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. 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 significant impact on their development and future life chances. As a result of their experiences before entering care, and during care, children in care 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.

Children in care
are less likely
than their peers
to do well at school

Explanation: In England, there is 40 percentage point gap between children in care and their peers, in the attainment of 5 GCSEs grade A*-C including English and mathematics.

In 2014, 12% of pupils who were looked after children achieved 5 GCSEs grade A*-C including English and mathematics. The figure for non-looked after children was 52%.

See: Table 3: Key Stage 4 eligibility and performance of children who have been looked after continuously for at least twelve months

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

Explanation: Approximately 60% of children enter care because of abuse or neglect (Jütte, S. et al, 2015). 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 estimated there was one substantiated allegation per 100 children in foster care year and 2-3 substantiated allegations per 100 children in residential care.


34% of care leavers were not in education, employment or training at age 19 compared to 15.5% of the general population

Explanation: Of the 27,220 former care leavers aged 19, 20 or 21, 38% were not in education, employment or training (NEET). 

What is a "child in care"?

A child who is being looked after the 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.

Improving the wellbeing of children in care

We believe the therapeutic impact of care must be improved, ensuring that children are supported to overcome the effects of abuse and neglect and improve their mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Find out more

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’ve focused our work on addressing the key challenges in improving for children in care.

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

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
  • serving time 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.

Legislation, policy and guidance

Legislation, policy and guidance around children in care.
What's the law on children in care?

Research and resources

Research and reports for children in care.
Read our research and resources

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  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).