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Ebony Hughes

Pinball kids: time to say game over

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield OBE, recently published the 2018 Stability Index, an annual measure of the stability of the lives of children in care.

Of the 72,000 children in care in England last year, three quarters of them experienced either a placement move, school move or social worker change during the year. These are the ‘pinball kids’ who the Commissioner said are ‘being pinged around the care system’. Even more shockingly, over 2,400 of them changed placement, school and social worker during the year – and this when we know how critical stability is to wellbeing, particularly amongst the young and vulnerable.

While I strongly dislike the term ‘pinball kids’ – which I think reinforces an unhelpfully negative narrative – it is good that a light is being shone on these issues, and that they are gaining column inches and breakfast news coverage.  However, whilst awareness of the issue is increasing, there hasn’t been enough discussion of what should be done in response.

It is clear that there is a need to make the children’s care system financially sustainable, in the face of a projected £2 billion funding gap by 2020. But from my perspective, the sector also need to raise its ambitions about its purpose.

From my experience working with a multitude of children’s services as a trustee for a provider, I have reflected on the reasons driving the instability recorded by the report. Changes are made to plans and placements for three main reasons; a change in the understanding about how best to meet need (including proximity to home), a realisation that current placements aren’t meeting need or have broken down, or simply a focus on the cost of a placement.

It would be much better if more of these moves were happening for another reason – because children had responding positively to their existing situation. Examples could be when a child is able to move from a special to a mainstream school, or when they can move from residential care to a foster family.

I have seen the amazing impact on outcomes when a young person has a well-matched placement that is designed to truly and holistically address need.  They are able to build on the stability of such a placement and really benefit from the security, love, support and investment in their future. In these cases, placement or school moves are indications of an improvement in outcomes.

The potential to increase the number of these positive scenarios is very real, and can be achieved by introducing a sound, holistic needs analysis.

Why is a better understanding of need so powerful?

A better understanding of need enables better decision making when it comes to placement matching, which should underpin improved stability. But it also offers a range of other benefits.

It also enables those working with an individual them to see past their behaviour, to truly understand that person and their needs.  This also means that behaviours should not interfere with shaping a placement based around making the most positive impact or stopping a future escalation of need.

A needs-based approach can give social workers, placement brokers, young people and providers a shared view and understanding. This supports better collaboration (and potentially also innovation) to get the right placement and package in place as early as possible.

It also supports a longer-term view.  Decisions about an investment in a placement can be based on value and impact on need, rather than on cost per week. In turn, this should limit changes in placement aimed at cost reduction, and instead enable improved planning for appropriate step downs and longer-term value.

Finally, if understanding of need is aggregated, the sector would have a much better view of what is needed from providers, including in-house provision.  Without this intelligence it is hard for providers to meet needs in each locality. If addressed, this would reduce placement scarcity and the use of inappropriate placement choices that often break down and increase instability.

Placements are investments in a child’s future and need to be seen as such. Like any investment, they need to be based on sound intelligence. It is time to make pinball kids a thing of the past.

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