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Understanding the use of out-of-home care throughout childhood using administrative data

By Louise Mc Grath-Lone, ADRC-E PhD student at University College London


Each year the Department for Education publishes statistics related to children who were looked after (i.e. under the care of a local authority) during the year. From these annual reports we know how many children were looked after, the kind of care they received and how often they changed carer during the preceding year. For example, according to the 2015/16 report, on the 31st March 2016 there were 70,440 looked after children of whom 74% were in foster placements and 10% had three or more placements during the year. The Department for Education reports also provide information on how these figures have changed over time, which is why we know that the number of children in care is currently at a 30-year high.

Such annual statistics are extremely valuable from a system point of view as they provide insight into the demand for services and capture rudimentary measures of its performance (in terms of placement stability or outcomes for children in long-term care, for example). However, what they do not capture is the child perspective of being looked after, not just in one year but throughout childhood. Longitudinal analysis of the Department for Education’s dataset for looked after children (the Children Looked After Return (CLA)) is possible: each child has a unique identifier and so care histories can be connected over multiple years. As part of my PhD I am analysing more than 20 years of anonymised CLA data to try to understand childhood experiences of being placed in out-of-home care (e.g. with a foster carer or in a children’s home).

To understand how common being placed in out-of-home care is among children in England, I measured the proportion of children born between 1992 and 2011 who spent time in out-of-home care, including variation in rates of entry into care over time. This analysis suggested that the proportion of children entering care has increased over time, particularly among infants (Figure 1). It also showed that 3.3% of children born between 1992 and 1994 had entered out-of-home care by age 18.  This figure of one in thirty children (or one in every classroom) gives an alternative sense of the scale of the population when compared to Department for Education statistics that focus on children in care on a given day (typically around 0.6% of all children).

Figure 1: Cumulative proportion of children placed in out-of-home care, by year of birth (from Mc Grath-Lone et al., 2016)

 Figure 1

To understand children’s experiences of care over more than a single year I also explored the characteristics of their first placement in care with a two year follow-up period. This analysis showed that children are increasingly being placed in foster care rather than in group care settings (such as children’s homes), and that placements in care are also becoming longer and more stable. For example, an infant placed in care in 1992 on average spent 49 weeks of the two year follow up period in care compared to 70 weeks for an infant placed in care in 2008. CLA data can also be used to look at the likelihood of re-entering care. By analysing data for children leaving care between 2007 and 2012, I found that on average one in three children who left care aged <16 years re-entered within five years, but this rate of re-entry to care appears to be decreasing over time (Figure 2).  This analysis also showed that some aspects of a child’s care history affected their likelihood of re-entering care. For example, children who had many placement moves while in care or who had previously exited the care system were more likely than other children to re-enter care. Based on these analyses it was possible to create a simple online tool that calculates the likelihood of rapid re-entry to care based on group-level characteristics.

Figure 2: Proportion of children re-entering care, by year of exit (from Mc Grath-Lone et al., 2017)


These longitudinal analyses show the value of using administrative data (which is often collected in order to produce annual “snapshots” or statistics) to gain a sense of the “bigger picture” in terms of policy and practice and how these may have changed over time. They also provide some new insights into how out-of-home care is used among children in England, and how demand for care placements has grown. For example, over the last twenty years the number of infants entering out-of-home care has increased by 80% (from 2,886 to 5,153) and their average number of weeks in care in a two year follow-up period has increased by 40% (from 49 to 70 weeks). This means that since 1992 the time spent in care has increased by approximately 915 years for infants alone. In the current context of economic austerity, more children entering care and staying for longer has practical and financial implications for service providers. However, as well as the additional economic costs, we must also consider how individual and societal well-being may be affected by the State assuming the caring role of the parent for such a significant proportion of children.

Written by Louise Mc Grath-Lone from ADRC-England and published on the ADRN blog under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Images used with permission under CC BY 4.0 license.

Published on 9 December 2016

Page last updated: 27/07/2018