Children in care Safeguarding looked after children

Children looking downMost children living in care are kept safe from harm. However, a small number still remain at risk of abuse or neglect.

Children may enter care for all sorts of reasons. But most enter because they have been abused or neglected. These experiences can leave children with complex emotional and mental health needs. And this can increase their vulnerability to abuse. 

Many children also move repeatedly in and out of care, or between placements. This can prevent them from forming stable relationships with the adults who could help protect them (Rahilly and Hendry, 2014).

Risk of abuse in care

Most children live safely in foster care and residential care. But, some children are harmed each year.

Our research into child abuse allegations in care found that a very small proportion of children reported experiencing abuse, neglect or poor standards of care from the people who were meant to be looking after them (Beihal et al, 2014).

We found:

  • less than 1 substantiated allegation per 100 children in foster care
  • 2-3 substantiated allegations per 100 children in residential care.

Physical abuse or the use of excessive restraint were the most common category of allegation.

Read the full report: Keeping children safe: allegations concerning the abuse or neglect of children in care

Research has also found children in care are also at greater risk of being bullied or abused by other children (Barter and Berridge, 2011) and are more likely to be the target of sexual exploitation (Office of the Children's Commissioner and Berelowitz, 2012). 

Children missing from care

Children may run away from care for all sorts of reasons. These include:

  • wanting to return home to their family
  • being unhappy or bored in their care placement
  • or feeling like they didn't have enough control over their own lives.

Children who go missing are at greater risk of physical abusegrooming and sexual exploitation (Coffey et al, 2012).

Read our report on Children who go missing from care (PDF) to find out more.

Children in care are significantly more likely to have run away than their peers

Explanation: In 2011 The Children's Society surveyed over 7,000 young people in England, aged 14 to 16, about their experiences of running away. The survey sample included 90 young people who were living in foster care or a children's home at the time of the survey. These young people were much more likely to have run away overnight (52%) at some point than the national average (8.9%). Some of these children may have run away from home before entering care. The sample is relatively small but this finding is broadly consistent with earlier research.

What works in safeguarding children in care

No two children in care are the same. Each child has their own characteristics and individual needs. But all children need strong, caring and trusting relationships with those who care for them.

Through talking to looked after children and young people we've identified 6 key ways the care system can be improved:

  • ensure young people's voices are heard
  • strengthen the social care work force and improving practice
  • promote the right to advocacy
  • improve emotional support
  • support transitions in and out of care
  • improve public understanding of the care system.

Read Promoting the wellbeing of children in care: messages from research to see all of our findings. 

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

Taking Care

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

More about children in care

Research and resources

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

Signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse and neglect

The signs of child abuse aren't always obvious, and a child might not tell anyone what's happening to them. Sometimes children don't understand that what's happening is abuse. 
Spot the signs of child abuse

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  1. All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and All Party Parliamentary Group for Looked after Children and Care Leavers (2012) Report from the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care. London: All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults

  2. Barter, C. and Berridge, D. (eds.) (2011) Children behaving badly?: peer violence between children and young people. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

  3. Rahilly, T. and Hendry. E. (eds) (2014) Promoting the wellbeing of children in care: messages from research London: NSPCC