Hard Evidence: are more children going into care?

Who is entering the care system? WDG Photo/www.shutterstock.com

Are more children going into care than ever before? According to recent government data, the number of children in care in England has reached a 30-year high.

The claim is based on the number of children in care on the March 31 in a given year, a figure that has been collected by the Department for Education since 1992. In this context, care includes children in foster care (with relatives, family friends, strangers or potential adopters) as well as group care institutions, such as children’s homes. Teenagers aged 16 or older can also be placed in “independent living” in a flat, B&B or hostel.

According to the Department for Education’s most recent report, the number of children in care increased from approximately 50,000 in 1993 to 69,540 in 2015, the highest figure since 1985.

Before 1992, data on children in care was collected by the Department of Health. This archived data, shown in the graph below, shows that since 1977 the number of children in care has actually decreased by approximately 30%.

But these numbers do not include all children who were in care during the year, just those in care on a single day – March 31. Nor do they take into account population size, or how it has changed.

An alternative way to look at whether more children are entering care is to describe it as a percentage of all children of a certain age group. Between April 1 2014 and March 31 2015, 99,230 children in England entered care. This represents 0.9% of children, or about one in 100.

One in 30 children will enter care at some point

My own recent research using Department for Education data calculated the percentage of children in England born between 1992 and 2011 who entered care at some point during their childhood, rather than a single calendar year. My colleagues and I found that 3.3% of the cohort of children born between 1992 and 1994 spent time in care by the age of 18. So for this cohort, one in 30 entered care at some point in their childhood.

This stark difference from the one in 100 figure is because although children can enter care throughout childhood, the Department for Education figures only count those who are currently in care in a given year. Some of these children will have been in care in previous years and some will be entering care for the first time. Over time the number of children who have ever spent time in care accumulates as some children exit care and others enter.

This analysis shows clearly that the percentage of children entering care is increasing: by age one, 0.5% of children born between 1992 and 1994 entered care, but that had risen to 0.8% of those born between 2009 and 2011. Though the absolute percentage increase appears small, it equates to an extra 2,000 infants entering care.

% of children in England who spent time in care by year of birth: 1992-2011. Mc Grath-Lone et al., 2015, Author provided

Research in other countries, such as the US, Canada and Australia, has shown that some ethnic minorities are more likely to enter care. In England, 4.5% of black and 4.2% of mixed ethnicity children born between 2001 and 2003 entered care by age nine, compared to just 1.6% of white or 0.8% of Asian children. Ethnicity is not well recorded in the Department for Education data for children born before 2001, so ethnic variation at older ages cannot yet be described.

Care is now longer and more stable

Children in care in England can be placed in a variety of settings. Most are placed in foster care but some are placed in group care settings such as children’s homes or residential units. Over time the use of group care has decreased and the use of foster care has increased: just 0.5% of children born in 2008 were placed in group care at the age of one to four compared to 2.3% of those born in 1992.

The amount of time children spend in care has also changed over time. For infants born in 1992, the average number of weeks in care during the two years following entry was 49, increasing to 70 for those born in 2008 – an increase of more than five months.

Stability of care has improved for most children with a decrease in the proportion who have more than one placement change in a two-year period. But no changes are evident among infants. Almost one in three experienced multiple placements despite the importance of secure attachments to care givers during this sensitive period of development.

So the Department of Education data shows that more children in England are entering care now than in the early 1990s. Once in care these children are staying for longer which invariably places social services under pressure, particularly in the current context of economic austerity.

There is growing evidence of the positive effects good quality foster care can have on children’s outcomes such as exam attainment. A greater proportion are now placed in a stable family setting; yet children in care continue to have worse educational and social outcomes than their peers, a failure that the prime minister David Cameron has admitted “shames our country”.

We must continuously seek to improve the quality of care that children receive. But it is also important that the underlying societal structures and policies that cause the state to assume the caring role of a parent for a significant and growing proportion of children are also investigated.

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