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Latest stats on children in care prompts some interesting questions

Friday 20 May 2016

Statistics rarely, if ever, provide answers. Their function is to point us towards the right questions, so that through further enquiry we can understand what's going on behind the numbers.

Each year the Scottish Government releases official statistics about children and young people living in and leaving care. Having just produced a briefing on the stats for 2014-15, a few questions jumped out at me.

Use of Compulsory Supervision Orders is declining. Why?

This year's data tells us that the proportion of children who are looked after under a Compulsory Supervision Order – a legal order issued by a children's hearing - has declined noticeably over the past few years, from 74% in 2012-13, to 68% in 2014-15.

This could be linked to the rise in the number of children provided with accommodation through a direct arrangement between the family and local authority (up from 13% to 15% over the same period). Or it could be connected to the rise in the number of Permanence Orders. Or both. Or neither. It would be interesting to know.

Most intriguingly, the use of Compulsory Supervision Orders with no condition of residence (which means that the child or young person continues to live 'at home' with one or both parents) has declined much more steeply than Compulsory Supervision Orders which places the child with alternative carers (i.e. foster care). Perhaps this means the option of 'looked after at home' is now being seen differently in Scotland, by social workers or children's hearing panel members? And if this is the case, why?

Some stats don't quite ring true, why?

Elsewhere in the stats, some certainly raise eye brows, failing to ring true with what we know from experience or other sources.

For instance, just 13% of looked after children were recorded as having an additional support need in July 2015. On the basis of other stats (such as the school census data), the considerable research evidence on the subject, and my own experience working in the sector for a few years now, this figure seems much too low. Indeed, when you take into account the wide variations reported between individual local authority areas, it doesn't seem plausible.

Many looked after children and young people have experienced some form of trauma in their lives, with ongoing consequences for their emotional and mental health. Does this suspect figure just mean that local authorities have issues in how they are recording the data? Or is it something more serious, linked to the number and/or quality of physical and mental health assessments being carried out?

Kids are coming into care earlier and staying for longer. Good news?

The statistics for 2014-15 may not provide definitive proof of anything, but they do add further weight to suggestions that Scotland's care system is changing in a certain direction. Perhaps the most important trends observed are that children now consistently come into the system at an earlier age than they did 10 years ago, and then stay in care for longer.

The proportion of children leaving care after 5 years or more has increased significantly over the past decade. This suggests that, although it is essential that continue to improve how families are supported in order to ensure children can be kept safe and well without the need for state care, it is equally important that we keep improving the quality of care which looked after children receive. Unfortunately, statistics won't tell us whether we're achieving this. But the latest set hints that we're making progress on a number of fronts, and not enough progress on others. That certainly encourages me to go out a find out and ask why.

Read our analysis of Scottish Government Social Work statistics, 2014-15

And talk to us, what questions are you interested in?

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author/s and may not represent the views or opinions of CELCIS or our funders.

Commenting on the blog posts

Sharing comments and perspectives prompted by the posts on this blog are welcome. CELCIS operates a moderation process so your comment will not go live straight away.

