About the care system
Facts and statistics about the care system
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Frequently Asked Questions about the Care System
Children are taken into care for many different reasons. Some of the most common include:
- abuse or neglect, or a risk of abuse or neglect
- a child’s parents being unable to look after them
- there being no parent or guardian present to look after the child
- a family crisis or breakdown that puts the child at significant risk of harm
- a disability or illness suffered by the child or by their parent(s)
For some children and young people, being taken away from the home where they have been unsafe will be a relief. For others, being separated from their parents and/or siblings will be extremely distressing.
In some cases, children are taken into care against the wishes of their parents but, in other cases, the child’s parents might recognise that they are not safe in their care and consent to them being taken into the care of the local authority.
Research shows that children in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods are over 10 times more likely to be in care or on child protection plans than those in the least deprived 10%.
All Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) are children in care, and many UASC children have experienced significant trauma. In January 2023, the government has acknowledged that over 440 UASC children have gone missing from their placements since July 2021, and 200 were still missing.
As at 31st March 2023, the number of UASC children stood at 7,290, meaning that 9% of all children in care are now UASC children. This represents a 29% rise in the number of UASC children on the previous year. UASC children are generally male (96%). They are also generally older, with only 14% being aged under 16 years, compared to 74% of all children in care.
Most children in care are aged between 10 and 17, but there are still significant numbers of young children in care. By age group:
- 26% are aged 16 and over
- 38% are aged 10-15
- 18% are aged 5-9
- 13% are aged 1-4, and
- only 5% are under 1 year of age.
Children from Black, Mixed and Other ethnic groups are over-represented amongst children in care.
Male children make up 57% of all children in care, meaning that they are slightly over-represented compared to female children.
The other 32% of children live in:
- children’s homes, which are residential units with 24-hour support
- secure units, which children are placed in either by the Youth Custody Service or when the local authority decides that no other type of placement can keep them safe,
- in semi-independent living accommodation, where staff are employed to provide support and advice, but not to provide care, and
- in other settings, such as with parents or another person with parental responsibility, in the community, living independently, in residential employment, or elsewhere.
85% of children’s homes are run privately and for profit. In 2022, the biggest private providers were operating at an unusually high profit margin of 19%, extracting £310m profit during that year alone, according to independent analysis. Local authorities report spending £12.8bn on children’s social care in 2022-23, compared to £6.6bn in 2012-13.
The number of children aged 16 or over living in semi-independent accommodation has increased by 22% in the last year alone, meaning that around 8% of children in care now live in this type of accommodation. These settings do not provide care. We have heard from many children in care that this often means being pushed into too much independence, too soon. The government has decided to regulate semi-independent accommodation, but this does not mean that children in these settings will receive care.
37% of children are separated from their siblings in the first place they live after entering care. Only 22% of children living in children’s homes live there with their siblings.
Too many children in care experience repeated changes to where they live. The most recent national statistics show that 1 in 10 children experienced high instability, defined as 3 or more placements in a single year.
Research from the University of Oxford has found that increasing for-profit outsourcing of places for children in care to live was consistently associated with more children living outside of their home local authority and with greater instability. The researchers estimated that an additional 17,001 instances of children living outside of their local authority area could be attributed to increases in for-profit provision from 2011 to 2022.
Removing a child from their parents is the most extreme intervention the state can make in family life.
When a child enters care, their local authority usually has what is called ‘parental responsibility’ for them. This is a legal concept, which gives a person or entity both rights and responsibilities in relation to a child.
In most cases, parental responsibility for a child in care is shared between the child’s birth parents and the local authority, but it is the local authority that has responsibility for making decisions about the child or young person. In some cases, parental responsibility is retained in full by the child’s parent. This happens if the child enters care under Section 20 of the Children Act (1989) instead of under Section 31. You can find out more about the many legal mechanisms by which a child can enter the care system here.
Birth parents only ever lose their shared or sole parental responsibility if their child is adopted. If a child is subject to a ‘Special Guardianship Order’, then it is their Special Guardian who shares parental responsibility with their birth parents, without the local authority being involved.
In all cases, parental responsibility dissolves as soon as a child reaches their 18th birthday, but local authorities, as ‘corporate parents’, continue to have certain responsibilities to support young care leavers until they turn 25.
Local authorities are ‘corporate parents’ to children in care. They are required by law to abide by the seven corporate parenting principles set out in the Children and Social Work Act (2017). These responsibilities extend to everyone who is employed by or who acts on behalf of the local authority.
The seven corporate parenting principles state that corporate parents must:
- act in the best interests of and promote the health and wellbeing of children and young people in care
- encourage children and young people in care to express their views, wishes and feelings
- take into account the views, wishes and feelings of children and young people in care
- help children and young people in care to access the full range of services provided by the local authority and partners
- promote high aspirations, and secure the best outcomes, for children and young people in care
- ensure the safety of children and young people and provide stability in their home lives, relationships and education, and
- prepare children and young people for adulthood and independent living.
In Scotland, corporate parenting duties have been expanded to apply to a number of public bodies, ranging from NHS Health Boards and Police Scotland, to Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
In the year ending 31st March 2022, over 12,200 children left care on their 18th birthday.
Young care leavers are expected to live much more independently at a much earlier stage than their peers. Once they have left care, these young people are not necessarily able to rely on the support of their former carers in the same way that other young people are able to turn to their parents for support.
In stark contrast to the huge numbers of 18-year-old care leavers, ONS data shows that the average age for young people to leave the parental home is more than five years later, at over 23 years of age.
In a survey of care leavers, Ofsted found that more than a third felt they left care too soon.
However, children leave care at different ages and for many different reasons. In the year ending 31st March 2023, nearly 32,000 children left the care system overall. Of these children:
- 5,510 left care because it was appropriate for them to return home to live with their parents or another person with parental responsibility, and this was part of the care planning process
- 3,840 were subject to a Special Guardianship Order
- 3,760 moved into independent living, and
- 2,960 were adopted.
Care leavers consistently experience less positive outcomes than the general population:
- In 2022/23, 38% of care leavers aged 19-21 were Not in Employment, Education or Training (NEET), which is more than three times the rate for those without care experience
- Just 13% of children in care progress to higher education by the age of 19, compared to 45% of all pupils
- Young care leavers are ten times more likely to have received an immediate custodial sentence than young people who have not been in care
- 1 in 4 homeless people are care-experienced
Become is the national charity for children in care and young care leavers in England. In England alone, 83,840 children were in care as at 31st March 2023.
Across the whole of the UK, there are an estimated 107,317 children in care. This is more than ever before.
Become is part of the ‘Five Nations, One Voice’ alliance of organisations that represent children in care and young care leavers across the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The other members of the alliance are: