Returning home from care: improving support for family reunification

Jessica Ford - Senior Policy Advisor
Wednesday 17 January 2024
Young boy seated looking at his father with a straight face

Our report looks at children returning home from care, and the importance of properly supporting reunifying families.

Read the full report

What's 'reunification' and why's it important?

Reunification is when a child returns home from care, and it's a vital part of any family-led model of children’s social care.

A ‘stable’ or ‘successful’ reunification sees that child remain at home, and not re-enter care.

Reunification is the most common way for children to leave care in England. More children exit the system through a return home than any other route.

In 2022-23, 27% of children leaving care returned home.

However, reunification often fails. This means lots of children are returning to care. Sometimes re-entering care is in the child’s best interest, but in many cases, it’s not – they return to the system because they and their family haven’t been given enough support.

Good reunification practice exists in many parts of the country. And many children remain at home after their return. However, national re-entry rates suggest that in a lot of cases, reunifications are going wrong.

That needs to change.

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Good reunification practice can not only benefit reunifying children and families, but also the wider system that supports them.

It can help to both increase the number of children safely exiting care, and ensure that they stay out of care.

This is urgently needed as local authorities are struggling to cope with high and rising numbers of children in care, and the high costs of homing them.

Action for Children worker talking with child in home

What’s this research about, and why’s it needed?

Despite its importance, reunification has been overlooked as an area of social care policy and practice for too long. As a result, we don’t know enough about reunification practice across the country.

We know that practice, reunification rates, and re-entry to care rates all vary. However, we don’t have a good understanding of the approaches local authorities are taking. This includes how they identify, assess, and support reunifying families.

So, in 2023, we worked with NSPCC to fill that evidence gap.

What did we do?

We carried out an England-wide survey of local authorities and in-depth interviews to build a picture of their reunification practice. This meant we could explore any challenges that they’re facing in this area.

We heard back from 75 councils – around half of the total number with children’s services responsibilities. And we interviewed six.

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What did we find?

While there’s growing interest in reunification across the country, most councils we spoke to are unsure of how to develop and improve their practice.

  • Over half (56%) of those we spoke to don’t have a reunification policy or strategy.
  • Only 19% have a standalone reunification team.
  • A minority of councils monitor any key data. For example, only 39% are using and analysing data on reunification stability.

There’s a lack of national direction on this area, and little applicable evidence on which local authorities can base their thinking.

Capacity issues are also often restricting their ability to provide as much support as they’d like for reunifying families.

The majority of areas involved in our research said they knew they weren’t providing enough support, either pre or post-reunification (78% and 63% respectively).

Teen girl sits talkiing opposite an adult woman who holds a clipboard

However, in a small number of areas, local authorities are using financial pressures to their advantage, making ‘invest-to-save’ arguments to increase prioritisation of reunification practice.

Those councils are redirecting money to reunification support, to try and avoid some of the high costs of homing children in care.

By bucking the national trend, they’re not only seeing children successfully return home, but major cost savings too.

One area reported savings of £2 million a year, showing that investment in reunification is both the right thing to do for children and families, and the right thing to do for local authority finances.

What needs to change?

National and local government, opposition parties, civil servants, researchers, MPs and Peers, all have a role to play in raising the profile of this vital policy area, and in supporting local authorities to develop and refine their practice approaches.

Our report sets out a range of recommendations for them.

We advise:

For national government and opposition parties, we have recommended:

  • The development of national reunification guidance.

A national vision for reunification practice is needed, to help local authorities develop and improve their approaches, and boost the numbers of children successfully returning home.

  • Investment in reunification practice evaluations across England.

Work is needed to understand ‘what works’ to support reunification, to ensure that children remain at home and don’t re-enter care.

  • The sharing of learnings from existing research on this practice area with local authorities.

While steps are taken to achieve the above, an ‘evidence summary’ should be shared with local authorities. This should highlight learnings from existing research on key aspects of reunification practice – including assessment, planning, and the delivery of support.

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