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Research on looked after children

A list of published research studies on looked after children and the care system

May 2014

A collection of published research on the experience of children and young people in care, the issues around placing children in care and the care system in the UK and the reunification of children with families.

Research into the experiences of looked after children and young people
Research into the care system in the UK
Research on reunification
Further reading


Research into the experiences of looked after children and young people

Someone to care: experiences of leaving care (PDF).
Barkingside, Essex: Barnardo's, 2014
Research exploring the experiences of young people having to leave care whilst in their teens. Contrasts the emotional circumstances experienced (based on in-depth interviews with 62 care leavers) with the findings of a survey of over 4000 parents, in which 59% said they would never make their grown-up children leave home. Also looks at some of the ways in which Barnardo's is supporting care leavers. Argues that all young people leaving care need the same chance as those in foster care to 'stay put' until they are 21 and that the most vulnerable need help to achieve better outcomes.

Children and young people's views on the child protection system in Scotland.
Elsley, S., Tisdall, K.M. and Davidson, E.
[Edinburgh]: The Scottish Government, 2013
Reports on the views and experiences of children and young people on child protection systems in Scotland. Children reported positive feelings about their relationships with social workers and asked for more creative provision of information with more pictures and greater use of the internet.

The views and recommendations of children and young people involved in the Care Inquiry (PDF).
[London]: The Care Inquiry, 2013
Findings from four focus groups including children and young people with experience of different forms of care. Participants were asked what makes a place feel like home to them and how people could help them find and maintain a home. Focus groups indicated: a wish to be viewed and treated as individuals by carers and decision makers; to have someone whom they trust and who knows them well; to be given information, options and choice on decisions; and to be looked after by consistent carers.
See also: Understanding permanence for looked after children: a review of research for the Care Inquiry.

Findings from research with looked after children.
London: NSPCC, 2012
Recent research shows that many children have had positive experiences of being in care, and that the opportunity to remain with carers until the age of 21 can be beneficial. The main findings of three recent reports looking at children’s views of being in, and leaving care are summarised below.

Messages for Munro: a report of children's views collected for Professor Eileen Munro by the Children's Rights Director for England (PDF).
Office of the Children's Rights Director
London: OFSTED, 2011
Reports on the views of 179 children in care and care leavers gathered to inform Professor Eileen Munro's review of the child protection system in England (Munro, 2011). Children were asked questions about their social workers such as whether they felt they provided enough information and whether they were easy to contact. Other questions explored empowerment and participation, asking children whether they felt they were able to influence and express themselves in decisions made about their care.

Looked after children talking to ChildLine.
Hutchinson, D.
London: NSPCC, 2011
Draws directly on the views and experiences of children who contacted ChildLine between April 2009 and March 2010, providing a unique insight into the lives and feelings of children in care. Findings included that: looked after children counselled by ChildLine described the deeply unsettling nature of frequently moving placements, making it hard for them to build trusting relationships; many found relationships with other looked  after children difficult with these relationships sometimes characterised by bullying, intimidation and physical abuse; and that in 2009/10, looked after children counselled by ChildLine were five times more likely to discuss running away as children counselled by ChildLine overall and were twice as likely to discuss self-harm.

Life in secure care: a report by the Children's Rights Director for England (PDF).
London: OFSTED, 2009
Children living in secure units were asked about their experience of living in security, by going through a set of questions which covered each of the main headings in this report. The children were asked about the best and worst aspects of living in a secure unit, the staff, advice for future secure units, safety and dangers of security, bullying, education, health, and preparing for life after security. The same questions were asked in each group.


Research into the care system in the UK

Kinship care in the UK: using census data to estimate the extent of formal and informal care by relatives.
Selwyn, J. and Nandy, S.
Child and family social work, February 2014, 19(1): 44-54
Uses data from the 2001 UK Population Census to examine the characteristics of kinship carers and children. Demonstrates that, although the majority of research into kinship care focuses on formal placements, most children in kinship care are in informal, unregulated arrangements. Found various trends, including the prevalence of poverty, ill health and old age of many of the carers, and that many children in kinship care were teenagers. Also found differences in kinship care in different areas of the UK. Discusses the implications for policy and practice.

Changes in the nature and sequence of placements experienced by children in care, 1980-2010.
Bullock, R. and Blower, S.
Adoption and fostering, October 2013, 37(3): 268-283
Historical comparison of the use of and patterns of placements experienced by children entering care between 1980 and 2010. Key findings include: a marked reduction in the use of residential care by 2010, both as an initial placement and following placement breakdown; the dominant short-stay placements in the 2010 sample were in foster and kinship care; and the number of moves whilst in care and the average number of placements per child fell slightly between samples.

The role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) in England: findings from a national survey (PDF).
Jelicic, H. et al
London: National Children's Bureau (NCB), 2013
Reports on findings from a survey of 265 independent reviewing officers (IROs), 65 IRO managers and 60 directors of children's services in England. Finds that between a fifth and a quarter of IROs believe the system is preventing them from carrying out core functions effectively, including scrutinising how children's care plans are being implemented. Reasons include: heavy caseloads and IROs having to discharge duties outside their remit.

A systematic literature review of the risk factors associated with children entering public care.
Simkiss, D.E., Stallard, N. and Thorogood, M.
Child: care, health and development, September 2013, 39(5): 628-642
Aims to identify the characteristics of children, parents and social circumstances associated with children entering public care. Risk factors identified include: socio-economic status, maternal age at birth, health-risk factors, membership of an ethnic minority group and single parenthood. Recommends the testing of interactions between different risk factors in longitudinal data sets.

