Councils fail in 'corporate parent' role

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Call to raise standards of residential care as report shows looked- after pupils get raw deal

Councils are still failing in their role as "corporate parents" for children in residential care, a report by Audit Scotland found last week.

It urged councils, the Scottish Government, NHS boards and other bodies to take urgent action to raise the standard of their management of residential child care services.

As things stand, many youngsters leave residential care with poor educational outcomes and experience major problems as adults, including unemployment, homelessness, imprisonment and mental health problems.

The report, Getting it Right for Children in Residential Care, said councils needed to arrive at a better understanding of the costs involved, so they can provide better value for money and possible efficiencies.

The Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care said the report was "a clarion call" to all corporate parents.

John Baillie, chair of the Accounts Commission, said: "Residential care cannot be expected to fix all the difficulties faced by vulnerable children and their families, but there is a lot that councils and their partners could be doing to improve these services."

Adam Ingram, the Children's Minister, said Audit Scotland's findings echoed those of the National Residential Child Care Initiative, published last year, which recognised the absence of systematic planning and effective decision-making and called for "strategic commissioning".

A national commission group established in response to the NRCCI report had made the commissioning of secure care services its priority, he said, and was making good progress in developing a national contract and service specification for secure care.

But a spokesman for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities expressed disappointment and frustration that the Audit Scotland report had "failed to get across the effort being put in by local government to improve the lives of some of Scotland's most vulnerable children".

Although Audit Scotland recognised that the Government was driving forward reform, it urged "greater urgency and an increased pace of change".

Evidence from a sample of 60 case files between 2006 and 2009 suggested that around 10 per cent of children in residential care did not have a completed care plan.

"None of these case files addressed long-term goals such as achieving qualifications, going into further education or living an independent and satisfying life," it added.

And almost all residential places in the independent sector were "spot purchased", which meant that some children were being placed where there was a place available rather than on the basis of their needs.

Councils could eliminate inefficiency and cut overhead costs by adopting a national approach to contractual arrangements with independent providers, Audit Scotland suggested.

Of the pound;250 million spent on residential care for 1,600 children, pound;135m was paid in fees to independent providers. In 2008-09, 29 councils overspent their budgets (a total overspend of pound;18m). Despite in-house provision accounting for some 40 per cent of all residential child care places, few councils knew the full costs of their own provision; those that had tried to work it out had significantly underestimated the costs of central overheads such as HR, finance and legal services.

Feature 12; Letters 20.

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