Taking Care - Evidence, impact and evaluation At a glance

We’re testing Taking Care to see if it helps local authority social workers decide whether or not it is safe to return a child home.

How returning children home from care affects children

The most common outcome for children leaving care is to return home to a parent or relative. But research shows that around half of children who come into care because of abuse or neglect suffer further abuse if they return home, with up to half of those going back into care again (NSPCC, 2012).

Children who return to care are rarely able to live with their previous carers (Hannon et al, 2010), significantly damaging their chances of developing lasting relationships. As a child gets older their chances of being adopted also decrease (Selwyn et al, 2006).

To improve outcomes for children, robust assessments should inform the decision to return a child home. Parents should also receive better support to help change family dynamics.

Read more about returning children home from care.

How Taking Care is helping protect children

We know from research that there are weaknesses in social care practice around assessment, decision-making, planning and support for children and families when children go into, and return home from, care.

Moving in and out of care can be profoundly damaging to children. Around half of children who come into care because of abuse or neglect suffer further abuse if they return home (NSPCC, 2012).

Children who return to care are rarely able to live with their previous carers (Hannon et al, 2010), damaging their chances of developing lasting relationships. And as a child gets older their chances of adoption as an option for a secure permanent placement become less and less (Selwyn et al, 2006).

Research also shows that the total estimated cost for all failed attempts to return children home is £300 million a year. By contrast, improving support for these children when they return home would cost an estimated £56 million (Holmes, 2014).

Taking Care aims to make sure that returning a child home from care is in their best interests by offering an evidence-informed framework to use when deciding and planning to reunite a child with their birth family.

This framework for assessing and classifying risk of abuse has been developed by the Centre for Children and Family Research at Loughborough University. It has proved effective in predicting risk of abuse in a small prospective study. It structures analysis of known risk and protective factors and the parental capacity for change.

How we evaluated this service

In partnership with Loughborough University our evaluation aims to help develop an evidenced based framework for social workers and families to help decide when a child should return home from care.

The evaluation seeks to understand whether Taking Care can support decision making where the return home of looked after children is being considered. It also aims to inform NSPCC practice guidance written for practitioners and managers implementing the model.

The evaluation had 4 components:

  • location studies exploring barriers and facilitators to local authority implementation, sustainability, and ‘fit’ with existing priorities for looked after children’s services. This involved in-depth interviews with NSPCC and local authority practitioners and managers.
  • family case studies exploring the assessment process, how it can be adapted to differing family circumstances and to what extent it supports decision making and a stable return home. These included interviews with parents, children and social workers.
  •  staff survey to gather views on the practice guidance and other tools  and how these could be improved
  • case file analysis of NSPCC and local authority records, looking at what happened after reunification and what factors aided or hindered stability in the return home.

The initial evaluation plan included a randomised control trial to explore outcomes for families. This was difficult to implement because the service is used in different ways by different local authorities in response to local needs and priorities. In addition the flow of referrals did not facilitate the randomisation process. An ‘overspill’ of cases was anticipated that would enable the allocation of cases to intervention and control groups but we could not be confident that the cases were truly randomised.

We decided to remove the trial element and instead focus on enhancing the process evaluation.

Collecting Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires (SDQ) data was also a challenge. Initially baseline data was sought from several adults in connection with each child to increase the likelihood of being able to collect follow-up data from someone still in contact with the child at the end of the service. In practice this was difficult for practitioners to achieve. The number of SDQ measures completed was very low and the sample not representative of all cases. This data is now only sought from the child’s teacher or social worker in the hope that response rates will increase.

The location studies and case studies were carried out independently by the Centre for Child and Family Research at Loughborough University.

An evaluation of the implementation of the framework in 3 local authorities was carried out by Bristol University, using interviews and questionnaires.

The staff survey and case file analysis were carried out by the NSPCC evaluation department. It used the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires (SDQ) tool.

Find out more about the tools used to measure outcomes.

Contact Chloe Gill for more information.

What we've learnt so far

An evaluation of the Taking Care practice framework by Loughborough University suggested that it had a positive impact on the practice of returning children home.

An evaluation of implementation by Bristol University found that practitioners and managers found the framework clear, practical and evidence based.

An NSPCC evaluation of short-term outcomes of the framework found that almost all children who returned home remained at home after 6 months.

What we've done

We’ve made the guidance and implementation materials available to all local authorities and we’re working with partner organisations to help them replicate the service.

We’ve carried out an evaluation of the way we support other organisations to implement these practice tools and have made some improvements to the process as a result.

Read our scale-up evaluation.

Impact and evidence

Find out how we evaluate and research the impact we’re making in protecting children, get tips and tools for researchers and access resources.

Our impact and evidence

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  1. Hannon, C., Bazalgette, L. and Wood, C. (2010) In loco parentis (PDF). London: Demos.

  2. Selwyn, J. et al. (2006) Costs and outcomes of non-infant adoptions. London: British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).