3 Building a picture of children's lives
3.1 Choice of placements
Activity 3: Where are children ‘looked after’?
The pie charts in Figure 3 show the different forms of care in which children can live when ‘looked after’. As you look at the charts, compare the proportions of children living in different settings in different parts of the UK. Are there particular things that strike you as you look at these charts? Make a note of them.
Some nations of the UK do not provide some information. Northern Ireland does not give a percentage for adoptions, and Scotland is the only country that records placement in kinship care. This might suggest that the nations have different priorities about how and where children are placed. The figures may suggest how cultural values affect where children are placed and outcomes for ‘looked-after’ children. For example Scotland has the largest numbers of children who are ‘looked after’ but who remain living with their families.
Social workers and social work agencies have a duty to protect and promote the welfare of vulnerable children (Children Act 1989 (England and Wales)): (Children (Scotland) Act, 1995, Part 2): (Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995). Making decisions about what placement is most appropriate for a child is complex and highly skilled. Account needs to be taken of a range of factors such as a child's personality, sense of identity and previous experiences. The choice of placement includes children's residential homes, residential and boarding schools, kinship carers, foster carers and adopters.
Residential children's homes can provide a good experience for some children, especially those who are unable to live in a family setting. They are financed and managed by local authorities or voluntary sector organisations such as Barnados and, increasingly, by the private sector. However, places in residential accommodation remain limited, especially in Scotland.
For children to thrive in these settings, they need an emotional climate in which they feel valued, respected and wanted and where their past experiences are understood. Sinclair and Gibbs (1998), in a study of 48 children's homes in England found that the main indicators for quality care for children in this setting were that the homes were small and that the roles of staff were clear, yet they were given autonomy to get on with the job. Residential home staff also agreed with the values and practices of the home and regularly updated their practice knowledge, particularly of regulation and legislation.
Each year 500,000 children attend residential schools, ranging from large public schools such as Eton College to small privately run residential schools which have boarders. Some children, however, attend particular types of residential school because mainstream schools are unable to provide for their education. Residential schools, together with support from care workers and teachers, can provide a valuable service for many children including those with disabilities (Carpenter and Bovair, 1996) although there are concerns that such provision can lead to labelling and social segregation especially for children from ethnic minorities (Abbott et al., 2001).
Research by Sinclair et al. (2005) suggests that about half of all children ‘looked after’ are first placed with foster carers. The average age of children first placed in foster care is 4 years compared with an average age of 12 years for first entry to a residential establishment (Berridge, 1996). Overall, residential care is more frequently used for young people than for younger children (Department of Health, 1998; Kendrick, 1995). Some children experience both residential and foster care: for example, children may live in residential accommodation and be placed with foster carers for varying periods of time, perhaps during school holidays.
Sixty-two and a half per cent (almost 50,000) children ‘looked after’ in the UK live in foster care with 37,000 foster parents in different types of placement (Fostering Network, 2005).