Blog by Donald Forrester

The last 20 years has seen a huge increase in the rates of children in care in Wales. There has been an 89% increase since 2003, meaning Wales now has one of the highest rates of children in care in the world. 

We know surprisingly little about why rates have increased in this way. They have been rising for almost 30 years, through good times and austerity. The vast majority of the families the children come from are living in poverty, and issues such as housing problems, drug or alcohol issues and domestic abuse are common. Yet there has not been a large and consistent increase in such problems over the last 30 years, so these issues do not explain the rise. It is more likely to be how we respond to the problems that these types of stressors cause that has changed. 

What we have seen consistently over the last 30 years, and particularly since the turn of the century, is an increase in levels of anxiety about risks to children. This is driven by high profile child deaths and by the media and political reaction to them. The child protection system has responded to these wider pressures. Elliot’s work in Wales mapped the way in which increases in care were related to publicity around the death of Peter Connolly. He also found that the increase was entirely focussed on poorer families.  

While the overall increase is remarkable, the variation between local authorities (LAs) is extraordinary. For instance, between 2003 and 2021 Monmouthshire saw an increase of 356% and Torfaen one of 258%, but Carmarthenshire saw no change and Neath Port Talbot an increase of just 24%. This raises important questions, which are hard to answer.  

As a contribution we did a national survey of people working in children’s social care in Wales – thank you to the 792 workers and leaders who completed our questionnaire. The full report can be found here. Three findings are worth highlighting. 

First, there was a broad based belief that there are too many children in care in Wales. This is not a sector which is comfortable with the rates of children in care – workers and leaders do not think the sector is currently getting it right. 

Second, in the authorities with low and reducing care rates, workers were more confident that their LA had got the balance between keeping children with their families and realising some need protection. This does not prove that these LAs are getting it right – that is something that is very hard to be sure about. But it suggests you can keep care rates relatively low without workers feeling children are being left at risk. 

Third, in the LAs with reducing care rates workers reported better support for practice, they were more likely to have a practice framework and they had values that were more positive about keeping families and children together. 

Of course, this begs an important question: how were these authorities achieving this? I recently had the good fortune to be able to interview leaders in Carmarthenshire and Neath Port Talbot. For me they were some of the most interesting and insightful conversations I have had about how some authorities seem able to keep more children at home. If you are interested in learning more, you can listen to them here. 

What seemed clear from the podcasts and was supported by the survey is that the LAs with reducing care rates had stronger values of working with families to try to keep children out of care and that these permeated the whole organisation. The leaders talk about the various ways in which they achieve this, and about how they have created virtuous cycles in which money saved by reducing care rates can be invested in services to help families stay together. 

All LAs are faced with huge challenges at the moment, yet some with significant social problems seem able to avoid the large numbers of children in care found in other fairly similar authorities. The challenge we face in Wales and across the UK is how we can learn from such examples.