Author: Ben Farrugia

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Posted by Jenni on
The numbers of children recorded as having an additional support needs (13%) may come from those who have a coordinated support plan (CSP). Few children will meet the criteria for a CSP but do receive a high level of support within school. It would be more helpful to capture how many young people who are LAC have additional support needs recorded in a support plan within school. This would give a clearer picture of need.
Posted by Micky Anderson on
Interesting suggestion Jenni re reporting on children and young people with additional support needs recorded in plans. Not all looked after children will be of school age, however. It is possible that some local authorities may have reported numbers with a CSP, but the unreliability of CLAS additional support needs information because of differences in interpretation of the previous question has led to a change in data collection from 2016. The new question will ask "Does the child/young person have a mental or physical impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities?", and a binary Yes/No answer is required. This is similar to the Census question on health problems and disability and should improve consistency, but I understand that the intention is to develop a question that is more informative by requesting more detail on the nature of needs.
Posted by Graham on
Regarding the decrease in the number of children being looked after via CSOs, I wonder if social workers and panel members question the benefit of implementing such orders when the reality is that many of the conditions attached are very difficult to enact? My experience as both a panel member and social worker was one of increasing frustration when orders with conditions attached were being ignored as a consequence of services being overstretched. Bearing in mind the 'no order principle', I often felt that it was of more benefit to the child or young person to seek an alternate route that circumvented the Children's Hearing System completely, saving them unnecessary stress and anxiety. I have always been of the opinion that the Children's Hearing System was, and continues to be, a world leading system of providing care and protection for children and young people, however, I have felt for a long time now that it is steadily being undermined by a social work system that is unable to meet current demand.
Posted by Tracey Jarvis on
I agree, these statistics raise many questions- does this imply that children who are not subject to compulsory supervision are voluntarily working with social workers? In my experience this is rarely the case even if their parents or carers see this as the only option. When they need compulsory supervision but are not engaging there needs to be legislation to support social workers in managing such cases.
Its disappointing to hear only 13% of looked after children are recognised as having additional support needs. Sadly, this doesn't really surprise me from my experience of working in residential care. These figures do not account for the yp who are absent from school as a result of truancy or exclusion due to their behaviours for example. It is impossible for schools to assess their needs when they are not present and engaging in their work. I expect a much higher percentage of looked after yp are on the register at school but for various reasons do not attend and many others get sent home because of behavioral issues when they are assigned tasks they find difficult. It is not always obvious that their behaviours may be a result of their past, their lack of trust in adults and their experience of authority figures. Rarely do we excuse their disruptive behaviour because we understand their anxiety about failing, lack of self esteem or fear of being bullied, punished or reprimanded. Young people who are looked after in foster care and residential care have often missed much of their education prior to their admission and most have had several placements which means moving schools. It would be interesting to also include statistics on those receiving counselling or support from mental health services to help them emotionally in dealing with loss, grief and attachment issues caused from separation from primary carers.
Finally, I hope the figures showing children are being looked after earlier and for longer is a positive sign. Early intervention is the key to breaking the cycle and hopefully this will be demonstrated with future generations of looked after children when they become parents themselves. Helping, healing and supporting young people takes time and it's a relief to hear some are finally being supported long enough to learn the skills they need for life. I am hopeful this will reflect on statistics in the future. Time will tell...
Posted by Alison Macleod on
I am very interested to read your questioning of the data. I agree that it does not seem likely that only 13% have additional support needs. I recently undertook some project work around improving the uptake and timeliness of the health needs assessments for newly looked after children. I worked with a large network of staff from health and social care. As an 'outsider' with experience in only 1 Council region, I can only say that validation and reliability of the recording of our data needed much more attention. I spent 8 months mapping processes and collecting alternative data, which enabled a more accurate story to be told. We have made improvements. There is much more work to be done.
I would be really interested to know if you have looked at results nationally in response to the 28 day target health needs assessment target and/ or the % having additional health needs. (In our area = 11-20% with additional health needs).
My main point though, is that it is hard to draw conclusions when we cannot be sure that we are comparing the same thing from one area to another or even consistently within a Council/ Health Board area. If we are to truly improve the lives of those most vulnerable we need to start with a clear picture from robust, valid data. That way we can measure the impact of any changes that we make, using data and facts rather than our best guess.
Posted by Colin Brough on
I'm a local authority foster carer, ploughing my way through a PhD at Edinburgh University and my thesis is exploring the upbringing of my seventeen foster sons by a single male foster carer (me). At the same time, I am campaigning for the Scottish Government to revisit the eligibility criteria with Continuing Care (Sec 68) in the 2014 Act, as I believe the date of birth criteria to be discriminatory, as age is protected characteristic with the UN. The campaign is progressing, with the backing of the fostering network. I met with Mark McDonald MSP just before Christmas to raise awareness and to share my challenge. Interestingly, the government don't seem to know how many young people are impacted upon by this 'clause'. i.e. currently in care, but born before 1st April 1999. The campaign thread is tweeted as #ContinuingCareForAll and I'm on @ColBrough. I suspect the issue is larger than the government thinks and that many young people, caught by this criteria, are being forced out of placement. Any help or insight on the numbers would be great.
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