More children in care could return to their families with better support, new research reveals

Wednesday 17 January 2024
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New research by Action for Children and the NSPCC has revealed that better support could see more children in England return home from care.

  • A new survey of local authorities in England reveals 78% of respondents said they would like to provide more support than is currently offered to families to help them reunite.
  • Research reveals that local authority funding constraints and a lack of recruitment and retention of social care staff is preventing children from getting the support they need to return home from care, also known as reunification.
  • Action for Children and the NSPCC are calling on the Government to develop national guidance and invest in support services for returning children to their families.

What did the survey find?

In a survey of 75 local authorities across England:

  • 78% said they would like to provide more support than is currently offered to families to help them reunite.
  • Of those, 69% said that funding constraints were a barrier to increasing the support that children need to reunite with their families.
  • 65% said struggles with recruitment and retention of staff were preventing them providing more support to reunifying families.
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Why is reunification support so important?

Children returning to their families is the leading exit route from care. But family reunification often fails, resulting in children returning to the care system.

Existing data shows that 35% of children who are reunited with their families return to care within 6 years.

This is why families need support both before and after a reunification. Post-reunification support helps ensure the reunification is a success.

When asked about post-reunification support:

  • 63% of respondents said they’d like to offer more post-reunification support.
  • Of those, 79% identified funding constraints as a barrier to increasing post-reunification support.
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The survey showed that many local authorities in England who responded lack strategies to help children leave care and return home. This is due to little national direction, guidance, or focus on the reunification process.

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, commissioned by the Government, has warned that without urgent action the number of children in care in England will rise from 80,000 to 100,000 in a decade, with the costs rising from £10 billion a year to £15 billion.

The high costs of placements (homes for children in care) were mentioned by many respondents. Many said that greater focus on, and investment in, reunification support could help local authorities reduce spending on placements and reduce council budgets.

One local authority said:

We were bouncing them into more and more high-cost placements and spending close to £4 million on 11 children. So you wonder, is there something different we can do? Can we spend money in a different way to get better outcomes for these children? (…) even if five of the 11 ended up back home, we'd more than cover the cost of what we needed to do.

A local authority in response to the survey

Another echoed: “These ridiculously expensive placements, that every authority has, cost around £7,000 to £8,000 a week minimum. So you only need one or two children returned home and you can pay for a service that can support 10/15/20 children to reunify.

It doesn't take much to make it clear financially…it's one of those win-win situations: you get better outcomes, it's better for the children, and it saves the local authority money.”

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If children and families don’t receive the right support, at the right time, reunification can fail. The result? A return to care.

Councils highlighted a variety of ways they’d like to improve support, if the barriers to doing so were removed.

These include:

  • Working with a larger number of families.
  • Working with families at an earlier stage over a longer period.

The NSPCC and Action for Children believe that local authorities need greater investment and guidance from the Government who, while planning improvements to the children’s social care system, haven't given reunification enough attention so far.

Emma and Kyle*

In recent years, Coventry City Council have launched a reunification project to offer more help to families ready to reunite. In January 2023, they began working with Emma and Kyle*, a mother and son who were looking for support to bring Kyle* out of residential care and back into the family home.

Emma and Kyle* were given reunification support by a Therapeutic Practitioner, Adolescent Support Worker, and Advanced Social Worker.

mother and son

Reflecting on the programme, Emma said: “The team were so supportive and took everything at our pace. They helped us reflect on our relationship, mediate tricky situations, and develop skills to navigate challenging times. I was able message the team whenever I had a concern. They would tailor the level of support they gave us according to what we needed."

“Now, Kyle* and I are back at home together. He has just started school and I have started a college course. With the help I received from Coventry City Council, I feel equipped to manage our relationship independently – knowing that support is always a phone call away.”

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Unfortunately, many reunifying children and families miss out on this support. Action for Children and the NSPCC are calling on the Government to prioritise reunification and help all local authorities deliver sufficient, high-quality support.

Abigail Gill, Associate Head of Policy and Public Affairs at the NSPCC, said: “It is disheartening to see councils struggling to offer the level of support that is needed to help families who are ready to reunite come back together safely. 

"We urgently need to invest in an effective, joined-up system which has the tools to accurately assess what a family needs and the capacity to prioritise solutions that work in the best interest of the child. 

“This would encourage earlier family-based support that would help remove the pressure and costs local authorities tell us they are feeling. More importantly, it would mean that more families are able to be reunited and fewer children will remain in the care system.”

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Joe Lane, Head of Policy and Research at Action for Children, said: “Going home is the most common way for children to leave care but too many reunified children end up back in care. More children could return to their families and fewer of them would come back into our over-stretched care system if local authorities had the means to make family reunification work better. 

“In this election year, all political parties must commit to greater prioritisation of reunification. If we’re serious about reducing the number of children in care across the country, we need to give local authorities the help they need to improve support for reunifying families. It’s the right thing to do for children, and it’s the right thing to do for cash-strapped councils, struggling with the high costs of homing children in care.

"As a nation, we should give as many children in care as possible the chance to thrive at home with their families, in a well-supported and sustainable way.”


For further information please contact the NSPCC press office on 020 23772 9722 or email [email protected]

Notes to editors

  • Today, Action for Children and the NSPCC have launched a new report Home Again: Understanding reunification practice in the children’s social care system in England. 

The charities surveyed 153 local authorities in England and 75 responded. They were asked about what guides their reunification practice, how they identify prospective cases and how support is planned and delivered, before and after a child is reunited with their family.

The full report is available on the NSPCC and Action for Children websites.

  • The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, commissioned by the Government, has warned that without urgent action the number of children in care in England will rise from 80,000 to 100,000 in a decade, with the costs rising from £10bn a year to £15bn:

There are spokespeople and case studies available.

About Action for Children

Action for Children protects and supports vulnerable children and young people by providing practical and emotional care and support, ensuring their voices are heard, and campaigning to bring lasting improvements to their lives.

With 426 services across the UK, in schools and online, in 2022/23 we helped 765,905 children, young people and families.

About the NSPCC

The NSPCC is the leading children’s charity fighting to end child abuse in the UK and Channel Islands. Using voluntary donations, which make up around 90 per cent of our funding, we help children who’ve been abused to rebuild their lives, we protect children at risk, and we find the best ways of preventing child abuse from ever happening. So when a child needs a helping hand, we’ll be there. When parents are finding it tough, we’ll help. When laws need to change, or governments need to do more, we won’t give up until things improve.

Our Childline service provides a safe, confidential place for children with no one else to turn to, whatever their worry, whenever they need help. Children can contact Childline 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Our free NSPCC helpline is open every day of the year for any adult worried about a child. Our practitioners provide advice and support, listen to concerns about a child, and offer general information about child protection.