Unit costs of support care: a comparison between the costs of providing support care and associated intensive support services or full-time foster care and associated intensive support services.
Holmes, L.
[Cardiff]: The Fostering Network Wales Strengthening Families Support Care Project, 2013
Estimates the unit costs of support care, using individual case studies as illustrative examples. Compares these costs to the estimated unit costs of the local authority placing the children in the case studies in care. Finds that support care, including the accompanying support services for families, has a far lower unit cost than the foster care it replaces.

Report from the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care (PDF).
London: The Children's Society, 2012
This joint All Party Parliamentary inquiry examines the issues around children who go missing from care and how they can be better protected, and was set up in response to recent concerns about the care and support they currently receive. Found problems around data quality and collection, quality and stability of care placements, quality of care homes and professionals, identification of abuse in children's homes, and trafficking. All of these factors were found to contribute to the problem. The Inquiry concluded that the system was not fit for purpose and sets out a number of recommendations. Read our A summary the report from the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care.

Edging away from care: how services successfully prevent young people entering care (PDF).
Manchester: OFSTED, 2011
Analyses a small sample of local authorities and their partner agencies and looks at how they successfully supported young people who were at risk of entering care to remain living at home. It draws on the experiences and views of 43 families, including those of the young people themselves, their parents or carers and the key professionals and managers who were involved in coordinating and providing support services. The case studies used in this report illustrate aspects of good practice in a particular area and are not intended to suggest that practice was exemplary in every aspect.
Read our briefing: A summary of "Edging away from care: how services successfully prevent young people entering care".

The care of looked after children in custody: a short thematic review (PDF).
London: HM Inspectorate of Prisons, 2011
Looks at the care of looked after children in custody, based on interviews with young people and staff at all 12 youth offender institutions (YOIs) in England and Wales. Explores how well young offender institutions work together with local authorities and youth offending services to ensure children's needs are met whilst in custody and on release. Found that it is often unclear where the responsibility for looked after children in custody lies. Makes recommendations, including that there should be a designated social worker within each YOI to implement agreed procedures for looked after children.

Maltreatment and allegations of maltreatment in foster care: a review of the evidence (PDF).
Biehal, N. and Parry, E.
York: University of York, 2010
Literature review of research into allegations of abuse against foster carers and confirmed maltreatment of foster children. Looks at the impact of allegations, the number of allegations and the number of confirmed cases of abuse in the UK, USA and Australia. Considers evidence on perpetrators and victims. Looks at the nature and severity of maltreatment in foster care compared with other settings. Discusses thresholds for defining poor parenting. Concludes that the evidence on unfounded allegations against foster carers and of actual maltreatment in foster care is limited and inconclusive.

Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment: review.
Winokur, M., Holtan, A., Valentine, D. and the Cochrane Collaboration
[Hoboken, N.J.]: Wiley, 2009
Presents findings from a systematic review which aimed to evaluate the effect of kinship care placement on the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment. Results suggest that children in kinship foster care experience better behavioural development, mental health functioning, and placement stability than do children in non-kinship foster care. Although there was no difference on reunification rates, children in non-kinship foster care were more likely to be adopted while children in kinship foster care were more likely to be in guardianship. Children in non-kinship foster care were also found to be more likely to use mental health services. Findings support the practice of treating kinship care as a viable out-of-home placement option for children removed from the home for maltreatment.


Research on reunification

Improving reunification practice: pathways home, progress and outcomes for children returning from care to their parents.
Farmer, E.
British journal of social work, March 2014, 44(2): 348-366
Reports on a study of 180 children who were returned to their parents in six local authorities, who were followed up for two years. Looks at what led to reunification, preparation and support, children's progress and outcomes, and what aids success. Findings include: many children were returned to families whose problems had not been resolved; almost half the children were maltreated; nearly half the returns broke down; two thirds of the children in the study experienced one or more failed returns, including a third with two or more. Argues the importance of written agreements with clear goals for parents.

What contributes to outcomes for neglected children who are reunified with their parents?: findings from a five-year follow-up study.
Lutman, E. and Farmer, E.
British journal of social work, April 2013, 43(3): 559-578
Reports on children's outcomes in terms of stability and well-being from a five-year follow up study of 138 neglected children in England who had been looked after and reunified. Found that almost two-thirds of returns had broken down at five years and identified high rates of repeat neglect and abuse. Makes recommendations for earlier intervention, more protective and proactive action and case management that prioritises safeguarding and planning.

Returning home from care: what's best for children.
London: NSPCC, 2012
This NSPCC report examines the issues around children returning home from care. It looks at how we can address the problems of reunification and outlines innovative new approaches to support children returning home from care and protect them from harm.

Maltreated children in the looked after system: a comparison of outcomes for those who go home and those who do not (PDF).
Wade, J. et al
London: Department for Education, 2010
Executive summary of study comparing the progress and outcomes maltreated children who either went home or remained in the looked after system. The care pathways of 3,872 looked after children were examined and a closer look at 68 abused children who returned home and 81 who stayed in care. Findings look at similarities in children's backgrounds, entry to the care system and care pathways. Looks at which maltreated children go home, planning and decision-making, children's safety, stability and well-being at follow-up. Considers the implications for policy and practice.

Case management and outcomes for neglected children returned to their parents: a five year follow-up study (PDF).
Farmer, E. and Lutman, E.
[London]: Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), 2010
Research examining the case management, interventions and outcomes of neglected children over five years from the point of first referral to children's social care services. Also investigates which factors are related to outcomes for children at the five year follow-up point; explores how far parents and children engage with professional interventions; and considers whether there are particular issues in cases of neglect which make the work more complex or demanding.


Further reading

Search the NSPCC Library Online for more published research on looked after children.


Contact the NSPCC's information service for more research on looked after children or any child protection topic