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Dominic Luscombe

Needs and strengths, not risks and problems – improving life chances for children in care

A recent study by The Social Market Foundation found that children in care experience significantly worse outcomes than most other children.  Only 14% of children in care achieved five GCSEs at grades A* to C (versus a national average of 55%).  They are five times more likely to be excluded from school, and are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system.  And this is despite an annual investment of over £4 billion on looking after children in care in England.

These statistics, as sad as they are, are the result of what we experience when working with children’s services on the ground – that there is a lack of connection between the individual needs of children, desired outcomes, and the resources provided to support them.  A key factor here is the approach to planning, commissioning and managing placements, which is currently focused on risks and deficits, rather than needs and strengths.

Take the example of Simon (not his real name) – a young man I met at a recent Children in Care Council.  Simon is a teenager with a history of anger management problems, which manifested in him punching walls and doors. This had led to the breakdown of several previous placements. All too often, approaches to finding support for Simon have focused on his risks, deficits, and previous ‘history of violent behaviour’. There has been far less focus on the support he needs to overcome past trauma, or on his strengths and aspirations – to the detriment of his future stability and life chances. Simon failed to see himself in a profile centred on risks and deficits, commenting that “I wouldn’t look after me based on that.”

At iMPOWER, we are working with a group of forward-thinking local authorities to reframe this problem.  Our Valuing Care programme works with frontline professionals, providers and children to embed needs, outcomes and strengths into planning, commissioning, delivery and evaluation of support, including practical tools to capture, quantify and manage trajectories over time.  Norfolk County Council is one of the councils working with us to shift the focus onto needs and strengths. For Edward Wong, Head of Localities, the programme presents “a new way to capture and track the needs and outcomes of children in care, so that we can get them the right service at the right time”.

As recently argued by the Social Care Institute of Excellence (SCIE), in order to deliver improved children’s social care, there is a need to focus on children’s strengths and not just their difficulties.  The sector needs to capture and respond to the specific needs and strengths of children across the system of commissioners, practitioners and providers. This will drive better planning, support and outcomes for young people like Simon, and more value from our investment in the country’s most vulnerable children.

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