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An introduction to looked after children

Definition of looked after children

The term ‘looked after children and young people’ is generally used to mean those looked after by the state, according to relevant national legislation which differs between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This includes those who are subject to a care order or temporarily classed as looked after on a planned basis for short breaks or respite care.

The term is also used to describe ‘accommodated’ children and young people who are looked after on a voluntary basis at the request of, or by agreement with, their parents. We refer to these children as "children in care".

Why looked after children are a priority

There are around 90,000 children in care at any one time in the UK (see statistics). The majority enter care because of abuse and neglect and 45% have a diagnosable mental health condition (Meltzer et al, 2003). For these children care is a vital part of our child protection and family support system.

Thanks to dedicated carers and other professionals there have been significant improvements to the care system in recent years and the government has made improving care a priority. But care still fails some of our most vulnerable children, with too many going on to have poor experiences in care or after they leave.

Generally children in care continue to have poorer outcomes than the wider population – particularly in relation to educational achievement, homelessness and mental health. It is difficult to determine the extent to which these outcomes were caused by the child’s experiences prior to coming into care, rather than their experiences once in care. However we do know that further support is needed to help these children and young people overcome the effects of the abuse and neglect they have suffered.

It is wrong to assume all children in care are kept safe. A minority are at continued risk of abuse or neglect, including from their carers, other young people and those in the wider community who target them.

Children in care who call ChildLine tell us that they continue to feel vulnerable and isolated, leaving them at risk of harm. For some, care does too little to compensate for the harm they have already suffered and for others the care experience compounds that harm (see Looked after children talking to ChildLine, 2011).

Better support is needed to help these young people overcome the effects of the abuse and neglect they have suffered and to enable them to realise their potential. Care must provide effective therapeutic support for children and young people and protect them from current and future harm.

The NSPCC is committed to ensuring care provides a positive, supportive experience for all looked after children.

Contact the NSPCC Information Service for more information about looked after children.