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Further away and too often changing: The UK’s ‘unstable’ social care provision for children

The finding is connected to the growth in for-profit provision of outsourced children’s services.

A child plays with a smartphone in his bedroom in San Salvador on October 7, 2018. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS / AFP) (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)
A child plays with a smartphone in his bedroom in San Salvador on October 7, 2018. (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS / AFP) (Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)

A growing tendency in the U.K. to outsource social care is having serious implications on the care of children. A study finds that placement stability and distance have deteriorated or stagnated across the past ten years – that is children being placed further away from their families and frequently moving between care providers. Those local authorities that rely most heavily on outsourcing are those with the highest rates of placement disruptions and out-of-area placements. The tendency towards outsourcing is shaped by U.K. government policy.

Outsourced social care has been linked to concerns over placements of vulnerable children, The Guardian reports. This finding is connected to the growth in for-profit provision of outsourced children’s services in the U.K., where it is linked with out of area and unstable placements.

The research comes from Oxford Department of Social Policy and Intervention and it was led by Dr Anders Bach-Mortensen and Benjamin Goodair. Their study reveals that for-profit outsourcing is associated with more looked-after children being placed outside their home areas and ‘greater placement instability’ over time.

The researchers estimate that an additional 17,000 out-of-area placements from 2011 to 2022 may be attributed to increases in for-profit provision.

In the research paper, the investigators conclude: “Despite the numerous independent reviews and investigations, a significant proportion of children are still being placed in unstable or out-of-area care, exposing already vulnerable children to additional risks… Our analysis shows for-profit outsourcing is consistently associated with worse placement outcomes among local authorities. This suggests that increasing the already significant proportion of for-profit children’s social placements may not be the most effective strategy to improve outcomes in the children’s social care sector.”

The study reveals that by 2022, 38 percent of all children in care are placed with for-profit providers. This represents an increase of 9 percentage points since 2011. Within these figures, there is large variation in how much Local Authorities use the for-profit sector.

In relation to this, the report finds: “We observe that increases in for-profit outsourcing are associated with worse placement outcomes on average…For-profit outsourcing is consistently associated with more children being placed outside their home Local Authority and greater long-term placement instability.”

Drawing out the concerns associated with current practices, the study concludes: “Despite the numerous independent reviews and investigations, a significant proportion of children are still being placed in unstable or out-of-area care, exposing already vulnerable children to additional risks.”

The research appears in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, titled “For-profit outsourcing and its effects on placement stability and locality for children in care in England, 2011–2022: A longitudinal ecological analysis.”

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Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, business, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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