Secret social worker: looked after children

Lila Halliday on the five grand a week cash cow of the looked after child

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When I was a new social worker I had a 12 year old on my caseload living in a very fancy children’s home. It was a sandstone building in the countryside and they served homemade scones and sparkling water in glass bottles at review meetings. They also offered therapy, care and education but mostly I was there for the scones.

All of this comes at a price – £5,000 per week to be exact. During one visit the child asked me how much it cost for them to live there. I’ve always been an ask-me-an-honest-question-I’ll-give-you-an-honest-answer social worker, so I told her. She immediately went downstairs to tell the other children how much they were worth, a minor riot ensued and I had to stay there for ages to calm it all down. When asking my manager if I should have disclosed that information she said: “Probably not but you’ve done it now.” Whoops!

That was quite some time ago and £5k is about average for a children’s home these days – and don’t be expecting any fancy scones! I’ve seen local authorities shell out up to £10,000 per week for a child to live somewhere that, lets face it, is always sub-par on account of it not being safe to live where they belong – with their families.

I must note that the organisations I have worked in have always addressed instances of inadequate care or safeguarding concerns within care settings. The issue I want to highlight is the disparity between the standard of care and the cost of it.

The problem, as far as I see it, is that there is an uncomfortable mix of public and private sector provision for our children. We, in the local authority, are these children’s parents and we take that very seriously. The most important part of caring for a child is providing them somewhere to live and someone to care for them. Local authorities do have their own in-house care provision but with record numbers of children in care they can’t keep up with the demand and the complexity of our children, so we are forced to use private placement providers.

Make no mistake, private providers are in it for the cash. They pay their staff less than public sector provision, they buy houses in low cost areas and they scrimp on all sorts of things that contribute to outstanding care. This results in children being looked after in deprived areas, by inexperienced low-paid staff, and the child and the taxpayer not getting value for money. I would like to think that most taxpayers wouldn’t object to their taxes being spent on the care of the most vulnerable children in our society but I bet we would all object to that money being used to line the pockets of business owners.

Residential care isn’t what we want for our children – we want them to be in families – but there’s a shortage of foster parents, and children with additional needs or added complexities are difficult to place, especially as providers fear difficult children will pull them down in Ofsted inspections. What’s the alternative? We don’t have one, so providers stick a few zeros on for every risk or vulnerability factor and we’re painted into a corner.

This isn’t all about pounds and pence. It’s about children deserving value for money for the care they receive. If someone was spending thousands on me every week as a child, I would want to go on and achieve highly in everything, but these children don’t. I want to see a return on our investment in these children. I want them supported to address trauma they have suffered, to get a good education, and to be safe and happy. Five grand a week should get you that.

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Interact: Responses to Secret social worker: looked after children

  • Mari McVicar
    05 Dec 2018 11:11
    I find this article generalises the care provided by both private and local authority care. As a manger of a private residential home and previously a local authority home I can guarantee that the young people in my care did not see a change in their quality of care depending on cost. My staff team are registered and therefore have to meet minimum qualifications, they have access to a huge array of both online and face to face training relevant to their role and the young people’s needs. Rather than slagging off the quality of care provided by the 1 residential home you have experienced why not look at the outcomes achieved by young people, become involved in organisations and services which look at the reasons behind why young people in residential do not achieve the same outcomes as young people in foster care or at home. Be part of the solution, don’t use your voice to create negativity

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