The impact of Covid-19 could see more children needing care at a time when suitable placements are under pressure, especially for young people with complex or challenging needs.
Councils fear children and families will need interventions, including child protection plans or going into the care system, and are bracing themselves for a rise in referrals for support.
A report, published by the Local Government Association, said the number of children in care has been rising each year and could increase because of the pandemic. It is calling on government to work with councils and providers to increase the availability of placements for looked after children and young people to ensure suitable placements are available.
It said the government’s review of the children’s care system had understandably paused but that it needed to begin as soon as possible to best support and protect vulnerable young people.
The number and proportion of children in care has been rising year on year for more than ten years, the report said. In 2009/10, 64,470 children were in care, or 57 in every 100,000. In 2018/19, that rose to 78,150 or 65 in every 100,000. There are also around 200,000 children in kinship care but with similar needs to looked after children.
Despite budgets for children’s social care rising by more than half a billion pounds in 2018/19, more than eight in ten councils overspent.
In its publication, A child-centred recovery, the LGA is calling for the spending review to restore £1.7bn in funding to councils. The early intervention grant has been reduced by the government by almost two-thirds – down from £2.8bn in 2010/11 to £1.1bn in 2018/19, it claimed.
The LGA said a lack of investment in early help services will lead to much greater costs as problems get worse.
Cllr Judith Blake, LGA children and young people board chair, said: ‘Support for significant interventions, including child protection plans and children entering the care system, will be needed, alongside proper investment in both children’s mental health services, which are under enormous strain, and vital youth services to help a generation hit hard during the crisis.
‘The government’s review of the children’s care system needs to begin as soon as possible, but we want to work with ministers ahead of this on increasing provision for care placements so councils can continue to best support and protect our most vulnerable children.’
A government spokesperson said: ‘We know many children, young people and families have felt additional pressures at this time which sadly can lead to increases in referrals to children’s social services. We are supporting social workers and councils to manage any additional pressures, including by making £4.3bn available to councils, and the majority of children’s cases have been reviewed to assess the level of risk they currently face. More than 1,000 social workers have signed up to return to work on the frontline where needed.
‘We’ve invested in increased capacity at the NSPCC helpline for anyone concerned about a child’s welfare, and our See, Hear, Respond charities’ partnership led by Barnardo’s is directly supporting thousands of vulnerable young people. We are also placing social workers in schools to support teachers to spot the signs of abuse and neglect more quickly.’