Yvette Stanley, our National Director for Regulation and Social Care, discusses how the best providers support ‘hard to place’ children and children admitted in emergencies.
Many parts of daily life have ground to a halt in the latest national lockdown, but the work of children’s social care has, of course, continued. Children still need caring for and protecting, whatever the pandemic throws at us. And they are still entering the care system, in some places in greater numbers than ever. Despite the challenges, we have seen some excellent work both to ‘keep the show on the road’ and to keep children safe.
There have also been reports of a rise in the use of unregulated and unregistered accommodation for children during the pandemic. Unregulated provision can be the right choice for some older children on the edge of leaving care, who would prefer to have more independence. These unregulated placements should still be high quality and older children should get all the help and support they need on their journey to independent living. No children should be living in unregistered children’s homes. But it is a concern that the rise may be, in part, down to providers avoiding taking in children who present challenges for the home, or emergency placements, because they think it might affect their Ofsted rating.
Routine children’s homes inspections are paused, although our important regulatory work continues. But I want to reiterate that Ofsted will not penalise homes for taking emergency placements or children with the most complex issues (the two often go hand in hand), if these placements are handled well. Homes can and do care effectively for children with complex needs while being rated as good or outstanding.
The best homes know what they do well and which children they can work with. They are equally strong in saying when they are not able to help a child. But these decisions should never be based on worrying about how they could affect an Ofsted rating.
In an ideal world, a great deal of preparation would go into every placement – because we know they are more likely to succeed that way. But however much we try to avoid them, as a former Director of Children’s Services, I know that emergencies do happen. There will always be children who need a place to live at short notice, whether that’s because of a sudden breakdown of a previous placement, or other unforeseen events.
Homes that are skilled in admitting children quickly are well equipped to do this. They have staff that are sensitive and skilled in responding to children’s needs. They make children feel welcome, despite knowing very little about them. Staff know that children admitted quickly are often traumatised. They will sometimes have had to leave where they were living previously in a rush, and may have arrived after a long car journey with someone they don’t know very well, if at all.
Often, there are basic steps that will make sure children – who are likely going through a very difficult time – settle in quickly. Staff are well prepared and try to anticipate the needs of a child on arrival. This does not require anything particularly innovative. A friendly and calm manner, a welcoming bedroom with the bed readymade, new towels and toiletries, helpful information about the home and what is local, a welcome card, nightwear and underwear and even a cuddly toy can all make a big difference to children when they first arrive. It’s about that genuine and individual care and attention – creating a sense of belonging. And it’s about letting children know that they matter.
Rather than a checklist, below are some examples of the good practice that our inspectors have seen.
Inspectors have seen good practice when managers:
- know the children already living in the home really well and can quickly decide whether the child being referred will or will not be a good match. Managers are confident in their decision-making
- do everything that they can so that a new child can quickly start school or get the health care they need – speaking to the right people and not taking no for an answer. That includes arranging appropriate assessments (education, health and care plan, health and so on)
- have regular discussions with children living in the home about how it is important to support a child who needs somewhere to live at short notice. And when a new child is admitted quickly, managers include the children already living in the home in the process
- actively contact the child’s placing authority to arrange an admission meeting with the child, their independent reviewing officer and their social worker quickly so that everyone understands what is happening
- identify and manage well any risks and safeguarding concerns
- support children’s normal routines for keeping in touch with friends and family
- go the extra mile, for example by asking previous carers what the child’s favourite meal is, so that they can have it on their first night, or the activity they’re good at, so that they can try to make it available
Supporting children new to the home
Clearly, the admissions process should always be managed carefully. When children arrive in an unplanned way, some homes choose to have a dedicated member of staff who helps the child to settle in. They make sure children are introduced gradually to the other staff and children, and that they understand who will be looking after them and who they can talk to.
The settling-in process doesn’t just take a day or two. The best providers recognise that children new to the home will need ongoing support. There will be ups and downs, but sticking with children and being in their corner can make all the difference. Other simple things that staff can do include arranging a tour of the local area, putting on some group activities so they can get to know the other children in the home, and helping children to personalise their bedroom to make it feel like home.
It should not be taken as given that a placement is suitable if the child is getting on well after a few days. In the best homes, we see staff continually assessing and reviewing the impact of a child new to the home, both on the child and other children in the home, and managing any issues accordingly.
Deciding whether a child can come and live in a home has been especially difficult in the last 10 months. I know that some children have had to stay longer in a home that no longer meets their needs because of the challenges of moving children on. But we’ve also seen some great practice, for example with virtual introductions and tours of the home through online technology.
Children with complex needs
Alongside emergency placements, we also hear that some providers are refusing to accept children with complex needs for fear of the impact on their Ofsted rating. Again, if inspectors see that proper support is put in place for a child, this will be reflected in our inspection findings. Our inspectors are thrilled to see homes that are able to offer a warm welcome and high-quality unconditional care to children with complex needs.
As an example, it would be unrealistic to expect that the pushes and pulls that lead to children going missing will change overnight. In some cases, episodes may well increase when a child moves to a new home, despite the best efforts of staff. But we do expect staff to be able to show that they are doing everything they can, that they understand why children are leaving the home and where they go, and that they are proactively finding where children are and bringing them back to safety. Staff should be able to explain why they made decisions they did, and what they’re doing to support children. And of course, building those all-important relationships, which over time will make all the difference, is vital.
Our social care common inspection framework for children’s homes (SCCIF) looks at the progress that children make, rather than outcomes. We do expect children to make progress and to have positive experiences that contribute to that progress. But this is individual to each child and will not always be linear. For some children, progress may be small steps, rather than great strides. For others, it may take a long time to make any progress at all, but they should still be living in a home that provides a positive experience.
The way forward
We are currently in a situation where providers can pick and choose which children they take. Demand consistently outstrips supply. If a provider doesn’t accept one child, another will come along very soon after. It saddens me to think of the children most in need being ‘passed around’ the system, as home after home says that they are unable to help. At the same time, I know that there is excellence out there.
Providers should carefully consider their reasons for not accepting a child. But it’s also clear that much more must be done to create capacity in a system that is not meeting children’s needs. There isn’t anywhere near enough specialist provision in the right places. While that’s the case, we will continue to see children being placed in accommodation that is at best, not meeting their needs, and at worst, unsafe. It is not acceptable that some of our most vulnerable children are in homes that are unregistered and operating outside of the law. I hope that the government’s Care Review, which has just launched, is the first step towards getting the right homes in the right places for every child.