Surge in children taken into care as recession stress takes toll on parents

Fallout from Baby Peter abuse case adds to the pressure on foster care agencies

By Jamie Doward

October 18, 2009 / Guardian.co.uk

The recession is being blamed for a massive surge in the number of children being placed in care. Fostering agencies say that local authorities are making record numbers of referrals, partly because rising poverty levels are placing greater pressures on families, with the result that more parents are unable to look after their children.

The recession has come as social workers adopt a "no-risk" policy in the wake of the Baby Peter scandal, with the result that more children are being removed while their parents are risk-assessed. It is estimated that there is already a shortage of some 10,000 foster carers nationally, and there is now a fear that economic pressures are placing the care system under further strain.

The Adolescent and Children's Trust (Tact), the UK's largest charitable provider of foster care, reports that referrals from local authorities have more than doubled in the past year and attributes a significant part of this increase to the recession. Between April and September, the agency received 5,194 referrals, compared with 2,377 for the same period the previous year.

Private agencies also report a dramatic rise in referrals. One agency, Kindercare, reportedly received 242 referrals last September, double the number in October 2008. Foster Care Associates, the UK's largest private foster agency, has reported a 36% year-on-year rise.

"During a recession, we see unemployment rise and poverty increase," said Kevin Williams, chief executive of Tact. "These structural issues will inevitably have an impact on family life. The pressures will cause people to behave in ways they normally would not.

"For instance, they may be more likely to smack their children. Or it could exacerbate mental health issues and trigger drug and alcohol dependency, all of which have implications for child protection."

His comments were echoed by Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass, the agency that looks after the interests of children subject to family court proceedings. "The recession partly explains the rise in private law cases Cafcass has seen in recent months," he said. "Separating couples have fewer options when money is tight, so tensions rise."

About 50,000 children in England and Wales are currently with foster carers. Many are in care for just a short time while their parents receive help with their problems. A significant proportion of the rise in referrals is down to children being placed into care while their parents are risk-assessed.

An increase in risk assessments was triggered by the Baby Peter scandal, which exposed systemic child protection failure in the London borough of Haringey. "Following Baby Peter, there is risk aversion among social workers which has resulted in more children being placed into care," Williams said.

Social workers told the Observer that pressures on the foster care system had seen a rise in the number of children over 16 in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. There has also been a rise in the number of children placed in the care of family friends. Others have been placed with short-term foster carers, meaning they are frequently moved around the system with some ending up considerable distances from friends or family. More than a third of children in care were placed out of their local area, according to latest government figures.

"These pressures exacerbate the damage to these children," Williams said. "They need long-term stable placements. If we move children around too much, we are storing up trouble for the future – they will end up in the youth justice system or homeless."

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