Concern in the House of Lords about children in residential and foster care

The Lords spent a good couple of hours the other evening (9 February 2005) trawling over the problems faced by children in foster care or children’s homes. It was a worthwhile debate and indicated sound homework on the part of the peers and a good grasp of this important subject on the part of the Minister, Lord Filkin.

The debate had been triggered by the Earl of Listowel, who was widely commended by his peers for his championship of children in care. He highlighted the needs of the children – 6,000 in residential care in England and 40,000 in foster care.

One peer after another gave statistics indicating the dire problems faced by children in care :-

  • 30% suffered bullying
  • 30% of children were placed outside their home areas, putting stress on their family links
  • children from ethnic minorities were over-represented
  • only 1% of children in residential care got to university, against a national average of 35%
  • a quarter of the prison population had been in care
  • 1/3 18 –20 year olds in custody had been in care
  • in the 1990s ¼ of girls leaving care were pregnant
  • 1/2 of girls leaving care were pregnant within 2 years
  • their children were 2 ½ times more likely to enter care

In summary the prospects of children who have been in care are not what we would wish them to be.

Residential Care

Lord Listowel argued that the needs of children in residential care were inadequately recognised, and as an indicator, pointed out that residential care staff were inadequately trained, supported or remunerated. Despite attempts to improve training over many years, 70 – 80% of staff were still untrained in 1998. Today more than 50% have achieved NVQ 3 but the Government target of 80% by January 2005 had not been met. By contrast in some countries in continental Europe all staff have 2-3 years education at university level.

Francis Listowel pointed out that the lack of training was evidenced in the lack of confidence and creativity on the part of residential care staff, contrasting them with their qualified counterparts in Denmark and Germany. For example, a survey had shown that 59% of English staff saw following procedures as of key importance, while this was down to 4 – 5% in the other two countries, while by contrast, 93% of German staff saw support for the children as important and only 41% of the English workers. Pay was no more than £12 – 15,000 in the private sector.

Time is limited for speakers in the House of Lords, and Lord Listowel only had the opportunity to touch on other issues, such as the poor educational attainments of children in care, the numbers of pregnant young girls in care, the children’s need for advocacy services, and the dangers of over-regulation.

The Private Sector

The greed of the private sector underlay a number of comments. More than one peer quoted Polly Toynbee. Their criticisms seemed to be two-edged, but it was not quite clear which edge they wished to chop with. Residential care was seen as very expensive – four times the cost of Eton – but it was also poor quality, with private sector employers being seen as taking on poor staff, paying badly, and taking an undue level of profit from local authorities which had no alternative but to make use of them.

Foster Care

Most peers focused on foster care and the current dire shortage of recruits, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to 10,000. This was mainly attributed to poor levels of remuneration, with more than half of all authorities failing to pay the levels of charges calculated annually by the Fostering Network. But lack of support was also seen as a problem which drove foster carers to work for private networks rather than local authorities.

It was pointed out by Lord Hylton that foster carers were in danger of exploitation. To do their job properly they needed funding for record-keeping, travelling to help children maintain family contacts, court attendances and retaining fees between placements. He argued for the implementation of the Fostering Network’s Manifesto for Change.

Much was made of the contrast in costs between residential and foster care. A figure of £1840 per child per week (amounting to over £90,000 per annum) was quoted for children’s homes, while figures quoted for foster care ranged downwards from £300 per child per week to £50 according to Lord Dearing. Indeed, Lord Dearing reported that half of all foster carers received nothing at all. The variation between local authorities was also deplored.

Lord Dearing followed a curiously elitist line. He suggested that the academic failure of children in foster care lay in the fact that foster carers were less well off and less well educated themselves, so that their homes were less educationally advantageous for the children. He correlated social class with educational achievement, and concluded that foster parents needed a lot of help. While we don’t doubt that they do need support, the problem in matching foster carers to children in our experience has contrasted with Lord Dearing’s views. If anything, recruits tend to be mainly middle class or aspiring and have higher standards than the children in need of care have experienced in their own homes, sometimes leading to an uncomfortable mismatch.


Lady Barker focused on children’s health needs, suggesting that the most needy children – those in care – suffered from the “inverse care law” and were sometimes the most neglected. Their episodes in care could sometimes subject them to further damage, rather than help to remedy their problems. The Government had shown concern about this issue, but the Baroness felt that their document read like a list of corporate priorities rather than practical ways of helping children. There was a danger that Government target-setting might lead to bureaucracy dominating care.

On the plus side, she also noted that for some girls having a baby was a positive experience, giving them someone to love and bear responsibility for. A number of sports people had also succeeded through the care system.

Earl Listowel and others referred to recent research which suggested that babies who did not enjoy the opportunity for attachment to their mothers were permanently damaged in the frontal cortex of their brains. This was clearly an argument for good parenting and against frequent changes of placement in babyhood, but no mention was made of therapeutic work to counteract early experiences.

The mental health of children in care was a matter of concern to several peers, and they referred to the incidence of autism, ADHD, conduct disorders, psychosis and more. Baroness Murphy deplored the use of the social model for treating mental health problems on its own, and commended a system from Oregon being piloted in Britain which combined the two approaches.

The transition from children’s services to those for adults was a further point for concern.

Family Contacts

It was acknowledged that children were often in care for limited periods, and that they frequently maintained links with their families. More than one peer advocated the use of family group conferencing as a way of resolving differences that might help children to avoid the need for extrafamilial care.

