Are there more children in care than at any time since the 1980s?

Published: 29th Mar 2018

In brief

Claim

The state is removing more children from their families than at any time since the 1980s.

Conclusion

More children are being “looked after” by their local authority than at any time since the mid-1980s. But not all of these children will necessarily have been removed from their families.

“The state is removing more children from their families than at any time since the 1980s”

The Economist, 22 March 2018

It’s correct that the number of children being “looked after” by their local authority is at its highest point since 1984. But not all of these children will necessarily have been removed from their families. 

In 2015, the Department for Education said: “The number of looked after children [in England] has increased steadily over the past seven years and it is now higher than at any point since 1985.”

Published figures we found only go back to 1994, but the Department for Education showed us figures going back to 1966.

These showed that the number of children looked after by their local authority in England hasn’t been as high as it was in 2017 since 1984. 

There were almost 72,700 children being looked after in England in the year ending March 2017. The last time the number was that high was in the year ending March 1984 when there were 74,800. In 1985 this dropped to 69,600 looked after children.

The number of children who started being looked after in 2017 has also been increasing in recent years, but the figure is only slightly higher now than it was in 1994.

There were around 32,800 children who started to be looked after in the year to March 2017.

We can also take into account population changes when looking at the increase in the number of children being looked after. In 2013 there were 60 children per 10,000 under the age of 18 being looked after, this stayed the same until 2017 when it increased to 62.

Being looked after by local authorities

The definition of being “looked after” is wider than it might sound. Looked after children can include those who are fostered, placed in secure units, children’s homes, or live independently. They can be placed for adoption too, and some are placed with their parents, but with extra supervision from social services.

So being under the care of the local authority doesn’t necessarily mean the child has been removed from their parents. 6% of children being looked after at the end of March 2017 were placed with their parents—that’s around 4,370 children. The proportion of children being placed with their parents has stayed roughly the same for at least the last five years.

Around three-quarters of children being looked after were in a foster placement in the year ending March 2017. Being fostered can also include placements with relatives or family friends.

In most cases the main reason given for a child being looked after by a local authority was abuse or neglect. This was the reason for around 60% of children being looked after by their local council at the end of March each year between 2013 and 2017.

What’s behind the increase?

Several possible factors that could have contributed to the increase have been proposed.

A local authority might apply for a care order from a court if there are concerns about a child’s welfare. An officer from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) represents children in family court proceedings.

The tragic death in 2007 of 17 month-old Peter Connelly, known as Baby P, made headlines a year later after his mother, her boyfriend, and his brother were found to have caused or allowed his death.

The year after Baby P’s death, a Serious Case Review into what happened was published. Cafcass found that in the direct aftermath of this review, care applications over the following 20 days went up 37% compared to the proceeding 20 days, and were 23% higher than the same period a year before.

In 2012 a committee of MPs said this was likely to be the single most important factor behind the increase in the number of children being looked after since then. But it also said that there had already been an increase since July of that year, before the Serious Case Review was published.

It also said the increase may have been down to new guidance issued in 2010 that meant local authorities also had to start providing accommodation to 16 and 17 year-olds who are homeless or require accommodation.

According to figures provided to us by Cafcass, the number of care applications more than doubled between in the decade up to 2016/17.

Update 4 April 2018

We've updated this article with more information from the Department for Education.


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