England and Wales could make considerable financial savings by taking vulnerable children into care earlier as well as being much better for the child, according to a new study.
Looked after children who have a poor quality of care - characterised by delay and instability - can cost children's services up to £32,755 per child each year more than a positive care experience, a report by Demos funded by Barnardo's has found.
The report shows that delays in removing vulnerable children from birth families at an earlier stage are linked with poor mental health and behaviour problems. This early damage to a child significantly reduces their chances of being adopted or securing a long-term foster placement.
The researchers found that a child who enters the care system early and has fewer family placements over 14 years can cost £354,053 to children's services. In contrast an unstable experience over 7 years, where the child enters the care system later and experiences multiple moves between foster carers and has poor mental health, can cost £393,579, a difference of £41,526.
Looked after children who leave care early, at age 16, tend to do less well in education, employment and health than those who leave care later. The report also considered the costs associated with adult outcomes after care and found that a child who left care at 18 and goes onto university and finds a job could cost the state £20,119 between the ages of 16 to 30. This is compared to the £111,923 for a child who left care aged 16, with poor mental health and no qualifications between the same age range.
The current care population in England and Wales is close to 61,000 with around 6,000 looked after children leaving care for good every year. Barnardo's is recommending that the care leaving age should be raised to 18, with a ‘right to remain' in placements until 21 and a ‘right to return' to care up to the age of 24. The average age for a young adult to leave home is 24.
Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnardo's said: "Many believe that care is always second best to the care provided by parents. Contrary to popular belief, and for all its inadequacies, care does make things better and can and does create stable, nurturing environments for children.
"We must urgently adopt a more pro-active and positive use of care, one where care is used earlier and more effectively so it becomes a means of real cost avoidance. For many children care does work. Yet there is still considerable room for improvement, and more importantly, this improvement is eminently attainable."