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Being big hearted about children’s social care is not enough

This piece first appeared in ‘Children and Young People Now’ on 26 November 2021    


Leading the independent review of children’s social care is the privilege of my life. Speaking to thousands of care experienced people, families and those who work in children’s social care over the course of the review I’ve been honoured that people have been willing to share some of their most personal and challenging life experiences.

Vulnerability is a word that hugely understates the toll of early adversity, loss and trauma that many children in care have experienced. The impact this ‘vulnerability’ can have for many of these children is substantial and is borne over a lifetime.

In health, wellbeing, education and employment the story is all too familiar. An adverse start in life means children start with shaky foundations and the road they travel in life can be much harder and more challenging than their peers. Children who need a social worker are sadly more likely to go on to experience homelessness, abuse alcohol, spend time in prison and have shorter lives.
These outcomes are not predetermined. Many care experienced people have success as adults but too few have these opportunities. There are stigmatising and lazy assumptions made about the experience of being in care that our report has been careful to avoid making when considering outcomes.

A review of this kind must be both big hearted and hard headed. Big hearted because deep human connections are at the centre of every success story in children’s social care. And because we can only understand the system by hearing the stories of those with lived experience. Remarkable stories of love, achievement and determination. And harrowing stories of indignity, abandonment and loss. But being bighearted about children’s social care is not enough.

We must be hard headed about the need for change in children’s social care too and that is why I have commissioned work, published today to better understand how we spend money in the children’s social care system and the social cost of adverse outcomes across a lifetime.

The figures are stark. The social cost for each child that needs a social worker is £14,000 a year and up to £720,000 over their lifetime. Applying this to all those who have ever needed a social worker as a child is an eye watering £23 billion a year. That’s more than one and a half times the Home Office budget.

This work adds to the unavoidable and urgent case for change. We cannot afford, in financial or moral terms, to keep on with more of the same. Continued reports of poor outcomes backed up by this huge social cost should leave us all asking, how can we do better?

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