In 1979, it was not unusual for a child to live in a children's home from birth to age 18. Today, it is rare to find children under the age of 11 in a home; the average age is 14 and the average stay is six months. Approximately 45 per cent of children who are put into local authority care return home in less than six months.
In 1980, 92,270 children were being looked after by local authorities, of whom between 60,000 and 70,000 were in children's homes. By 1990, the overall figure had dropped to 60,000, of whom 13,200 were in residential homes. In 1996, the corresponding figures were 30,000 and 10,000.
Those children who were not in homes were either living in residential schools for the emotionally and behaviourally disturbed, or in foster homes, or had returned after a period to their own homes or to relatives.
The Children Act of 1989 has been cited as the most far-reaching legislation protecting the welfare and rights of children this century. Its impact on looked-after children has been profound.
Since its implementation in 1991 there has been a legal requirement that all children's homes providing three or more places must be registered and inspected. As of next year, private homes with fewer than three places will be brought in line with other institutions.
The Act also ensured that social services have become more geared to keeping children in families, and children and their families now have a choice in placement decisions.
Nevertheless, the current Tribunal of Inquiry into child abuse in North Wales, is only the latest, and most horrendous, in a long string of cases that have revealed the widespread and often orchestrated sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in residential homes.
The inquiry has highlighted the dangerously lax employment practices that have allowed around 90 per cent of staff in residential children's homes to be unqualified.
Liaison with social services, once the placements have been made, is also a matter of councern.
Phil Youdan, head of the children's residential care development unit at the National Children's Bureau, said: "Often, children in care don't see their social workers from one month to the next. Inquiries have revealed that children are being abused or neglected even when social workers are involved in the case."
In education terms, many children living in residential care have very poor outcomes compared to the general population. Not one of the 60 looked-after children included in a 1995 study by the Office for Standards in Education was expected to achieve five or more GCSEs at grades A-C.
The reasons for this range from the effects of growing up within dysfunctional families to having been out of school for long stretches because of exclusion.
Phil Youdan said: "LMS (local management of schools) and league tables work against children in care. A disproportionate number are being excluded and if they get one hour of home tuition a day, they are lucky.
"In spite of great improvements generally for children in care, those who have succeeded have done so against all odds."