The Bishop of Chelmsford pointed out that parenting was undervalued, and that we needed to develop a culture of family support, as in South Africa, where everyone rallied round to help.


The problem of truancy leading to offending was aired by a number of peers, the beginning of a slippery slope as Lady Howe put it.

The poor attainments of children in care were also noted – very low levels of GSCEs by comparison with the general population (an average of one per child in care), as well as the small numbers getting to university. Sonia Jackson’s research findings had clearly hit home. Children in care needed special help, not only in getting to university but in having support while there comparable to that provided to other students by their families. It was noted by Lord Dearing that the universities were unaware of the needs of children in care and were failing to make allowance for them.


Enabling children to avoid care, for example by supporting parents better, was agreed as the top priority. Lord Northbourne quoted a system from Key West where mothers assessed as facing parenting problems received help for up to five years.

Once children were in care, the Bishop of Chelmsford argued, they had a right to the best, like any other child, and the Bishop feared that Social Services Departments were now the Cinderella services, having lost their Seebohm structure, and were suffering underfunding, drift and lack of clarity. Children in care did not have votes, he said, and their treatment was a test of the state’s morals.

Baroness Howe pointed out that the failure of children in the public care represented a serious waste of human potential. The situation warranted a new look, with greater emphasis on prevention and support for families at an early stage.

Lord Northbourne argued for realism in investing in children in need. Failure with these children could entail long-term burdens of mental health care and prison containment. It was worth investing in the children on economic grounds, a case which the child care sector had failed to make. He feared that residential care was often seen as a “parking place” rather than a chance to offer therapeutic care to resolve a child’s problems. The work needed the best staff and the best managers, according to Lord Dearing, and Lord Northbourne argued for a realistic assessment of the necessary costs to get a successful care system.

The Opposition

Leading for the Opposition, Earl Howe said that the Government had not been inactive, and reeled off a list of their achievements. However, he also noted the continuing problems, including a 20%increase in the number of children coming into care over the last decade. There were worries that social workers were taking children into care too readily since the death of Victoria Climbie, often on the grounds that the parents were abusing drugs or alcohol. Overwhelming evidence was needed, he said, before children were removed from home.

The Government View

Lord Filkin gave an impressive performance, with rapid fire responses to the issues raised, casting papers to one side one after another as he gave his answers.

He acknowledged the needs which had been described, but pointed out that two out of every three children in care returned home within two years. Care was an episode in their lives, rather than lasting their whole childhood. He pointed out the wider context within which care was offered, such as the larger numbers of children staying at home in poor circumstances. The Government was keen to emphasise the prevention of children coming into care, as described in Every Child Matters.

The Government had placed a duty on local authorities to help children in care achieve in education, and he pointed out that in Ealing 14% went to university, so that success was possible.

Guidance was also about to be published about placement practices, to reduce the 30% usage of placements outside children’s home authorities. The Minister felt that it should have been common sense and was horrified that guidance was needed.

He was determined to drive up the quality of residential care and was shortly due to talk to David Behan, the Chief Executive of the Commission for Social Care Inspection about it.

He argued for higher minimum payments and comprehensive training for foster carers, a consideration of other patterns of care, better support for children returning home from care, improved care leaving services and better practice evaluation. A wider mindset was needed, he said.


It was a useful debate, but it is worth noting the blind spots. Despite the Earl of Listowel’s valiant attempt to focus on children’s homes, the bulk of the debate was steered onto foster care. Both types of care are important and both deserve proper attention, but residential care should be seen as the more needy because getting it right will require a more fundamental overhaul.

The biggest omissions, though, lay in a couple of subjects which received very little attention. The debate about residential care focused almost entirely on children’s homes, ignoring the fact that far many more children are in residential schools, with children placed there largely as a result of the demise of the children’s homes in the local authority and voluntary sectors. Even worse, there was only one brief mention of the thousands of young people – still technically children in the eyes of the law – who are in penal establishments. That fact alone is a scandal that the Reformatory Act tried to put right a hundred and fifty years ago.


We were also sorry that Lord Filkin did not use the opportunity to announce the establishment of a Residential Child Care Resource Centre (on the SIRCC model in Scotland). It would have given a real lift and sense of hope, and he only has another three months to get it under way if the General Election comes in May. It would be nice if he could make his mark before then.

The debate provided plenty of possible lines of action, including :-

  • – more research, for example on the real costs of effective residential and foster care
  • Lady Howe’s proposal for a Government strategy to deal with the excessive number of moves made by children
  • improvements in adoption (a non-starter, in our view)
  • better pay for foster carers
  • better support for foster carers, treating them as fellow-professionals
  • more family conferencing
  • better training for residential and foster care workers
  • more support for children leaving care
  • lateral thinking, with new ideas such as weekly foster care
  • additional help with finance and support for children in care going to university

Baroness Walmsley had her own list of things children needed :-

  • the chance to make friends
  • training for child care workers
  • funding for services
  • mental health services
  • continuity of care
  • consultation
  • involvement in family group conferences
  • education
  • regular health and dental care
  • help on leaving care.

The list was a bit of a dog’s dinner, but a good dinner with a lot of the key ingredients in it.

Overall, the issues raised were not new. Indeed, the debate would have been very similar if it had been held thirty years ago. The big problem is finding a way to change things and maintain the changes, so that staff are (and continue to be) paid well and are fully trained, so that mental health services, family group conferencing and good education are standard features of services for children and young people. This is a conundrum that no government has cracked. The indications are that the Earl of Listowel will still be needed to champion children in care for some time yet.

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