Each year, local authorities in England act as corporate parents for the 100,000 children who are placed in care. One important responsibility a parent has to their child is to provide them with stability. This helps them to feel secure and to develop attachments with caregivers, as well as a sense of identity and belonging.
A lack of stability during childhood can affect normal cognitive and emotional development, and have long-lasting negative consequences. For children in care, achieving stability often focuses on reducing the number of moves between foster carers or changes in social workers. What is less often considered is the process of leaving the care system.
Ideally, a child leaving the care system should move to a long-term, stable environment. But we know that some children become caught in a “revolving door”, with repeated entries and exits in and out of the system throughout their childhood.
To understand which groups of children in England are most likely to re-enter care, my colleagues and I have analysed administrative data from the Department for Education. Overall, we found that one-third of children re-entered care within five years of leaving it. Our sample looked at 4,076 children who exited care in 2008. By 2013, more than 35% had re-entered it.
There are three factors which influence the likelihood of a child re-entering the care system: how they leave, their characteristics, and how stable the placement was in the first place.
How a child leaves the system
Children can leave the care system in England in a number of ways. The main ways are returning to their parents (with or without further supervision from social services) or being placed in a new family setting through adoption, residence or special guardianship orders.
Our analysis found that the highest rate of re-entry to care was among children who were returned home to their parents (40% re-entered within five years) while children who exited through special guardianship or residence orders had much lower rates of re-entry. Because it is not possible to identify adoption breakdowns in the Department for Education’s administrative dataset, these children were not included in our analysis.
Based on these figures, it would appear that residence and special guardianship orders represent a positive strategy for achieving permanent, stable homes for children exiting care. But when comparing rates of re-entry, it is important to remember that not all children are equally likely to exit care in these ways.
Children can only leave care through a residence or special guardianship order if there is a suitable and willing guardian available and the biological parent agrees to relinquish some of their rights. Children who meet these criteria may not be representative of all children in care. For example, there may be fewer people willing to become a special guardian for children with severe behavioural issues or complex health needs.
Research on re-entry to care in the US has shown that black children are more likely than others to re-enter care. But when we analysed the data for England we found that white and mixed ethnicity children had the highest rate of re-entry. More than one third re-entered within five years compared to one quarter of black, Asian or other ethnicity children.
Older children were also more likely to experience the breakdown of an exit from care resulting in their return to the care system. Almost half of adolescents re-entered care within five years compared to one quarter of children aged between one and four.
Stability of care affects the stability of exits
The dataset we analysed contained some information on the stability of care, including whether a child had left care previously, the number of placement moves and the average length of each placement. As in other studies, we found that children who had less stable experiences in care had higher rates of re-entry. Children who had a single, stable placement in care were half as likely to re-enter as children who moved carer five or more times.
As a result of unstable placements while in care, children may have difficulty developing and maintaining relationships after they leave the system. For example, a study involving interviews with older fostered and adopted children revealed how feelings of insecurity hindered their ability to develop close and trusting relationships with caregivers.
Another possible explanation is that unstable care may be an indicator for other issues that can also affect the stability of exits. Children who are the most challenging cases when entering care – for example, those who may have behavioural issues or complex health needs – may be more likely to move carers multiple times.
Many children leaving care need additional support or monitoring, such as ongoing care plans and home visits. To better understand which groups of children in England are most likely to re-enter care, I have developed a free, online calculator that estimates the likelihood of re-entry. Understanding which groups are most likely to re-enter care could help guide social workers and potentially reduce the risk of “revolving door” care experiences and the associated adverse effects.