Children in care Our work with looked after children, the challenges in care and what the law says

boyCare is a vital part of our child protection system. Most young people in care say that their experiences are good and that it was the right choice for them (Beihal et al, 2014). But more needs to be done to ensure that all children in care are healthy and safe, have the same opportunities as their peers and can move successfully into adulthood.

Children’s early experiences have a significant impact on their development and future life chances. As a result of their experiences both before and during care, looked after children are at greater risk than their peers.

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Children in care are 4 times more likely than their peers to have a mental health difficulty

Explanation: The Office of National Statistics conducted research on the mental health of young people, aged 5-17, looked after by local authorities (Meltzer, H. et al, 2003Meltzer, H et al, 2004a and Meltzer et al, 2004b).

The research found that 45% of looked after children in England, 45% of looked after children in Scotland and 49% of looked after children in Wales had a mental disorder. This included: clinically significant conduct disorders; emotional disorders (anxiety and depression); hyperactivity and less common disorders (pervasive developmental disorders, tics and eating disorders).

This compares to a rate of 10% for children aged 5-16 living in private households in Great Britain. This figure is from research conducted by the Office of National Statistics (Green, H. et al, 2005). Children living in foster care were excluded from this survey.

A small proportion of children in care experience further abuse and neglect whilst in care

Explanation: Over 60% of children in care are looked after due to abuse and neglect (see How safe are our children? 2017).

The vast majority of children live safely in foster care and residential care but a minority of children across the UK do experience harm each year from those responsible for their care.

Biehal et al (2014) estimated that per year there was less than 1 substantiated allegation per 100 children in foster care year and 2-3 substantiated allegations per 100 children in residential care.

See also Indicator 17 in How safe are our children? 2017.


Children leaving care are less likely to go on to education, employment or training compared to young people in the general population

Explanation: In England in 2016/17, 37% of care leavers aged 19 years old were not in education, training or employment. This compares to 9.8% of 18 year olds in the general population and 13.4% of 19-20 year olds at the end of 2016.  

What is a "child in care"?

A child who is being looked after by their local authority is known as a child in care. They might be living:

  • with foster parents
  • at home with their parents under the supervision of social services
  • in residential children's homes
  • other residential settings like schools or secure units.

They might have been placed in care voluntarily by parents struggling to cope. Or, children's services may have intervened because a child was at significant risk of harm.

What needs to be done to protect children in care?

Providing a secure, caring environment in care can help children and young people overcome their early life experiences. It can ensure that children in care are given best chances in life.

It’s critical that children in care are helped to develop strong, trusting and stable relationships with their carers, social workers and other professionals.

Carers need high quality training, supervision and support so they can meet the needs of children and young people.

Help must be given to address the problems which resulted in the child entering care.

How we’re working to protect children

We want better therapeutic care for children and young people, increased stability in placements and a sustained and systematic improvement across the care system.

Our services for children in care

Face to Face

Improving the emotional well-being of children in care, or who may go into care, by helping them find solutions to problems affecting their lives.
Face to Face service

New Orleans Intervention Model

Reducing the risk of abuse or neglect by helping professionals assess if children should stay in care.
New Orleans Intervention Model service

Taking Care

Helping to make sure children only return home from care when it’s safe and with the right support.
Taking Care service

Looked after children: the law

In UK law children in care are referred to as ‘looked after children’. A child is ‘looked after’ if they are in the care of the local authority for more than 24 hours. Legally, this could be when they are:

  • living in accommodation provided by the local authority with the parents’ agreement
  • the subject of an interim or full care order or, in Scotland, a permanence order
  • the subject of an emergency legal order to remove them from immediate danger
  • in a secure children’s home, secure training centre or young offender institution
  • unaccompanied asylum seeking children.

The exact definition of a ‘looked after’ child is different in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. For example, Scotland’s definition includes children under a supervision requirement order. This means that many of the ‘looked after’ children in Scotland are still living at home, but with regular contact from social services.

A child will stop being ‘looked after’ when they are either adopted, returned home or turn 18. The local authority will continue to support children leaving care at 18 until they reach 21.

More about children in care

Entering care

The number of children entering the care system has risen sharply in recent years.
Find out more

Emotional wellbeing and mental health

How we're supporting the emotional wellbeing and mental health of children in care
How we're supporting children in care

Looking after infant mental health

How we can intervene early to give looked after babies and young children the best start in life.
Find out more

Safeguarding looked after children

Most children living in care are kept safe from harm. But we must all do more to ensure that all children in care are protected and given the support they need.
Find out more

Returning home from care

The most common outcome for a child who has left the care system is to return back home to a parent or relative. 
Find out more


  1. Green, H. et al (2005) Mental health of children and young people in Great Britain, 2004 (PDF). [London]: Office for National Statistics (ONS).

  2. Meltzer, H. et al (2004a) The mental health of young people looked after by local authorities in Wales (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO).

  3. Meltzer, H. et al (2004b) The mental health of young people looked after by local authorities in Scotland (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO).

  4. Meltzer, H. et al. (2003) The mental health of young people looked after by local authorities in England (PDF). London: The Stationery Office (TSO).