We can improve outcomes for children in care by taking practical actions now

There are many reasons why a child or young person might need to be looked after by the state, including abuse and neglect, family dysfunction, and a family in acute stress—all social disadvantages that arise more often in economically challenging times.

The availability of better data is one of the main reasons for featuring an indicator dedicated to looked after children in our latest State of Child Health report.

Although data is available, the story it tells is difficult to untangle. In other words, we can’t say for sure whether it is trending in the right or wrong direction. For metrics such as mortality, the story is more straightforward—rising child mortality is not good. For children in care, however, we don’t know if a rise in numbers is because of a higher incidence of, say, neglect, or because the services that exist are getting better at identifying and dealing with need.

In either case, our message is consistent—there is a rising demand for services to support children in care, and therefore we need to properly fund those services and ensure capacity of professionals to meet their complex needs. Children in care face a range of challenging social and health outcomes, including poorer educational results, higher rates of mental health problems and even higher rates of homelessness and unemployment later in life.

Worryingly, children in care are also more at risk of exploitation. Not just from the adverse experiences leading to care, but also within the care process itself. Healthcare professionals need to remain vigilant to safeguard these children and young people—not an easy job with scarce resources. The disruption that occurs when a child is taken into care affects everything, so the process must be made as supportive as possible. More resources are essential to make this happen.

In failing to address standards and services, we are failing a group of people who desperately need our support.

Standards of care fluctuate across different local authorities, due to differences in localised approaches, availability of support services and placements and funding. But across the UK, outcomes are invariably poor. Children in care are four times as likely to be involved in the youth justice system, four times as likely to have a mental health condition and more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour. In failing to address standards and services, we are failing a group of people who desperately need our support.

There are many things we could start doing today to improve the lives of children in care, starting with raising the bar on the support provided by different local and health authorities. Again, authorities are not to blame. They’re doing their best to deliver decent care in a broken and under-funded system. But we need to reverse the deteriorating trend on statutory immunisations, dental reviews and annual health assessments—these should, by definition, be happening without exception.

Our work highlights that this is partly a result of perception. Children in care are less likely to engage with support services for fear of being stigmatised as needing extra attention or being branded as ‘vulnerable’. We must avoid alienating them by being mindful of our language, including how we talk to and about them. And once they are transitioning into adulthood, we need to signpost them to ongoing support, empowering them to live the healthy, happy lives they deserve.