There has rightly been increasing focus on the dramatically better outcomes for children being adopted rather than kept in care. It has also become increasingly untenable for people to claim that it is "impossible" for most children in care to be adopted. Increasingly, the extent of the scandal is there for all to see. Children who could be adopted are being kept in care for ideological reasons. The number of children in care is not an inevitable force of nature like the weather. It is a policy decision for which responsibility must be taken.
Another aspect is that for some children in care, the prospects are much worse than for others. Those in long term fostering are better off than those shunted back and forth between a biological parent and an array of different foster carers. Those with the worst prospect are the ones in institutional children homes rather than a family home environment.
Of the children in care, so-called "Looked After Children", 10% are in children's homes nationally. But the ratio varies a lot. In my borough it is 5%. In Birmingham it is 13%. (See Table LAA3.) We can see how the proportion of children taken into care might vary from one district to another – a deprived area would have more than an affluent areas. It is less obvious why there should be such variation in the proportion of children in care who are in children's homes. It is apparent that some councils are failing to keep the numbers to a minimum.
Birmingham admit as much. To their credit they are closing five of their 20 children's homes. They say they will manage this by placing more for adoption or fostering.
Earlier this year Croydon Council agreed to close its two children homes. It said:
The Council’s greater investment in fostering and the new commissioning arrangements that it is introducing in respect of independent foster carer means that it will become increasingly possible to place some challenging young people who would previously have required residential care in well supported foster placements.
Other councils should look at this.
Some children need to be in children's homes. For instance there are a few "secure children's homes" – effectively children's prisons. Of course, often disabled children are fostered or adopted, but there are also cases of highly disturbed children where this is difficult to achieve. However these are relatively small numbers. Furthermore it is not necessary for the children's homes that are needed to be owned by councils.
Often children in children's homes are in mainstream schooling. Any Cabinet Member for Children's Services who is told by their Director of Children's Services that such a child must be in a children's home is being taken for a fool.
The issue is whether the number of children in children's homes is being genuinely kept to a minimum. Anyone who believes this is the case at present is being naive.
Once a child is adopted the cost to the taxpayer is nil. If a child is in foster care the cost is £35,000 a year. If a child is in a children's home it costs £140,000 a year (just under a billion a year given that we have 65,000 Looked After Children and 10% of them are in such institutions.) The more money spent the worse for the child.
There has been no apology for having put too many children in children's homes. Yet the consequences have been disastrous. Needlessly institutionalising children in municipal care means a cost not just in money, but in blighted lives. For it to have continued for so long, due to flawed ideology and administrative inertia, has been shameful. The good news is that the spending cuts have forced a change.
As Ernest Rutherford said:
Gentleman, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.