide flexible solutions for crisis placements without fear of their grading being threatened. The approach to regulation and inspection also needs to look at the role of fostering and more fluid routes through fostering and residential care and back again - our children don’t fit well into regulatory boxes. Through the SPI committee we’ll be working with Ofsted on this regulatory issue.

As ADCS members who attended the 2019 NCAS Conference will know, the Association also agreed a range of other asks of government with regards to this issue:

• Introducing legislation where only voluntary, not for profit organisations can operate in Independent Fostering Agencies and Independent Children’s Homes, similar to the approach taken in Scotland

• A unified placement and commissioning system for the welfare secure estate, the children’s mental health secure system and the youth justice system

• Urgent pace alongside investment and block commissioning of more secure welfare placements

• A national campaign to help local authorities recruit many more foster carers

• A renewed focus on training and quality of staff in residential settings.

It’s tempting to write more on each of these asks but there is no space now. As we go into 2020 it’s worth us remembering that we need the engagement of the whole sector – policy makers, regulators and other key players to create a care system that will be fit for the 21st Century.

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