Children in care Returning home from care

Children need to feel that they belong, that they are cared for and cared about. That's why one of the key aims when working with children in care is to find them secure, stable and loving homes.

The most common outcome for a child who has left the care system is to return back to the care of a parent or relative. However, without the right assessment and support, many of these children end up back in care.

Impact on children

For some children, returning home from care is the best possible outcome. But research shows that for many others this can result in further abuse or neglect (Holmes, 2014). Many children end up back in care, and a significant number move back and forth between care and their family. Other children remain at home despite continuing abuse or neglect.

If a child returns home to a family who isn't able to provide loving care, they can suffer lifelong damage. Failed attempts at returning children home from care seriously affect how soon and how successfully children go on to be placed in long-term foster, kinship or adoption care (Thomas, 2013).

1/3 of all children leaving care return home to their family

Explanation: In 2014/15 31,100 children ceased to be looked after. Of these 10,620 children, or 34%, were returned home to live with parents or relatives. Other reasons for children leaving care included: being adopted, being made subject to a special guardianship order and moving to independent adult living.

30% of children who return home are back in care within 5 years

Explanation: The Department for Education analysed data on children who returned home in 2006-7 who had re-entered care by 2012. 30% (3,050) of the 10,270 children who went home in 2006-7 had returned to care in the five years to 31 March 2012. Of the group of children who returned to care by 2012, 8% had been at home for less than two weeks while 17% had been at home for at least two years.

Reducing costs, improving services

As well as affecting our most vulnerable children, failed attempts to return children home from care are very costly to society.

Reunifications often fail because families don't receive the support they need when a child returns home from care. By spending more money on support for children and families, we could prevent reunifications breaking down, saving money in the long run.

£300 million a year - the cost of failed reunification of children returning home from care.

Explanation: A large proportion of children who return home from care are subsequently abused and end up back in care. DfE figures (2015) show a third of reunifications result in children going back into care. The Department for Education (2013) found that 30% of children who returned home were back in care within 5 years.

We commissioned research comparing the costs associated with taking children back into care following a failed family reunification with the costs associated with providing all families who had a child returning home from care with appropriate support and services. The report used the DfE statistics for looked after children England in 2012/13 to estimate national costs.

Holmes calculated the average annual cost per child of a reunification breakdown as £61,614.  Based on the figures for England in 2012/13, these costs were multiplied by the number of children re-entering care following a failed reunification (n=4,738) to give a national cost of £300 million a year for failed reunifications.

Holmes calculated the average annual cost per child of providing appropriate support and services to families where children are returning home from care as £5,627. Based on the figures for England in 2012/13, these costs were multiplied by the number of children returning home from care (n=10,080) to give a national cost of £56 million a year for providing support and services to all families whose children are returning home from care.

The research argues that reducing the number of reunification breakdowns will offset the costs of providing appropriate support and services to all families with children returning home from care.

£56 million a year - the cost of appropriate support and services to families where children are returning home from care.

Explanation: A large proportion of children who return home from care are subsequently abused and end up back in care. DfE figures (2015) show a third of reunifications result in children going back into care. The Department for Education (2013) found that 30% of children who returned home were back in care within 5 years.

We commissioned research comparing the costs associated with taking children back into care following a failed family reunification with the costs associated with providing all families who had a child returning home from care with appropriate support and services. The report used the DfE statistics for looked after children England in 2012/13 to estimate national costs.

Holmes calculated the average annual cost per child of a reunification breakdown as £61,614.  Based on the figures for England in 2012/13, these costs were multiplied by the number of children re-entering care following a failed reunification (n=4,738) to give a national cost of £300 million a year for failed reunifications.

Holmes calculated the average annual cost per child of providing appropriate support and services to families where children are returning home from care as £5,627. Based on the figures for England in 2012/13, these costs were multiplied by the number of children returning home from care (n=10,080) to give a national cost of £56 million a year for providing support and services to all families whose children are returning home from care.

The research argues that reducing the number of reunification breakdowns will offset the costs of providing appropriate support and services to all families with children returning home from care.

What works

There are a number of ways to improve a child’s experience of returning home:

  • assessing the risks the family could pose to their child, how much they are able to change and their ability to protect their child from harm. The assessment should consider the family's history as well as the current situation
  • working with the child and their family to help strengthen their relationship
  • making sure the child has a trusted adult they can talk to
  • agreeing with the parents, in writing, what needs to happen before and after their child returns home
  • providing support and services for the child and their family before and after the return home. This should include support from foster/residential carers, the child's school and friends
  • returning the child home gradually, and putting in place plans for what will happen if the return is not going well
  • monitoring how the child and their family are doing.

For more information see our reunification learning from case reviews briefing.

How we're improving support for children


We're working with academics, practice experts and young people to improve support for children who return home from care. We've developed a solution in partnership with:

  • 14 local authorities
  • 2 universities

We've delivered, tested and adapted our Reunification Practice Framework to provide guidance for practitioners to use when deciding if a child should return home.

We're also offering support to help local authorities implement the framework.

Regulation and guidance

When Ofsted inspectors evaluate local authorities in England, they now include cases where a child:

  • has been reunified
  • where reunification is being considered.

The Department for Education has amended the Care Planning Regulations and issued new Statutory guidance around care planning placement and Working together to safeguard children guidance.

They've also produced a data pack to help local authorities think about how to improve practice for children returning home from care. It includes a range of self-evaluation questions for local authorities to consider.

More about children in care

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