Too many children are being left with drug-abusing parents who are incapable of looking after them, according to a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
Scotland is facing a "real crisis in terms of the quality of parenting", argued Graham Bryce, a consultant for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, who has worked with children in care for the past nine years.
"I'm struggling with the belief that children belong to their parents and legislation that says children should be with their parents," Dr Bryce told a recent conference in Edinburgh about looked-after children and young people.
"In Scotland, there is a real crisis in terms of the quality of parenting. Many parents are seriously compromising their capacity to look after their children because of substance abuse. Children should ordinarily be with their families but their health and well-being trumps that."
The number of children in care was not dictated by who needed it, he claimed, but by the number of social workers in the field and the workload they were capable of taking on.
"Have we got the number of children who are looked after just right? Are there too many? Are there too few? If we looked into it, we would probably realise the number is related to the size of our teams," he said.
However, children's homes and fostering places were already full to bursting in many parts of the country, the conference heard. The number of children being taken into care was rising, due to high-profile child- abuse cases like Baby P, poverty and drug abuse, said Andrew Girvan, director of children's services at Action for Children Scotland (formerly National Children's Homes).
In March 2007, there were 14,060 children in the care of local authorities, an increase of 8 per cent since 2006 and 26 per cent since 1999.
If a child came to the attention of social workers it was a case of cobbling something together, not of matching needs to resources, he continued.
The problem was set to get worse said Bryan Ritchie, director of Foster Care Associates Scotland, given that the average age of a foster carer in Scotland was 50.
Traditionally, foster carers had been seen as "altruists and amateurs", but to get 20 and 30-year-olds interested, fostering had to transform itself into a career option, with increased responsibility and training. "I wonder if young people coming into the job market, who are relatively mature, might want to consider fostering as an occupation?" Mr Ritchie asked.
Despite the capacity issues, Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and Early Years, called on local authorities to keep young people in care until they reached 18, if it was "in their best interests".
Edinburgh City Council had been doing that, said one delegate, and the number of looked-after and accommodated children had increased by 100 over the past two years. But there was a cost associated with extending care beyond the age of 16, she pointed out.
"Resources are full to bursting and there is a real problem surrounding the question of how we are going to accommodate the next 50 children because, as sure as eggs is eggs, they are on their way," she said.