Report by Reshma Rumsey and Arij Limam
Being a child in care comes with its own sets of challenges, but campaign groups are warning that the struggles of many of these children are magnified when they are placed in accommodation that is hundreds of miles from home. For one young care leaver, Susan, her experience was marred by constant moves that took her further and further away from her twin sister and her home city. “Looking back on my time in care made me realise the need to keep looked-after children in their counties where possible”, she said. The organisation Good Law Project has now launched a legal battle against five councils in England which they deem to be the “worst-offending” for placing hundreds of children in their care out of their local authority area.
The campaign group argues that the councils, as well as the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, have not complied with their obligations to ensure children in care are kept safe and within their local area.
It says children moved out-of-area face a barrage of difficulties and can suffer from loneliness and isolation at being separated from their support networks, have their schooling disrupted, and experience difficulty in accessing social services. Speaking of the impact this has had, care leaver Sedil said “I was worried about my A Level exams, as getting into university was important to me. But I was placed very far away from my college”. Another care leaver, Claudia, said “As a result of my move, I have felt unwanted in various aspects of my life”. For Susan, who was taken into care at the age of 14 and separated from her twin sister who had been moved into care three months earlier due to their different needs, the feeling of alienation from society was all too familiar. “Originally we were located in our city only half a mile apart from each other but just 26 days later I was moved approximately 40 miles away, out of my city”, she explained.
“This for both of us was incredibly difficult because we had been separated for three months then placed so close together with unsupervised contact which was then taken away once I was moved with no explanation”. While it was hard enough to adjust to her first move while going into the care system, Susan said the moving around did not stop, as she had five different placements, and her sister 47 during the three years they accommodated. “The moves got further apart time and time again, reaching 250 miles apart”, Susan said.
Good Law Project says the impact of moving children in care out-of area is severely detrimental to their life chances and is part of the reason why many don’t do well in school. The latest figures from the Department for Education show that only 7.2% of children in care achieve a pass grade in their English and Maths GCSEs compared to 50% of non-looked after children.
Children in care are also ten times more likely to be excluded from school. These poor outcomes follow through to adult life: children in care and care leavers were between four and five times more likely to self-harm in adulthood; 25% of those who were homeless had been in care at some point in their lives; with 49% of those who come into contact with the criminal justice system having some care experience, the organisation said. Susan said that being moved away from her home city had many effects on both her and her twin sister. “We had to move schools multiple times, lost the few friends we had and it had a large effect on our ability to see each other. “The driving time would take approximately 3 hours each way though the contact was limited to 2 hours due to how far away the contact was”, she said. Conditions were also placed on whether Susan’s contact with her sister could go ahead when they were 250 miles apart, including if both homes had an extra staff member to accompany the girls and if the other residents were “behaving”. “This caused a lot of friction and broke relationships down between me and my carers and other residents within the home as the contact meant so much to me”, Susan said. Last year, a set of reports published by the then Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, concluded that thousands of children in care were being ‘failed by the state’ because of a broken residential care home market.
The report warned that the privatisation of care was creating the cracks in the system.
It said: “The Children’s Commissioner argues that the responsibility for making the system work has fallen through the cracks: the growth in private provision may not have been a deliberate policy choice but it is a consequence of government inaction along with the options and funding available to local authorities." Three quarters of children’s homes are now run by the private sector, and these are disproportionately located in the North of England - not because demand is higher there, but because property is cheaper, according to the Good Law Project. The organisation said that last year, the six largest private care providers made £219 million in profit, whilst local authorities struggle to balance their books and the outcomes for children in care remain dire. For Susan, the experience of being moved to locations that had very different demographics made it difficult to adjust. “The experience of being removed from somewhere you know so well is a memory that doesn’t leave you. I felt somewhat alienated from society as I had been in a private residential home in an isolated village that I very much enjoyed but was relocated back to my urbanised home city. “The stigma of being a care leaver had a great effect on my ability to engage in my community as there is this shadow that follows of being a care leaver”, she said.
The Department for Education said: “Every young person in care deserves to live in accommodation that meets their needs and keeps them safe.
"Moving a child away from their local area should be a last resort and local authorities are responsible for providing sufficient and suitable accommodation for the children they look after." “We have also provided significant investment to support councils to address any pressures they are facing and the independent review of children’s social care will look how we keep children safe and how to tackle the inconsistencies in practice that exist across the country.” Meanwhile, campaigner and former Children's Commissioner Anne Longfield said some children in care told her they felt like they are being passed around like "parcels". She said: "No responsible parent would send their vulnerable child, experiencing real difficulties in their life, to live miles away from family, friends and the communities they know unless there was an extraordinarily vital reason to do so. "Yet tens of thousands of children in care are living many miles away from the place they call home because councils have nowhere suitable for them to live. Many are moved frequently pinged around homes. "We wouldn’t want this for our own children, and we shouldn’t accept it either for those children who rely on the state to look after them.”