Children in care up 22 per cent in Worcestershire

Children in care: up 22 per cent in Worcestershire

Children in care: up 22 per cent in Worcestershire

First published in Local Droitwich Advertiser: Tom Edwards Exclusive by , Political Reporter

THE number of children taken into care in Worcestershire has rocketed 22 per cent in just five years, it has emerged.

A shock new Worcestershire County Council report has outlined a growing crisis, with more and more young people in desperate need of help.

The number of 'looked after children' has gone from 531 back in 2009 to 651, an increase which puts Worcestershire above statistically comparable counties.

The county council say it is costing taxpayers £22 million a year and has committed an extra £3.5 million towards it for 2014/15 in anticipation the figures will carry on rising.

An in-house report is even forecasting it could top 700 within a year, and could rise to 985 children by 2022 if current trends continue.

Looked-after children typically end up in care homes, with foster carers, in hostels, secure units or some other temporary accommodation because the parents are not deemed capable of having them.

The report, which outlines the council's strategy between now and 2017, says some children in care remain in the system for "longer than they should", often because adopters cannot be found or they take too long to be reunited with their family.

It says Worcestershire "can and must do better", especially if the forecasts, which are partly driven by a population increase, prove accurate.

Children in care are 10 times more likely to be excluded from school and more than a third fail to get five GCSE's graded A-C, on top of the costs to taxpayers.

Since 2009 the number of looked-after children has risen every year, starting at 531.

It hit 583 in 2010, then went to 591, increased further to 601 in 2012, and reached 635 in April last year before hitting 650 in December.

Every year children do leave the system, but the numbers coming in result in the headline figure rising.

Over the next year the council is predicting it could climb to 707, with the extra children costing £1.9 million to deal with.

On average 55 of every 10,000 of Worcestershire's population aged under 18 end up looked-after, below the national average of 59 but above the 43 per 10,000 for statistically-similar counties including Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Essex and Dorset.

The extra funds this year are going towards a major recruitment drive at County Hall, leading to 30 new children's social worker roles being created to beef up the department.

To try and bring the figures down the council is focusing on an 'early help' strategy aimed at intervening quicker before problems escalate, although it has been cited as one possible factor behind the rise.

Diana Fulbrook, independent chair of Worcestershire's Safeguarding Children Board, says the council has "clearly prioritised children in their financial decisions" and believes progress is being made in improving the service.

Councillor Liz Eyre, cabinet member for children and families, said: "Importantly, we have an approach which is balanced - circumstances in families can and do change and social workers work hard to return some children home following assessment where it is safe to do so."

SO WHY ARE THE FIGURES SO HIGH?

The county council has produced a list of reasons why Worcestershire's figure has kept on rising - saying there are a multitude of factors.

It has not blamed parenting but says the economy, a county increase in mental health issues, drug and alcohol misuse, changes in national guidance and even the behaviour of their own social workers are all influences.

Jennie Leeson, from the research unit for children's services, said the council has become better at "starting unpick isues" with families due to its early help strategy, which focuses on tackling problem households quicker.

That has been cited as one possible explanation for the recent rise, although the council does say it should also help keep children out of care.

She also says extra hardships brought about by the increased costs of living, and drug and alcohol abuse getting worse in Worcestershire are factors.

The council has also cited the Southwark Judgement in 2010 which means the council now has a legal duty to offer accommodation to homeless 16 and 17-year-olds as another factor, although that has contributed to a rise everywhere.

Worcestershire has also had an increase in asylum seeker children over and above similar counties, which has contributed to the rise.

More efforts to take children out of households where domestic violence occur has also been cited.

Ms Leeson said: "The rate per 10,000 of children in Worcestershire has been growing since 2005/06 and for much of which it has been higher than the 'statistical neighbours' average.

"The statistical neighbours figures are also growing, but more slowly than Worcestershire."

Cllr Eyre said: "Safeguarding is a key corporate priority and it is important to us is that children in Worcestershire are kept safe.

"I am confident in our approach to thresholds which is led by the Safeguarding Board.

"There are a number of factors for the increase over the years, the Southwark Judgement, the increase in asylum seeker children historically, an increased focus and understanding of the impact on a child or young person of domestic violence, the increase in other social pressures.

"I think we have our assessment of risk in the right area for the right outcomes."

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